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Lake Inez on Gerrard East serves food inspired by Asian flavours by chef Robbie Hojilla.

Review: Thanks for the memories

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on February 16, 2017

It's always great to end on a high note, so I'm delighted that after a quarter century (gulp!) of food writing, my very last column can extol the virtues of a restaurant like Lake Inez. North of Leslieville's main Queen Street East drag, just outside the boundary of India Bazaar, Lake Inez, named after a lake in Michigan, is perhaps the best eatery to open in this quiet neck of the woods in eons or any other neck of the woods for that matter.

What first strikes as impressive is that management ensures those in line for tables have a pint in their hands while they wait. How insanely civilized is that? Though the creamy-coloured room is pretty expansive, there are no seats for those sans reservation. Designed by the owners themselves, Dennis Kimeda (The Wren), Patrick Ciappara and Zac Schwartz, the trio, who waited almost two years to get it opened, tossed hipster chic aside and in its place went for an old English stodgy hodgepodge that favours floral wallpaper over barn board and Chippendale style chairs in lieu of mid century modern Eames. Not to mention the tiled faces of Kate Bush and Virgina Woolf. Lake Inez is indeed a breath of fresh air in these cookie-cutter times.

So is the cleverly constructed menu by chef Robbie Hojilla (The Harbord Room, Hudson Kitchen) and sous chef Moffat Kiloh, who have created some of the most exciting fare in town right now. It may be promoted as Asian street and comfort food sharing plates, accompanied by a revolving list of 18 Ontario Craft Beers on tap, but this kitchen is doing something so magnificent you will have to pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming, or somewhere other than Toronto.

Inspired by Hojilla's Filipino background, Lake Inez offers a perfect mix of traditional Asian techniques blended with Western fine dining panache. Take a chicken liver mouse ($11). This voluptuous spread, safely secured under a loving layer of fat, is served with toasted challah, alongside homemade clementine marmalade and Sichuan chilli oil. First cooked sous vide then finished in a blender, the velvety rich pate contains classic ingredients like cream and butter as expected, but then is surprisingly blended with less traditional items like 5-spice powder and mirin. This is culinary refinement on a whole other level. Even beef lumpia ($8), inspired by Hojilla's mom, are nothing more than well executed spring rolls, but this is one of those rare occasions that you can make out every single ingredient listed on the menu. And there are plenty: onion, garlic, celery, water chestnut, carrot, premium soy sauce and sesame oil. Plus, chef ensures they are stuffed with a dry aged beef grind from the same cuts that he used for the Harbord Room burger. Accompanied by a homemade banana ketchup with a wonderful smokiness of pickled banana blossom and scallions, Hojilla has taken the ubiquitous appetizer and made it an exotic, enticing, thoughtful dish that showcases his talent for making even pedestrian fare shine.

Two sunchoke skewers ($6), inspired by the cooking methods of yakitori, are glazed with a house made tare (sauce) and grilled over Japanese charcoal. Garnished with sunflower seed dressing (infused with yuzu), scallion and double-smoked bacon, it's intricate and unusual. But by far the top dish of the night is the fish curry ($26). Based on a Thai-style red curry sauce containing a house made red curry paste cooked with coconut cream, stock, fish sauce, shrimp paste, tamarind, and lime juice, the curry is so alluring, you'll wish there was another bowl of it solo. Though thinner than most food court Thai curries we're accustomed to, and a much skimpier portion, it's still superior than most with a hearty portion of BC snapper, marinated with red curry paste and grilled over Japanese charcoal, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, savoy cabbage, cilantro and peanuts, making it the ideal seasonal meal warmer.

A short rib ($28) comes in a close second. Inspired by Korean kalbi, whole short ribs marinate in a house made kalbi sauce (lots of ingredients including soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, ginger, onion, garlic, Asian pear and kiwi) before being cooked sous vide for 48 hours then chilled. It's portioned and grilled over Japanese charcoal and glazed with more kalbi. Served with a kimchi that is braised with mirepoix then mashed in a food processor), the dish is also accompanied by ssam jang mayo, pickled watermelon radish, scallions, puffed wild rice and Bibb lettuce. To say the meat is fork-tender is to say the surface of the sun is merely hot. Clearly, Hojilla is a master of sauces and condiments. So rarefied are these dishes that you won't even mind the excrutiating wait time between their arrival. It's thrilling just to watch the oohs and aahs of another table as they dig into their pan roasted carrots ($12) and pan seared duck leg with egg ($24).

And though it may be getting a bit tired to see a dessert plated like a piece of Frank Gehry architecture, a simple chiffon cake ($9) accompanied by calamansi lime curd that packs a serious pucker is a stunner with whipped chantilly, crispy lime zest meringue and orange segments.

I remember how impressive Hojilla's food was at Hudson Kitchen and The Harbord Room, both of them once major hotspots. But with Lake Inez his star has never shone brighter. But be forewarned: getting a reservation can be a laborious process. First you call, but you can't leave a message. Instead, someone recites an email address to contact them and then you wait and wait to hear from them before sending yet another confirmation of the date and time. Awkward? Yes. Worth it? Most certainly. (At press time I learned that they went old school with reservations.)

PS: It's been an honour and a privilege to be part of your dining out experience for more than two decades. From my earlier columns Bread & Circuses (Xtra) and To Dine For (toronto.com, Eye Weekly) to today's Dining to Tell (dine.to, 1010 Talk Radio), I hope I've been helpful in determining what's hot and what's not on the local culinary scene, leading you in the right direction when it came to spending your dining out dollar. Until we meet again, bon appetit. Now the diet can finally start.

Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
All meals are paid for, including all taxes and gratuities. All reservations are made under assumed names. Menu items, prices and individuals mentioned in this review may not be up to date. Dine.TO encourages its users to share their feedback.

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