If you think you have fly to Italy to enjoy dining under a lush olive tree surrounded by fragrant hedges of rosemary you'd be mistaken. Would you believe a similar experience can be had in downtown Toronto, minus the tour bus exhaust and crazed Vespa drivers?
Canada's first ObikÃƒÂ Mozzarella Bar is based on a relatively new concept centered on Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP and a variety of other imported artisanal foods. Fresh mozzarella is flown in from Italy twice a week (or so we ar
e told over and over and over again). Freshness and top quality may very well be what this franchise is selling, but will TO foodies eager for the next-big-food-fad fork over big bucks to indulge in the fine art and craftsmanship of an Italian delicacy that for eons has only been associated with stretchy pizza topping?
This ain't your typical cheese, however. Mozzarella di Bufala Campana comes directly from the fertile plains of Campania and is anointed with its own Protected Origin Denomination (DOP) certificate, denoting the highest quality and adherence to strict regulations. Farms that milk their own herds create an incredibly refined cheese that has a characteristic porcelain white shine, milky texture and distinctive, almost ethereal taste. In Italy, where local artisanal food is sacred, this is considered a revered art form. But a restaurant centered solely on this holy foodstuff might take us lowly Canucks a while to catch on.
The confusion continues with its Japanese sounding name, the Asian calligraphic font of ObikÃƒÂ , and the black lacquer walls that just ooze Japan. All ridiculously intentional. The company decided that they would base the idea on a sushi bar, only instead of sashimi and maki, cheese please. As clever an idea as the name itself, which, translated from Neapolitan dialect (though the company has no locations in Naples - just Rome, Milan, Palermo, Florence, London, Istanbul, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and now Toronto) which means "Here it is."
Here is what? Certainly no chef. At Obika serving top notch imported delicacies, much like a gourmet boutique, takes precedence over actually crafting meals - though there are pizzas and pastas, where I concede some "cooking" is involved.
Burrata with smoked wild salmon ($21) has a milky consistency, but we are robbed of the fun of poking into the harder casing to unleash its creaminess. Instead it is served soft in a bowl, the liquid already spilled. A naturally smoked Bufala affumicata with prosciutto crudo san daniele DOP ($19.50) might look like a tiny baseball mitt, but its delicate flavour and texture underscores the sheer beauty of this artful food.
Too bad the fried and breaded Mozzarella di Bufala ($8) has been dumbed down to the likes of a grilled cheese sandwich. The accompanying sauce is even bored to be there. A salad of Braesola cured beef, oranges, arugula and fennel ($11) is drizzled with a nicely grassy olive oil, but lacks a bit of tang that some fresh citrus or balsamic could easily solve. So far, much of it you could buy and assemble at home.
But a pizza ($16) made with special flours, naturally risen for 48 hours and cooked on a refractory stone, sports a thin and light chewy crust with a crisp finish. With a fresh off-the-vine tomato sauce, prosciutto and arugula it does perk things up a bit even if the cheese is a bit on the scant side. And therein lies the problem: when dealing with the gold standard of pricey Italian cheeses, don't expect it to be smothered over the entire pie. Instead, one can only expect a few tiny knobs of molten magic. But better than the pies as Queen Margherita, it is not. Even an eggplant parmesan ($14) has an odd sourness that feels more like Chinese takeout than fine oldschool Italian.
A homemade choc chip ice cream is sublime, as is a lemon sorbet. But a sampling trio of desserts ($11) reaffirms the old adage that three's a crowd. A tiramisu masquerades as Jell-O pudding and I don't dare mention what a ricotta mousse with honey smells like. Thankfully, a moist, flour-free chocolate almond cake, however, is one terrific guilt-free brownie.
It may have taken a visionary to sell this idea to as many cities around the globe. But Obika is really little more than an Italian gourmet counter with seating and amazing take-out containers. And hasn't Bruno's Fine Foods and Pusateri's already cornered that niche market?