Speakeasy 21 takes risks in the kitchen, and misses the mark

The all-purpose restaurant scores points for originality, but fails to deliver the goods
The all-purpose restaurant scores points for originality, but fails to deliver the goods

Speakeasy 21
21 Adelaide St. | 416.601.0210 | speakeasy21.com

Speakeasy 21 is the newest “fare and libations” emporium to open in the downtown core. And like many recent arrivals, it hopes to attract both suit-wearing office-tower pencil pushers and skinny-jean-clad condo-dwellers. Whether it can be all things to all people remains to be seen.

But, at the very least, Speakeasy 21 does one thing well: it puts the weird stacked granite terraces at the Adelaide Street entrance to good use. The formerly dead granite blocks have been turned into multi-level patios for the downtown masses. It’s a smart move that opens up the space. (Still, I feel a bit sorry for the waitstaff who hop from level to level, in close kinship with the Mario Bros.).

Another plus is that patio is tucked under the canopy of Scotia Plaza, making it a good outdoor choice on days when it just might rain (for instance, pretty much every day this summer).

Sadly, the experience goes downhill from there. The proprietors have seen fit to feature live music on Tuesday evenings — something I would ordinarily commend as departure from the uniform same-same of most downtown eateries. But when the band showed up with bongos, I knew we were in trouble. The musicians may have been talented, but with the din of Adelaide traffic and the cacophony of the construction across the street, the bongos didn’t stand a chance. My dining partner and I fled inside, only to discover the music blasting inside, too. So, not a good choice for after work drinks where the goal is to talk shop.

The menu is geared to shareable plates and it boasts good variety — spot-on for the crowd it attracts. We order the potato and cheddar pierogies with sour cream, caramelized onion and dill ($12). An underwhelming beige landscape arrives: the pierogies are soggy and oversalted, and the caramelized onions are sodden strings. There’s a crunchy topping sprinkled over the sour cream. “Are these…crushed sour cream and onion potato chips?” Our server confirms.

We order two tacos as well. I opt for the bulgogi with mushrooms, kimchi and apple ($6) and my dining companion tries the Baja fish with guacamole, mango and crema ($6). The kitchen redeems itself on these items. The bulgogi and kimchi taco is particularly good. 

We move on, ordering the popcorn chicken ($12). When it arrives, we dig in. After two bites, my dining companion has an epiphany, exclaiming, “Ooooh, it’s not popcorn chicken. Its popcorn chicken!” I look closely at the dish. He’s right. The crispy crust on the chicken actually has bits of popcorn in it. It’s unusual, and it works, though once again the food suffers from an excess of salt.

Then, we try the butter chicken balls ($14) and the paneer samosas ($3 each). I live near Little India so I know my way around butter chicken and I’m sceptical that Speakeasy 21 will deliver on that level. What arrives is tasty, but it’s ordinary and tastes off-the rack. The samosas are more interesting, long and skinny instead of the traditional pyramid. Paneer is an unusual choice for a samosa, but the soft cheese, crispy wrap and mango chutney are a pleasing combination of flavour and texture.

What Speakeasy 21 lacks in standout cuisine, however, it makes up for in drinks, particularly the selection of shaken mason jar drinks. And let’s face it: you’re likely to come to here for the drinks. We work our way through three of the mason jars (the lavender lemonada, the caipirinha, the marquee) and they’re all outstanding combinations — well put together and unique in their mixtures of flavours.  

Speakeasy 21 is still trying to find its feet, something I would have expected it would have done in the four months it’s been open. Still, perhaps it’s a late bloomer. And I give the kitchen credit for bringing more interesting fare to the downtown core. Props, too, for offering live music and innovative specials and genuinely trying to be something different. Unfortunately, it falls apart in the kitchen. If the kitchen can hit its stride, Speakeasy 21 could be a changemaker in the otherwise ordinary downtown restaurant scene.

Speakeasy 21

Judge Foodie’s verdict

Highs: shaken mason jar cocktails, innovative menu
Lows: food is inconsistent and often salty; noise

Kirsten Thompson is a Toronto-based research lawyer and commercial litigator. Since her call to the bar in 2000, she estimates that her restaurant to courtroom ratio has been approximately 14:1. Thoughts? Comments? Ideas for a review? Email her. Follow Judge Foodie on Twitter: @Judge_Foodie