Located in the bustling Queen West/Parkdale neighbourhood, Clandestino Wine Bar might look inconspicuous from the outside, fitting in perfectly with the rest of the storefronts. All it takes is one step into the space and one bite of its food to realize that while it might have broken ground in Toronto, its influences and reach are spread across the globe.
The brainchild of the restaurant -- chef and owner Desart Dulaj -- named Clandestino after an album recorded by his favourite singer, Manu Chao. Not only that, but the name is also an homage to his family and their story of when they immigrated from Albania to Italy.
"When we went to Italy, we were clandestine," Dulaj said. "We're illegal; leaving from Communism."
Italy is not where his journey ended but rather became his first stepping stone. He first got into the food industry by making sausages to pay for his running shoes at age 14. Since then, he has never worked anywhere else but in a restaurant, with his job taking him to Japan, Russia, Finland and New York.
The Big Apple is where he got his first taste of being a restaurant owner, owning Bistro Desart before meeting his now wife and moving to Toronto in 2007.
Before the existence of Clandestino in Parkdale, Dulaj owned a restaurant in Liberty Village which was more on the lines of a fast-casual establishment, serving coffee by day and wine by night — the first restaurant in Toronto to do so, according to Delaj.
Once that lease came close to expiring, Delaj started looking for greener (and cheaper) pastures in nearby neighbourhoods so he didn't lose any of his curated clientele. After an arduous search, he came upon the current location which previously housed a sports bar that became home to his latest project, Clandestino.
As mentioned above, Clandestino assimilates into the area from the outside. From the inside, its modern touches take it to a realm far away from the neighbourhood. It houses the kind of moody and sultry interior that has become synonymous with any establishment that calls itself a "wine bar."
The bar exists as the centerpiece of the interior, binding the room together. Under its counter's lip runs a strip of blue light, adding a tinge of modernity to the space which juxtaposes well with the rustic exposed brick that can be found on the walls. Metal chairs and wooden tables continue the homely and modern vibe while the couches lining one wall soften up the interiors.
Above it all, there exists an ornate ceiling covered in a textured pattern and gold paint. The overhead fixtures and Edison bulbs bounce light off it, emitting an ethereal glow, providing the space with a cozy-yet-regal ambiance.
There's always that risk of alienating your customers when it comes to modernizing a space. Clandestino, however, seems to strike a great balance where its dining room has those modern touches but still feels far from cold. It's inviting, cozy and exudes a welcoming atmosphere.
Just like the food, which we'll talk more about down the line, its interiors exhibit a fine balance, evening out its modernity with some period-esque wall ornaments.
That coziness and warmth were a deliberate decision by Dulaj as he wanted to create a space that was intimate and inviting to couples. He said that there was a gap in the market as there existed many hole-in-the-wall places, but none of which encouraged a proper sit-down experience. The ones that did have proper dining spaces were far too expensive.
One of Clandestino's major selling points is its date-night menu. As a place that's built around that intimate experience, it aims to supplement its moody interiors with a menu specially designed for a night out with your significant other. The plates aren't smaller and the prices aren't gassed up. It's simply a menu designed to cater to two people who are looking to try multiple dishes in one sitting without breaking the bank.
"That's why we want to create a place that offers experience but you don't have to mortgage your house," he said. "I don't know of many places that do Hokkaido scallops and Wagyu steaks and things like us that can be this affordable. Like normally to have those items, you have to spend way more."
With a motto like "ingredients first, technique later," it's no surprise that Clandestino likes focusing on only the best products available. While the restaurant does have ingredients from different parts of the world, the food served does not fall under any specific category — just an amalgamation of the chef's travels.
"Our food is our food — so we're not Italian or French or anything," Delaj said. "We have everything that I have cooked in the past in my experience. All the countries I have been to, there's always something from my experience on the menu."
