Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Playa Cabana Hacienda

One hates to be so negative. And repetitive. How often do you hear me whine because a fantastic chef had a great restaurant and then he (it’s pretty much always a guy) wanted to make more money because success went to his head, so he opened a second restaurant. And maybe more. Before you know it, nothing tastes like it did at the first one, because cooking is a craft and an art; you can give any slob your recipes and they won’t taste like when you cook them. Maybe they would if you were standing over the cook. But you’re not, because you’re not there.

This is the essential downfall of the multiple restaurant operator. If you can keep it as simple and formulaic and under control as the Golden Arches do, it’s all good. But most don’t. One of the very few delicious upscale restaurant chains I know that works is Mario Batali’s resto empire in New York. I’ve been to most of them and had great meals. But the streets of Toronto are littered with gastronomic mediocrity perpetrated by really good chefs who let their hubris and their greed into the driver’s seat.

And now we have Playa Cabana Hacienda.

I liked the first Playa Cabana (on Dupont), and fell even harder for the second one, Playa Cabana Cantina on Dundas West. I’m scared to be disappointed by their Korean fusion taqueria (Playa Cabana Barrio Coreano) and now, having eaten at their third — and huge — Playa Cabana Hacienda, my feet are getting colder.

Hacienda is in the (formerly) splendid old house (on the north side of Dupont just west of Avenue Road) that housed the fab Vittorio’s Osteria years ago. It was a lovely old house until it got chopped up into too many too small and wildly cramped rooms. Nobody has called me fat lately, but on entering and exiting my seat at the Hacienda, my butt definitely kissed the cutlery on my neighbour’s table. I don’t think it was good for them either.

Which made the bad start to dinner even worse. We’d made a reservation, which they denied when we arrived. Great welcome. To start, we tried chorizo nachos, whose cheese roof was sufficiently petrified as to require energetic knife work to cut it, and whose chips were soggy.

Toronto is taqueria-town these days. We’ve become taco connoisseurs, and it just doesn’t cut it that when the so-called medium rare ahi tuna taco with yuzu jicama slaw tastes the same (overcooked fish in thick uncrisp batter) as the fish taco of haddock with chipotle tomatillo salsa. The al pastor-style pork (pastor traditionally being marinated in chilis, fruit and garlic) is also woefully under-powered in the taste department.

As is the guacamole. Serving it in a big heavy stone bowl may be a good trick to use on tourists and those of limited palate, but guacamole with almost no seasoning is just mushed-up avocado, an item of very limited appeal. About as appealing as the service. We would have liked to order tres leches cake, which is good at the other Playas. But no chance of that. Despite our efforts to attract their attention, the several servers who hurry by us in the half hour after we finish eating neither pause nor look our way. So no dice on dessert.

Same deal getting the cheque, so we finally stand up and start to leave. Ah yes, they want their money, we get the cheque. Fun dinner.

PLAYA CABANA HACIENDA, 14 Dupont St., $60 Dinner for two

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine.

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