Whether or not a meal is a bargain depends on what your money buys. A $35 multi-course dinner composed mainly of low-cost ingredients is rarely a bargain. Cafe Dario's $35 multi-course dinners, which feature such luxuries as oysters, shrimp, quail and duck breast, are bargains by any measure, and were listed among my bargain choices a few years ago. But no matter what $35 buys, it might still be more than some are prepared to pay, especially after the excesses of December. And tackling five courses, even relatively small ones, may be intimidating.
Lunch is an obvious alternative, and although it can be affordable in many fine restaurants, the prices don't necessarily buy some of the kitchen's finest efforts. That isn't true of Cafe Dario, where most of the lunch items are identical to those that are served at dinner. In small portions, to be sure, but at a la carte prices, from $11 to $15, including soup -- a rich cheddar-beer soup on my last visit -- that are a steal for some of the best cooking in the city.
The choices vary from day to day, and some that might serve as starters at dinner turn up as entrees at lunch. One day's mussels, for example, which were perfection -- tiny, tender and sweet, in a light sauce redolent of lemongrass, coconut milk, ginger and cilantro. Also top-notch that day were cumin-dusted slices of duck breast -- grilled medium rare, in a creamy maple whiskey sauce slightly piquant with chili -- and two chops from a pepper-crusted rack of lamb, in a chocolate Kahlua sauce. At least that's how they were prepared this past week -- next week's sauces may be different. Sides with all were mashed potatoes and pureed beets, both lovely.
Entrees that are always available include beef tenderloin in chimichurri sauce, spicy pork in a blackberry tequilla coulis, and chicken or fish in varying styles. Splurgers can have a grilled lobster tail for $21 with (this week) a compound butter-flavoured with lemon, garlic and cumin. The one disappointment among the sampled dishes was -- surprisingly (given chef-owner Dario Gutierrez' Colombian background) -- a bison chili that was nothing more than just OK, without much kick or flavour. The only dessert this past week has been a tropical fruit tart ($5).
Ordering lunch is really inconvenient, with -- unaccountably -- the only available menu posted on a board immediately inside the entrance, where you have to decide what you want before sitting down. Which can make for a tight fit in the tiny foyer when the place is full, which it usually is (reservations are advisable). The only other nit I have to pick is that food this good deserves better bread than these dull, papery buns.
The two little rooms are warm and welcoming, with a fascinating collection of Columbian artifacts. Service is attentive and knowledgeable. Licensed. No wheelchair access.
-- -- --
When Wako Sushi first opened, a few years ago, the selection was very limited.
Since then the menu has expanded significantly, but the prices not at all, with sushi still ranging from $2.49 to $4.99 for two pieces of nigiri sushi, or five or six pieces of regular rolls, and from $6.99 to $10.99 for the more complex special rolls.
The rice they are based on is moist and slightly sweet, with a hint of vinegar. You won't find such rarities as monkfish liver or sea urchin, but the fish they do offer is dewy-fresh, firm and flavourful. The scallops were among the best I have found -- delicious when unadorned, and equally good when chopped and mixed with (but not overdosed with) mayonnaise. Maguro, white maguro and toro are all listed on the menu and (not always to be counted on in many small take-out places) all three were available.
As in most sushi places pollock is a common ingredient. Unlike the often common practice, though, a number of rolls are also made with real crabmeat -- identified as such on the menu, as in the Deluxe California Roll, with avocado, cucumber and fish roe as well. Another personal top choice is the Caterpillar Roll of eel topped by avocado. There are only a few non-sushi items, but both the sesame-dressed gomo ae spinach salad and the shrimp tempura are worth trying.
Wako is a spiffy and colourful little nook of a place, adorned by lovely Japanese prints and artifacts. The staff are friendly and helpful. Efficient too -- phone in your order ahead of time, and chances are it will be ready when they say it will be ready. No wheelchair access.
Cafe Dario, 1390 Erin Street, 783-2813
Wako Sushi, 875 Corydon Avenue, 339-7777