The menu was designed to keep ingredients at the forefront supplemented by experience and technique. For every fancy offering of beluga caviar, wagyu carpaccio and octopus, there exists lamb, steak and lobster to balance it out.
"I think everybody, every palate can find something they like on the menu. Depends which direction they want to go," Dulaj said. "They want to go mainstream, sure. Wagyu carpaccio is mainstream. They want to be more adventurous, then no problem. There's items that are more adventurous. The reason why I keep certain items is because most people like them. Like for example, steak and lamb, what 80% of people eat, so you know, we keep them."
As for the portion sizes, a lot of restaurants might fall into the habit of offering smaller plates, but not this establishment. And it all comes from Dulaj's years of experience in a kitchen.
"I worked in a restaurant with 19 courses and to me it was stupid. And I hated working there because four people doing one plate, one segment — it's all techniques," he said. "Nothing to brag about, ingredients-wise. You take a flower and you make it look amazing, but it's still a flower. To me, it's better if people take it home rather than wanting more after eating here."
The dishes at Clandestino might have a lot of components to them which might seem overwhelming to the newcomer, but they all work together, creating a symphony of flavours in the patron's mouth.
The bison tartare is easily the crowning glory at Clandestino. Served on a bed of frozen Himalayan salt, it is easily one of the most interestingly-presented dishes on the market — making it the one that Dulaj wishes the restaurant to be known for.
It begins with cold-smoking the bison meat. Then the accouterments are added to it — onions, mint, capers, truffle and pepper. Sitting atop it all is, of course, an egg yolk. There is purposefully no salt added to the mix, as once you mix the yolk in with the meat and start savouring it, the salt brick slowly melts and incorporates its flavours into the mix. It is a dish that is ever-evolving: the more time you let it sit, the more its flavours change. That alone makes it a spectacle for both the eyes and the palate.
It's a beautifully balanced and complex dish. It's got unctuous meat that is cut with acidity which keeps the taste buds from tiring and makes you want to constantly dive in. It's served with pita bread which gives the dish a bit of body. Every ingredient plays its part in elevating the dish to the highest level: the freshness from the mint, the savoriness of the capers and the luxurious earthiness of the truffle oil. Each element acts as a building block to help construct this magnificent creation.
"It's like building a wall, you know, every brick adds to the structure," Dulaj said. "So that's why you bring five, six, seven layers in order and we put it together. And that's why I think when somebody doesn't want yolk, it's fine, but they miss something."
One of the two most-ordered dishes at the restaurant, the Lamb Scottadito is a true classic. "Scottadito" roughly translates to burnt fingers, alluding to one wanting to eat the dish while it is so hot because of how good it is. The lamb chops are seasoned with a 12-herb blend and are served over a legume puree along with braised daikon, crispy polenta and a mint gel foam.
There are a lot of flavours and textures that are happening throughout the dish but they all blend harmoniously and yet somehow have enough substance to stand by themselves, too.
The perfectly-seasoned lamb pairs well with the earthiness of the legume puree, which adds warmth and depth to the flavour profile. On the other hand, the mint foam adds a cooling, herbal effect which counteracts the slight bitterness of the braised daikon. And with the soft, smooth foam and puree making the base of the dish, the crispy polenta acts as a nice counterweight with its texture.
One thing is for sure, your palate will not tire while eating this dish, as there are so many combinations to play around with. Each bite can very well be unique.
The other classic, highly-ordered dish at Clandestino is the Steak Picanha. The beef, a top sirloin cut, is aged in-house for two weeks before it's ready to be served. Upon ordering, the steak is served with a pat of butter on the top, which is then brûléed at the table, adding to the spectacle of the dining experience.
The steak is served on top of the same earthy legume puree that is featured with the lamb. The other pairings include rich duck-fat potatoes, a smear of port wine and peppercorn reduction and a beet mousseline — a savoury beetroot mousse.
