Lamesa is situated in the popular Queen St. W neighbourhood, and we passed by it often on our way to our favourite Japanese grocery store, Sanko. One of us had never tried Filipino cuisine and was tormented by the prospect of something new, the other had enjoyed it before and was eager to see what Lamesa had to offer. It took some time before we had a chance to go, busy city lives keeping this gem just out of our reach, always teasing and getting our tummies rumbling as we passed by.
Finally we forced everything in our life to the side long enough to set foot inside. Our first meal was a four course dinner at the bar. The place was packed – almost exclusively with Filipino families – and our scrumptious food and attentive, friendly service made us determined to come back as soon as possible.
Our hosts clearly enjoyed talking about Filipino cuisine and their restaurant’s interpretation of the many varied dishes. As we learned Filipino cuisine is traditionally defined by region, and being made up of 5,000 inhabited islands there’s a great deal of variation. Even individual families’ interpretations of the same dishes adds to the delightful variations. Lamesa’s goal is to take these traditional meals to a whole new, gourmet level. That, and the prospect of the 11 course chef’s tasting dinner drew us back.
Our host that first evening explained that two days notice was required for the tasting. This enabled the chefs to select the market fresh ingredients that would determine what the tasting would consist of that evening. One thing we had come to expect after our first meal was entirely new flavour experiences, a rare treat for two people whose travels mean we dine out often; we are always trying to indulge our love of exotic foods.
When we made the reservation, it was clear they were excited that people had ordered the Chef’s Tasting. As soon as we arrived we knew the experience would be special. We were greeted by the same person who had hosted us at the bar our first visit and he clearly remembered us. That’s rare these days and made us feel very welcome.
When we were seated, the feeling of being at home intensified. Several of the staff came by to greet us and say that they were excited at the prospect of serving us that evening. It was also clear that they themselves did not know which creations the chefs had in store for us. However, they promised that each course would arrive with an explanation of the ingredients and thinking behind the dish. With that, we ordered our bottle of wine, sat back, and waited for the fun to begin.
Our first course was a light tasting of shrimp bisque pinakbet. This is traditionally a stew that comes from the northern regions, with mixed vegetables and a fish or shrimp sauce. This delicious thick soup consisted of shellfish stock, squash, eggplant, beans, and was finished with Ontario radish. It had a complex layered flavour that began with the sweet taste of the squash and finished with the velvety lingering flavour of the shellfish stock. It was simply delicious. (You’re going to hear that a lot in this post!)
Lamesa’s take on Pancit Bihon, a very traditional Filipino dish, was beautifully executed. Pancit is the word for noodle in their native language and the Bihon usually refers to a rice noodle. This was a delicious combination of mung bean noodle, scallions, pea shoots, cabbage, shrimp, carrots, and Calamansi (Calamansi is a delicious fruit common in Filipino cuisine, the calamansi was described as being akin to a lime version of a Meyer Lemon. Another description was much more playful: “It’s like nature’s version of 5 Alive.”). It was a light dish while still being packed with flavour.
Without question this dish was one of the highlights of the meal. Longanisa is a Filipino pork sausage, most often associated with breakfast or brunch, and its origins are actually Spanish. However, when combined with Chayote, a squash with a flavour that is a cross between an apple and a pear, and served on a warm toasted ensaymada (Filipino Brioche), this already delicious sausage just explodes with sweet vinegary goodness in your mouth. The tomato that accompanied the sausage was nice but was, ummm, incidental :)
Another delightful highlight was the shrimp rebosado. According to Wikipedia it is known as the shrimp tempura of the Philippines. This slightly garlicky, crunchy shrimp treat was cooked to perfection. Even the tails were lightly crunchy and made for excellent eating. The crispy coating was salty (but not too salty), slightly peppery, and complemented perfectly by the soy, vinegar and garlic dipping sauce. Eaten with our fingers, this was a fun interlude.
It was at this point in the meal that the chefs got really serious. This beef tataki was a revelation. To be clear, we order beef tataki often at Japanese restaurants. It is one of our favourite dishes. However, this version incorporated flavour combinations we’ve never encountered, and they worked on every level. Served with a sublime onion jam, and thin sliced shallots fried so perfectly they were crisp all the way through without being dry, flavourless or burned. They were perfect little shallot chips. The calamansi also provided a lovely citric twist that added a distinct flavour to the entire dish.
At this point we felt daunted by the concept of eating much more, eleven courses sounded like too much. However, the kitchen proved they knew exactly what they were doing. The next course was a light serving of New Brunswick Oysters, one per person with some chopped mango for an extra flavour kick. This gave us a chance to digest a little before the next serving arrived.
Every now and then foodies find themselves chewing on a forkful of food and suddenly universes collide in a big bang of revelation. This was one such dish. Scallops, served with squash and gently fried greens on a bed of coconut milk – then off in the corner a pretty smudge of beet coulis, like a passing, almost unnoticed stranger in the background. Those of you who don’t like to mix the different foods that chefs put on your plate miss out on a lot. As we chatted away, not thinking too much, we mixed the coconut milk and the beet coulis… WHAT?! Conversation stopped. We both paused and did it again. It was though a new flavour universe was born. Never had we conceived of mixing coconut milk and beet, but there it was: there is a Dutch phrase “Als een engel plassen op je tong”, which translates as “Like an angel peeing on your tongue”. This was that. Oh, by the way, the scallops were delicious too.
Quail, with all its crunchy, moist, delicious goodness is another of our favourite foods. We are always very demanding of dishes that feature this delightful little bird – and Lamesa did not disappoint. A black garlic purée, adobo and chayote provided a symphony of flavour that complimented the moist, flavourful and perfectly cooked pan roasted quail perfectly. We were so excited to get at this dish, we found that we had torn the leg one of the quail before remembering to take a picture.
We think this dish is called Kelarta but we may have that wrong. This is a deconstructed beef stew consisting of a braised short rib served with pineapple and carrot purée (apparently like the chef’s Dad used to do), kale, red peppers, potatoes, tomato and Parmesan. This was a great dish, but thank goodness it was the last of the mains. We were stuffed.
Once again, the kitchen had its rhythm down to perfection. Instead of being served heavy sweet desserts the final two dishes delighted the palate while at the same time not challenging already full stomachs.
The picture speaks for itself. Our first dessert was a small, flavour packed shake made with a combination of avocado, condensed milk and evaporated milk. This very small portion of one of our favourite beverages proved a great lead up to the main dessert.
The last dish was also the only dish that arrived with the intent that we should share, a very thoughtful gesture by the kitchen. An eleven course meal is a demanding venture, and they made sure that we left satisfied but not overly full. Milo is a chocolate and malt powder sold in the Philippines, and the kitchen made a rich deconstructed cheese cake with it, the fluffed graham cracker piled up on the side.
I think you get the picture; we had a delightful, unrushed evening at Lamesa. We look forward to returning soon and experiencing new foods and flavour combinations.
669 Queen St W toronto