I like to keep my food adventures random and a little bit to chance. When I hit Toronto last week, I decided to check what were some of the closest Filipino restaurants within decent walking distance from my hotel. As I was in town for work it would definitely have to be a dinner spot.
I found three relatively easily, which surprised me given I was downtown. I normally don’t read other food blogs so as not to taint my taste buds with others opinions, but don’t mind word of mouth recoms. I asked MaryAnne, someone more familiar with Toronto than I, which of the three to try. She actually hadn’t gone to any of them but had heard good things about La Mesa, which has a “Filipino-inspired” menu. We went with that. We further pursued this food adventure by finding folks to join in the journey and we ended up with an interesting group of six, with André, Anne-Marie, Deanna, and Raphaëlle rounding off our group.
None of us had eaten at La Mesa before. The entire group was up for pretty much anything and everything. After some initial questions with the server, we decided to go with the Tasting Menu experience. On-line, La Mesa’s menu advertises this experience to be 11 courses for $80. We had what I would say were seven courses at $50/person. Let me say up front – it was worth it!
We began with an amuse bouche of tuna kinilaw, somewhat similar to ceviche. For tartness, they used calimansi, a small citrus fruit that is grown in the Philippines and other places, which was perfect. The avocado was velvety and the chilies provided a hint of heat. I loved the shrimp cracker as the vehicle. While I certainly could have eaten a bowlful, the amuse bouche did its job in creating anticipation for the rest of the meal.
The next course was soup, their version of arroz caldo. This dish is usually made from rice and chicken. La Mesa’s twist was to have butternut squash at its base. This was Deanna’s favourite dish. There was a poached egg at its centre (in contrast to hard-boiled offerings in the Filipino version) and our server shared that the egg should be mixed within the dish before serving. This made the soup creamier and richer in taste. If you have an open mind and don’t expect the consistency of a true arroz caldo I believe you will have an appreciation for the dish.
Third up was two meat dishes, lechon kawali and corned beef lumpia. We were great about sharing each dish. The deep fried pork was perfectly cooked. They had rendered enough fat to make the edges crispy, yet not oily. The corned beef egg rolls was a hard sell to me. It did have a kick of spice, which was unexpected. Normally I like corned beef, especially the way Filipinos make it, but I did not quite get into it in lumpia format. This may be one of the very few critiques I have of our experience.
Gulay was next. Vegetables dishes were made on purpose, we were told, as there are few vegetarian dishes in regular Filipino fare. We were served ginataan and kalabasa maalat. The ginataan included a warm and moist cornbread, which I mentioned to the group seemed to fit more with Filipino food since the Philippines does grow corn. However, now that I think about it, on all of my trips to the Philippines, I don’t think I’ve had corn bread often, if at all. Anyway, my belly was slowly filling at this point and I knew more was on the way, so I admit that I had little-to-none of the squash dish. What can I say? It is easier for me to turn down vegetables.
I am used to eating my ulam with rice, so at each serving I couldn’t help looking around for it. At this fifth course we received garlic fried rice with chicken adobo. MaryAnne and I agreed that the rice was a bit undercooked and the garlic slightly burnt, but it did not stop us all from eating almost all of it. The adobo was a drier version (which can also be made wet or at least with some sabaw in reserve). La Mesa offered this buttery-smooth garlic puree that paired well. They included whole chunks of garlic in the dish itself, but the puree could stand on its own with the chicken.
Our second-to-last course was talong humba and branzino pinakbet. For the first dish, I liked the eggplant bite that I got and missed the crispy tofu. I really enjoyed the pinakbet but this is a very loose interpretation of the original dish. The okra, in particular, was wonderful. I also discovered that the branzino was a meaty fish. However, for pinakbet I missed the shrimp paste flavour and sabaw, which I think would have still complemented this dish and actually may have brought all of its elements together for me.
Finally, to dessert. Ube leche flan was my favourite and difficult to share. Eating a spoon of the flan with some of the calamansi gel simultaneously created a perfect balance of tartness and sweet. Otherwise, the gel would overpower your palette. The fresh grapes also helped bring natural sweetness to the dish. The banana chocolate cake “Filipino feature” was including Ovaltine in it. It was dense and I don’t know what happened to my taste buds, but Raphaëlle had to tell me the fruit was raspberries. (Foodie fail on my part! LOL!) I think it was the “seeds” in the raspberries that threw me off. Now that I’ve reviewed the menu, I think those “seeds” were probably crushed up walnuts.
We were at La Mesa for easily a couple of hours. The music was bumpin’ to quote MaryAnne, and more than a few of us enjoyed the 90’s R&B throwbacks. If there was a dance floor I’m sure we would’ve taken it over. The food, music, ambiance, and making new friendships made La Mesa an experience to remember!
p.s. Apologies in advance for the photo quality. I tried to take a few shots with a flash but did not want to ruin the dining experience with my table mates, so most were done without it.
p.p.s. Look for Part Two of this luscious La Mesa experience, as I was drawn to return the following night kamayan-style.