The steak is cooked how you like it, with the freshly-melted butter seeping into its crevices and creating a very tender and luxurious mouthfeel in each bite. That is cut well with the freshness of the beet mousse which also features mint in it.
The beet flavour is very prevalent in not only this dish but a lot of other ones too. In the winter months, it adds a nice, warm touch to the dish which makes the customer feel sated. The way Dulaj plays around with it and uses the freshness of the mint and even the texture of the mousse to balance it out is a very clever technique.
Rounding out the steak is the port wine reduction, the sweetness of it adds a different layer and takes the dish's complexity up another notch.
One of the most eye-catching dishes served at Clandestino, the Black Stone is an extravagant lobster dish that showcases a myriad of techniques and textures. It's essentially a lobster croquette sitting on top of a bright and spicy beet sauce with an airy white wine and lobster broth foam cascading down its side and trout roe crowning the dish.
The croquette is filled with a mix of lobster meat and saffron-infused, long-grain risotto rice. The ashen characteristics of the black stone are provided by breadcrumbs mixed in with activated charcoal. The insides feel very rich and have a floral, herby and briny taste. The addition of the saffron pairs well with the lobster meat. Texture-wise, the insides are almost creamy which is offset well by the crispy shell of the croquette.
The sweet, delicate flavours are balanced out by the strong, spicy beet sauce. The foam adds two things to the entire production: one being the visual aspect, where it looks very appealing and alluring, drawing the patrons in and making them want to instantly dig in. Secondly, it elevates the dish by adding that cloud-like texture and the dry-sweet taste of the white wine. Pair that with the beet sauce and the two components work hand-in-hand to even out the unctuous flavours of the croquette.
One of the premium products offered at the restaurant, the Hokkaido Scallops dish has a clean presentation and all the ingredients work together to make the scallops sing. And boy, do they. The scallops are one of Japan's pride, where they are very particular about their products and focus on quality rather than quantity. Dulaj and Clandestino follow the same mindset.
The beautifully seared scallops sit on a bed of wilted seaweed salad accompanied by a refreshing yuzu and mint sauce and an earthy burnt onion sauce. It is clear that Dulaj loves his iSi canister and uses it wherever possible, because this dish features a scallop foam and is topped off with Italian caviar.
The dish in itself is an homage to the ocean and the gifts it leaves us. The scallops are briny and you can almost taste the far-east waters they grew in. The seaweed salad, mixed with yuzu juice and soy adds some great texture to the dish and complements the briny characteristics with its freshness and umami flavours. The two sauces seem to offset each other as well, with the freshness of the yuzu and mint cutting through the deep, ashen, earthiness of the burnt onion concoction. The caviar on top is the crowning glory which continues the theme of luxury that is so forthcoming in this dish.
Moving to the sweeter side of the menu, we encounter the chocolate soufflé. Plated like a Jackson Pollock masterpiece, the dish consists of soufflé, stewed cherries, a Ladyfinger, cream dulce, molasses cream and chocolate cream. Generously dusted all over the dish is cocoa powder, which sort of brings it all together.
The souffle is soft, warm and rich in chocolate. Before your taste buds get bored of the sweet chocolate, in comes the acidity of the stewed cherries to reinvigorate your palate. The rich flavour of the molasses cream is similarly rounded off by the chocolate and sweet cream. The airiness of the trio is counterbalanced by the crunchy Ladyfinger, which adds a little tooth to an otherwise soft and smooth dessert.
As is the case with everything served at Clandestino, it's a beautifully-balanced plate of food. The chocolate isn't cloyingly sweet and it's not overwhelmingly soft. The palate is refreshed after this dish and you can go on about your life after ending the meal with this rather than just plopping down on the couch because of how heavy you feel.
No meal is truly complete at an Italian or Italian-adjacent restaurant without an affogato rounding up the night. A simple mixture of homemade ice cream with espresso poured over, the dish is served with another Ladyfinger and the same molasses cream to give the perfect send-off.
