Mio Ristobar: a culinary saviour for Toronto’s suits

17 Apr

Mio Ristobar saved my life. Now that Bay St. is getting busy, I’m increasingly spending my time a) in my office, b) in the PATH and c) lamenting the near-complete disappearance of any semblance of social contact. My tastebuds have been crying out for real food, because the PATH is a haven for horrid heaps of barely-consumable matter (zTeca’s excellent sweet potato and chorizo breakfast burrito aside). Fortunately, I decided to wander into Mio, a place that I passed by a million times without ever really taking notice. Until now.

Mio is located at PATH level under Scotia Plaza, and doesn’t attract as much attention as it should since it’s not in the main food court. Mio has a sleek dining room with a nineties-tastic backlit bar, and further down the way there’s a hole-in-the-wall express counter with take-out meals, panini and breakfast items. Both locations are winners.

I normally review the décor and ambiance of a restaurant along with the food. However, in this case, I’ve actually never spent more than 5 minutes in Mio’s dining room, waiting for meals that I inevitably take back to the office to consume while slaving away for hours into the night, so I can’t do better than “sleek” and “nineties-tastic”. Just use your imagination.

While there is little to be said about the ambiance, there is much to be said about the food. The express “hole” shares the same kitchen as the restaurant, and this is a good thing because they know what they’re doing over there. At the express “hole”, you can get a well-balanced array of Italian food – pizza slices (think Libretto, not Pizza Pizza), panini (not made on squares of industrial effluent pressed into toast form that many other sandwich shops use) and hot meals (hearty stews of veal or seafood that fill you up without leaving you comatose at your desk). Their sides, like simple peas dressed in olive oil, or braised Nappa cabbage and white beans, are also simple yet well-executed and non-coma inducing. It’s clear that they choose their ingredients properly and eschew the flavour-less plastic that industrial food supply companies offer up to chains and diners.

The dinner options from the dining room are deserving of even higher praise, and they fit perfectly into the dinner expense budget that most of their clients will no doubt have. Their margherita pizza ($12) is great value, especially when split with someone else whose taste buds are borderline suicidal. Mio’s base tomato sauce has that delightful hint of sweetness that one gets from tomatoes picked, pureed and packed at the height of the season. The cheese and crust are both of excellent quality, and they round out a pizza that is heavy on flavour but light on heft. Pair that with a hearty braised beef short rib ragu with pepperoncino, ample amounts of basil and padano ($18), and you’ve got a solid meal for two people. A good meal for one is the spaghettini with seafood. That light and fresh tomato sauce is an excellent vehicle for plump scallops, sweet shrimp and calamari that doesn’t feel like you’re eating a rubber band. A skilled pan-master must live somewhere in Mio’s kitchen, because all the seafood was properly cooked and the flavours integrated so well into the sauce that the whole dish felt harmonious and complete.

Unfortunately, all of this praise must be tempered by a note about the coffee. As an Italian restaurant and take-out “hole” that actually makes proper Italian food, it should follow that the coffee should be good and, importantly, served properly. Mio wins on the product but fails on the service. When I ordered my proper Illy espresso from the take-out counter, I was told that they only had paper to-go cups. When I pointed to the proper porcelain Illy cup on the shelf above the sink, I was told that I “did not want” that cup. I was instantly bewildered because I thought I had just walked down into the PATH, not into 1950s Soviet Russia. When I regained my bearings, I was presented with a paper cup filled with espresso and covered with a very tight plastic lid, no doubt to prevent rain, dust, snow and errant bird feces from getting into my coffee while I walk down the temperature- and climate-controlled hall back to my office. This was a sad showing from a place that so clearly values quality. Not providing at least the option of having good espresso – and it was actually quite good – in a proper espresso cup is like telling a customer that they must have their fresh, hand-cut macaroni with Velveeta and wieners.

Mio is by no means empty at lunch, but, sadly, I understand why there isn’t a lineup out the door. Mio serves food that would qualify as a real meal, not a list-of-disparate-ingredients-in-a-depressing-box sort of “meal” that has captured the hearts and minds of Toronto’s suits. While I’m sad for the latter, I can’t help appreciating the fact that I don’t have to wait in line for a good meal. Mio is a hidden gem that is best discovered by those who abhor culinary mediocrity and have had enough of it. If a communist-grey box of mismatched rabbit food and bean curd makes you happy, don’t bother going.

Mio gets a commendable 3.67 out of 5 brown thumbs up for the food, but an unfortunate fuck you for the appalling coffee service.

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