Segovia Restaurant, Toronto

The Segovia Restaurant is at  5 Saint Nicholas St, Toronto, ON M4Y 1W5, a few minutes walk from Wellesley Subway Station, or a 20 minute walk from Dundas Square (the center of downtown Toronto). It’s not a family operated place although it does seem it when you dine there as the atmosphere is unique and individual, like that of a one-off restaurant rather than a chain. I’m told that most of their fresh produce is brought locally, much of it organically grown too, so that’s an extra reason to pay them a visit. You can see their website here - http://www.segoviarestaurant.ca/

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I’ve visited Spain several times and on each occasion I’d wished I could relax in a bar and enjoy the famed Iberian tradition of tapas which, as I understood it, were plates of food created for you to snack on whilst you had a drink and enjoyed the passing of time. But sadly it’d never worked out for me. Maybe it was because I’d always walked into touristy bars or perhaps I was just plain unlucky but every place I went to felt completely alien and difficult to understand and penetrate for me, as an outsider.

The legend had it that tapas were often free and served at the bar to encourage drinkers to stay longer and buy more alcohol. Yet everywhere I went you had to pay for them and it was never as easy as just paying for them either. There were different prices you see, for the same dish, according to if you were standing at the bar (cheapest) or sitting in the room (medium) or outside on the pavement patio (expensive). Some bars even charged different prices for the same plate according to if you had a good view of the TV or not! Man, I just wanted to enjoy some good Spanish food served by somebody with a decent heart, not feel like a walking ATM being stalked by unscrupulous bar owners…

That was my experience of tapas in Spain…so I was overjoyed to learn about Segovia, this Spanish restaurant in downtown Toronto, where I was told I might enjoy fairly priced, authentic tapas and paella and see a decent Flamenco show at the same time.

We arrived early evening and was greeted by an older man. He was from Santiago, he said when I asked where his strong accent originated, Santiago de Compostela, the town at the end of the famous pilgrimage route.

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He took our coats and led us to a table in the centre of the restaurant, right in front of the stage. “It might get a little noisy here,” he warned, “when the flamenco begins, with the foot stamping and clapping.” That was fine for us, we said, we came to taste Spain, so we were eager for all the atmosphere we could get.

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New arrivals began to appear in number. They seemed like regulars as Antonio, the head waiter, and the other staff often greeted them by their first names. Unlike other downtown restaurants we’ve visited the Segovia seemed to be a hipster free zone; that’s not to say I don’t dig the hipster thing, only that they weren’t part of Segovia’s clientele on the evening we visited, possibly because Wellesley isn’t a hip area yet, unlike Church St nearby, although what with the Segovia and Magic Oven restaurants I can see it becoming so soon enough.

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The restaurant is decorated to offer an authentic yet overall view of Spain. I’d say it’s slightly more Andalusian than anything else when it came to colour and vibrancy, the Moorish Arabesque motif above the bar certainly looks straight out of Granada, yet the yellow and black walls, all hand painted by a local artist, is Altamira cave-painting style mixed with a contemporary bohemian gothic (you could imagine it being executed by Ralph Steadman seeing life through a heavy dose of sangria) in places, whilst in others it was pure Picasso. The artists had a sound grasp of history too; the centaurs fighting painted below the bar is Minoan-inspired for certain, reflecting correctly the origin of bull-fighting (which began as a jumping the bull ceremony in ancient Greece at a time when the bull was revered as a divine animals due to its horns resembling the crescent moon, itself a higher symbol of God – indeed, Alexandra himself was pictured on coins wearing a horned helmet as a sign of his godly status) in Crete, before it passed to Spain via the Roman cult of Mithra.

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Similarly the low background music was more world Spanish than anything regional with songs from Cuban and the Caribbean as well as from the mainland. If you wanted an overall view of Spain without the expense of travelling across the Atlantic, the Segovia was certainly the place to come, I thought, and we hadn’t even tried the food or seen the flamenco show yet.