It's light, airy, highly delicious and overall acts as the perfect palate cleanser after a decadent meal full of premium ingredients and an explosion of flavours.
With a name like Clandestino Wine Bar, it would be remiss of Dulaj to not have a sizable drinks menu. While wine is in the name, he also pays a lot of attention to the cocktails that he has on the menu and tries to be as creative with them as well, just like his food.
The smoked Old Fashioned probably gets the most attention from the crowd. The literal original cocktail, Dulaj makes it in the traditional way: whiskey, simple syrup and bitters. The next part is what takes the seemingly simple cocktail to the next level. He introduces smoke to the drink through a smoking gun. Using a smoking gun directly on top of the glass, he incorporates applewood chips into the drink giving it a very robust nose as well as flavour profile.
The smoke is trapped inside the glass by a lid and is revealed at the table, making for a dramatic reveal as it cascades down, adding to the dining experience of the customer. Keeping it trapped in the glass for an extended period also helps impart as much flavour as possible into the drink, so that one can still feel it long after the clouds have dissipated.
The other signature cocktail that Dulaj describes as a "hit or miss" is the Vodka Fizz — or Vodka Borscht, as some people like to call it. As is the theme with a lot of his food, this drink also incorporates — you guessed it — macerated beet juice. Other ingredients include vodka, warm spices and honey.
As we have established before, Dulaj loves playing around with foams and other molecular gastronomy techniques. This drink is no different. The vodka fizz is served tableside through a SodaStream. The mix is loaded into the container and is then carbonated through the machine and served to people. That bright reddish-pink hue surely catches one's eye.
Outside of these two cocktails, Clandestino does a lot of other special ones. The restaurant also does barrel-aged Manhattans and Negronis where they age the cocktails for 90 days before serving.
Coming to the eponymous wines at this wine bar, Clandestino serves 14 by the glass, which is quite a hefty amount given the size of the place. Dulaj always loves going around and talking to people, giving them pairing suggestions whenever he can about which wines might go well with the food they order. Even though having so many wines is not the most fiscally responsible for the business, Dulaj wants to continue keeping it this way.
"I think it hurts the business, having so many wines by the glass. But we want to stay closer to the definition," he said. "When we started, the idea was to be more of a wine bar than we are now more of a restaurant. But as we moved along, we changed. That's why we have so many wines by the glass."
As for curating the selection, Dulaj wanted to bring in wines that match the menu, can go well with many of the offerings and also represent every palate.
"Wines for people who want to have something more exclusive, and there's wines for people who just enjoy wine," Dulaj said. "I always say there's no bad wine. It's only great or greater wines."
There have been many challenges along the way for Dulaj while setting up his new home in the Queen West neighbourhood. From working to strip down a sports bar of a bygone era while retaining the character of the 100-year-old building to the pandemic and even the winter storm from this past Christmas, he has faced a lot. But having this place makes it all worth it.
"My favourite thing is that we do everything ourselves. I got my hands on every little thing," he said. "So this is a family place, right? My wife is here too. So this is like, our baby. It's like the third child for us."
Dulaj hopes that every customer that walks into his place walks out with a full stomach, a happy heart and a mind full of memories. The way he has curated the spot to make it a cozy, warm and inviting place, there's no doubt that that is exactly what the patrons take back with them.
As for the future, he plans on making small adjustments to the decor: adding some side tables, some old-fashioned elements that no one does anymore. Once he's ready, he also wants to slowly build up a strong staff.
When it comes to the menu, he wishes to bring back some dying classics, but he is in no rush as he believes that his current menu is pretty rock-solid as well.
"We'll bring them back without stumbling, without shooting ourselves," he said. "For now, I think our menu is pretty good. It's very intense."
While all of that is in the uncertain future, one thing is for certain — Clandestino is going nowhere anytime soon.
"For now, we're here. We're just going to try to do the best we can."