When one thinks of Portland Variety, dinner usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not like the popular Toronto restaurant just started serving the third meal of the day, but at least for most people, it’s primarily seen as a brunch/lunch spot – and that’s certainly no bad thing.
Known for excellent food and service and with a superb location right in the heart of the city’s bustling entertainment district on King W, Portland Variety borrows heavily from European cuisine to craft exciting menu options that almost always guarantee a full crowd during the morning and throughout the day. But what if we told you that the restaurant also doubled as a fantastic dinner spot, with an eclectic collection of dishes that all boast flare, flavor and creativity, making for a dining experience that rivals some of the city’s finest establishments?
Yes, it’s true, Portland Variety has got a wicked dinner menu going on and this past week, we decided to finally head on over there to check it out. Filled with natural light and a charming decor, the building has a little bit of everything in terms of design, with a cafe in the front, a restaurant in the back, a bar in the middle and an inviting patio situated right on the busy corner of King and Portland, where guests can watch the city pass them by as they dig into their delicious food.
For our meal, we were seated in the dining room at the back, positioned near one of the windows to ensure proper lighting for our photos – until the sun went down, that is. Almost immediately our waiter came by and informed us that they had prepared a special menu for us and that to start, we could order some cocktails. The Tequila Bong and Ginger Smash were what we decided on, with both of them proving to be superb. The former used milagro blanco tequila to create a drink that also included lemon, pineapple, jalapeno-infused agave and hickory smoke, while the latter boasted brugal anejo rum, fresh ginger, cherry syrup, fresh pineapple and fresh lime juice.
Following the prompt service of our drinks, the meal began. And what a meal it was. Over the next 9, yes 9, courses, Portland Variety pampered our taste buds, giving us a wide range of items from their menu and ensuring that we got a complete taste of what they were truly capable of. With the exception of one or two dishes, everything was absolutely exceptional, resulting in what was, quite frankly, one of the very best dinners we’ve had in Toronto in a long time.
To recap, here’s what we had:
Grilled Octopus (with chorizo jam and navy bean salad): Boasting superb flavors, the grilled octopus is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and for good reason. Though it was slightly lukewarm when it got to the table, it was prepared just as good octopus should be, with no rubbery or chewy pieces to be found. Charred, smoky and tender meat with crisp tentacles that crackled in your mouth as you bit into them is what we got here, and there were no complaints to be had. If you fancy yourself an octopus lover, you won’t be disappointed.
Eggplant Bayildi (with roasted garlic & tomato confit and lemon yogurt): A fairly simple dish, yet still packing plenty of taste, Portland Variety provided a generous portion of eggplant that was complimented perfectly with the warm, tangy tomato confit smothered on top of it. The sauce wasn’t too over-powering either, letting the taste and texture of the eggplant shine through perfectly. Not too oily and cooked well throughout, this is the dish you get when trying to introduce someone to eggplant.
Iberico de Bellota Ham (with tomato bread): A very fine cut of ham, it wasn’t much of a surprise to find this dish on the menu, given the European inspirations floating throughout all of the food. As a moderately sized appetizer, perfect for sharing, it was an excellent start to our meal. The meat’s smooth texture and savory taste provided a nice salty introduction to dinner, and when combined with the mini toasts that had a tasty tomato spread on them, it made for a dish that we won’t soon be forgetting about.
Patatas Bravas: Crispy and golden brown, just how we like them, these patatas bravas were amongst the best we’ve ever had. Sitting in a spicy tomato sauce to give it a bit of a kick and topped with garlic aioli (which there was a bit too much of, admittedly), the combination of flavors here simply can’t be beat and will instantly transport you to the coast of Spain.
Ham Croquettes: Continuing on with the Spanish influences, the croquettes were another welcome appetizer. Crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, they were simply delightful and worked well when served with the patatas bravas.
Porchetta (with duck egg a la plancha, la bomba and salsa verdi): Topped with a perfectly fried duck egg, the porchetta at Portland Variety gives other Toronto spots that we’ve visited a run for their money. Crispy and seasoned to mouth watering perfection, with the oh-so-delicious crackling crust really standing out, this fatty meat was bursting at the seams with flavor. When combined with the warm, runny yolk from the duck egg, it resulted in something truly special.
Fish Crudo (with chilli, chive, citrus and green mango): As good as every other dish was, this honestly might have been the highlight. Fresh, zesty and with a really nice kick to it, the fish crudo was hands down exquisite and left us absolutely stunned. Come to think about it, we probably could have just ate this for our entire meal and left satisfied.
New Hippie Salad (with black kale, black chia seeds, harissa granola, pomegranate seeds and tahini dressing): Unfortunately, this was the only part of the dinner that we wouldn’t run back for. The dressing just didn’t gel with what was going on in the salad and there was far too much of it, overpowering some of the other great flavors that could have come through more prominently. A vinaigrette of some sorts would have served the dish better. Though far from bad, it was the only thing we didn’t finish.
Mini Vanilla Bean Custard Beignets: We promised ourselves we wouldn’t eat dessert, but one bite of these warm mini doughnuts and it was game over. Rich, creamy and decadent, these little guys may have put us over the edge, but we’d be lying if we said they weren’t worth every last bite.
As you’ve probably inferred already, our meal at Portland Variety was equal parts surprising and impressive. Though we were familiar with its brunch offering beforehand, this was our first dinner experience with the establishment and we were completely blown away with the consistent quality of all the food we were served. It was one superbly prepared dish after another, exciting our tastebuds over and over again to the point where we left feeling fully and completely satisfied with what we had just put in our stomachs.
It’s safe to say that Portland Variety completely won us over the other night, stuffing us with course after course of delicious, European-inspired food. It’s an eclectic menu, to be sure, but it’s one that ticks all the necessary boxes for those seeking a tasty, unique and satisfying meal in the great city of Toronto.
All photos by Matt Joseph unless otherwise noted.