We ordered and then snacked on fresh soft bread spread with an olive infused butter that tasted similar to a tapenade. I’ve got to say at this point that although we were told that the restaurant catered for all food allergies and tendencies, that wasn’t quite the case when we ordered. Lamia doesn’t eat pork so she asked if we could have the paella without chorizo but we were told that it was already in there, that the dish was pre-made, so the best they could do was to pick it out before serving us. That was fine, we’re not that picky and it’s a preference for Lamia rather than an allergy, but if you are strict about what you eat and don’t want to touch pork or, say, mussels, then bear in mind not to order the paella.

For drinks I asked Antonio for a suggestion, and he brought me a half litre of house red wine, a smooth Rioja. It didn’t have a strong kick or aftertaste and was very light for a red, it went down easily once the tapas arrived.

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Lamia had sangria, which she thought sweet, fruity and a little fizzy. “I love it,” she said, “it tastes of the summer.”

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Maybe that’s another reason we were so happy to be in the Segovia. All the bright colours and Spanish atmosphere was rapidly chasing away the winter blues; Toronto had been caught in a minus 10 winter for so long, it was so good just to get away to the sun, even if it was only in our heads and stomach!

For starters I had the gazpacho Andaluz, a soup dating from Roman times and traditionally eaten by peasants.

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My soup had an intense tomato taste and was served cold as is traditional. The croutons added a garlicy punch to every mouthful and I found it very refreshing. It was my first gazpacho so I can’t judge quality based on experience but I can say I enjoyed it and that it was everything I expected it to be.

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Lamia had the garlic soup. “It’s not strongly flavoured of garlic,” she said, “it’s very hot and warming, there are different textures because it’s got scrambled egg mixed in and soaked croutons. I don’t like the soaked croutons much, they’re soggy and flavourless, but otherwise the soup is tasty.”

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It’s worth noting that Antonio the manager is genuinely friendly and sincere, greeting us by name each time he passed our table. He clearly has a great memory, to remember everybodies name. His warmth is, I find, a feature of people from the Mediterranean region; the sun seems to inhabit their souls and use them as a conduit to reach those of us born under colder, greyer skies.

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We decided to skip a main course and instead share a variety of tapas.

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Our first was deep fried squid.

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It was extremely rubbery and chewy but nicely coated in a crispy batter that didn’t hide the squid. Lamia thought it would be like a calamari that she’d had before in a regular Canadian place where the batter hid the seafood flavour more, but here it was more mild so you could taste the squid. It was a bit intense for her, she said. The dip was mild, and again, this allowed the squid flavour to come through. I thought the dish had lots of texture; you have to want to get through it to like it and the squid’s taste, albeit a subtle, gentle one, is for me second to the texture. I found the dish was enhanced, like all we ate at the Segovia, by a squeeze of fresh orange and lemon. 

Our second tapas were the crab croquettes.

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They didn’t have a strong crab flavour, which Lamia appreciated, and the breadcrumbs added a crispy outer to the soft, creamy inner (this may have been English crab, as Antonio had indicated, but it wasn’t served as we serve it. Our cakes are full of chunks of crab inside and there’s no mistaking the seafood taste, whilst these ones were much softer, smoother and subtle). The portion size was sufficient and the cakes were individually a generous size. 

Our third tapas was the tortilla.

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Lamia said that it tasted like aloo bhaji, which she was glad about as her mum makes that for a traditional Bengali breakfast every Saturday morning. I think she was a little overwhelmed by the barrage of new tastes and textures at this point so she was happy to find some familiar ground. The potato was tender and actually tasted of potato (nice to taste potato as it’s a subtle taste that’s so often overpowered by other ingredients or cooking styles), the eggs softly flavoured and the tortilla as a whole was lightly browned, with no burnt bits, and gave us the happy feeling that only home food can offer.

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Our final tapas was the tapa paella.

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It was a small version of the larger main dish the Segovia serves, containing rice flavoured with saffron (which makes for a bright dish) mixed with chicken, prawn, chorizo, mussels and scallops. The chicken was chunky with no bone or fat, the chorizo had a firm texture and a slightly commanding taste, the prawn was shelled and firm and the scallops were small, firm and had no distinct taste.

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It was the first time Lamia had tasted mussels. “It’s almost overwhelmingly fishy,” she said, and coming from a Bengali who’s national dish is a fish that she eats at least weekly, that’s saying something. “A little slimy for me, but  I can see that the whole thing fits together and is well made for those who like all the individual ingredients.”

You have to look at this paella from afar when commenting on it, there’s such an intricate level of textures and flavours from the softness of rice to the extreme of chorizo (which was pan fried and tough), it all fits together and the whole is definitely more than the sum of individual parts. The chorizo wasn’t as spicy or moist as I’ve had before, not sure if that’s down to the requirement of the dish or the quality of the ingredient.

I squeezed orange over the scallops and enjoyed them, although I think that the spice level could have been higher. But then again, I come from England and we do enjoy our food spicy there. I wouldn’t dream of eating a tortilla, for instance, without being able to taste the paprika at an equal level as the potato and as for chorizo we like it so powerful that you can just chop it up and fry it with onions to make a decadent, piquant topping for bread rather than eat the subtle version that was in this paella. This is how it is though when you taste international cuisine; it’s sometimes not at all how you think it should be because the version fed to you in your own country has been adapted to your national tastebuds.

In saying that though, I’m sure if we visit Segovia again we could ask Antonio for more seasoning. Living in multi-cultural Toronto he’s probably well used to dealing with people with a wide variety of tastes.

Worth mentioning is that the menu is rooted in seafood, that if you’ve not tried Spanish before and are used to either North American or Asian cooking (as Lamia is) you should be prepared to step outside of your comfort zone and want to try new flavour combinations, and that the tapas are smaller dishes than mains but also ideal for sharing as apart from the paella, all we had was finger food and very easy to pass around.

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For dessert we had flan and chocolate cake. They tasted as good as they looked. Perfect to finish off our meal.

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The flamenco performance began around 7.45 and was all sung in Spanish. It was, I think, classical flamenco in style. The female singer and dancer, Tamar Ilana, danced proudly, upright, and solo in a sort of gypsy ballet. I’m a real beginner when it comes to flamenco having only seen it a few times but this looked like a more traditional style of performance with minimal but skilled use of castanets and shawl over beautiful, lacy dresses.

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It was the sort of performance you’d happily pay to see, so we felt privileged to have it going on as an accompaniment to our meal.

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Flamenco is perhaps the world’s most expressive form of combined music and dance or at least it allows the performers wider range than most styles to give voice and shape to the feeling of the piece. A lot of our fellow diners ignored the playing at first which was perhaps an indication of the high level of multi-cultural entertainment on offer in Toronto; too much of a good thing can make you immune to it all if you’re not careful with yourself. But they started to turn their heads after a few songs, I was happy to see.

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Flamenco guitar performers such as Dennis Duffin, who was accompanying Tamar, whose performance this evening one might refer to as toque gitano o flamenco (‘deep and with pinch’, although I could be wrong as I’m most certainly no expert), can’t fear the accusations of pretension that will surely be thrown by the less interested/educated. They have to take chances with the interpretation of their feelings, there’s no other way of presenting passion in this format and avoiding the cool, short achievements of the less ambitious. To succeed you have to be prepared to fail dismally and in my mind Dennis (and Tamar also) took a chance and it worked.

The food was ok, but for me the highlights of the Segovia experience were the genuinely friendly service and the incredibly accomplished flamenco show that topped our evening off in a most enjoyable style.

To discover more about the Segovia, please visit their website - http://www.segoviarestaurant.ca/

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