Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 538 Queen Street West
Type of Meal: Dinner
After two failed attempts to visit Rock Lobster’s Ossington location, I finally secured a table in the Queen West outpost without being subjected to a wait. Despite being double the size of the flagship restaurant, the Queen West site is still relatively small; its only saving grace is the patio at the back which will be of no use in the winter months. As soon as you walk in a “Fish Market” is set-up consisting of a small display case of on ice seafood items for you to take home and enjoy at your leisure. But really, you don’t come here for take-out.
Patriotic Canadian themed insignia adorn the walls of the dining room (think caribou antlers, paintings of fish,etc.) and continue onto the patio with the back wall featuring a beaver and large Canada lettering. I love it and hope a tourist visiting Toronto has the opportunity to visit this little spot and enjoy a bit of what our sea has to offer.
The staff cheerfully greets me at the door and within minutes of entering grab my drink order - at last I’m here! If only they could turn down the music to a decibel so I don’t need to shout across the table at my friends the experience would be perfect.
Without a doubt, Rock Lobster’s feature drink would be their Caesar; however it’s the one Canadian concoction I haven’t acquired a taste for despite trying it on multiple occasions. Instead, the hot summer evening calls for a tomba-grantia ($10) which arrives looking like a margarita with an ice burg floating in it. While ordering, I was asked if I’d like to add a $1 to make it “El Diablo” which makes it sweeter. I can safely say that is not required as my non-El Diablo version was sweet enough. After chipping away at the huge ball of crushed ice to let some of it melt, the cocktail diluted enough to make it refreshing. I can’t say it was something I really enjoyed so on return visits may opt to go with the $1.50/oz on tap pinot grigio instead.
The lobster devilled eggs ($7) arrived within minutes of placing our order. Surprisingly, the egg whites were a light rose pink coloured (from food dye?) which was unexpected, but gave Rock Lobster’s version of these come-back treats its distinct look. The egg yolk filling was creamy, smoky and just had the slightest essence of shellfish to it. Each egg was topped with a small piece of lobster - a good start and promise of things to come.
We had to try their famous lobster roll ($14; the only dish on the menu with an anchor beside it). The hot dog style bun was toasted grilled cheese style and filled with a decent amount of lobster salad. Sadly, this was my least favourite dish of the night. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t horrible and would still be considered a good meal. It’s something about the thick buttery bun, mayo and undrained oily chips that made it all too heavy and ruins the lobster itself. Given this is my first experience having a lobster roll; perhaps my palette just doesn’t like it. Until I have the opportunity to eat one of these in Nova Scotia I’ll reserve judgment.
On the other hand, the fish and chips ($12) was amazing. Normally, this isn’t something I’d order as oily bursts oozing out of thick batter is not my thing. Luckily, Rock Lobster’s Guinness beer batter is thin so that it coats the fish with a light crunch but still lets the haddock and its juiciness shine through. When fish is fresh like this you shouldn’t ruin it by covering it with too much stuff. The hot hand-cut fries and tangy & creamy home-made tartar sauce rounds everything off.
Finally, the Mack daddy of the night, the reason why I was so excited to visit – the Steam Whistle steampot ($39) arrives. The large black pot brings back memories of an East Coast road trip I went on with my parents as a young child. Although I don’t remember much about the provinces themselves, a self-made hotel meal will forever be ingrained in my memory. Having arrived in PEI by about 8pm that night, we found the restaurants in the area were already closed (keep in mind this was over 20 years ago so I’m sure service levels have improved by now).
Not knowing what to do, my parents spoke to the front desk who suggested we go visit the docks or try out the convenience store across the street. My parents do exactly that and at the docks are greeted by some fisherman and purchased some lobsters right out of their traps that just came from the sea. At the convenience store, they picked up butter, bread and some vegetable (perhaps corn?) and returned to our hotel which luckily had a stove complete with pots, dishes and cutlery. The lobsters were AMAZING and something I’ve never been able to have again. The meat, so tender and juicy, was actually larger than the shell and burst through everything. Having just been pulled out of the ocean, the briny scent of the sea still clung to the meat naturally adding some saltiness to the otherwise sweet meat. I may have been young but I still remember this meal, probably one of the tastiest I’ve had in my life. Alas, I digress, but wanted to explain why I love pots of shellfish so much!
The steampot we ordered this night didn’t contain lobster (much less one pulled right out of the ocean) but did have a 1lb of snow crab legs, 12 large sized shrimp and ½ lb each of mussels and clams. Not to mention four pieces of corn, a couple handfuls of quartered baby red potatos and wedges of spicy sausage. This is a dish that is meant to be shared – especially with good friends where you’re not afraid of using your hands and getting dirty.
Its flavours are simple, some Old Bay seasoning, slight spiciness from the sausage and a hint of the Steam Whistle Pilsner. But, the shells from the crustaceans already give off such a great aroma and flavour that I like it when it’s kept simple. All the seafood was fresh and cooked well. What would have made everything perfect (and perhaps elevated Rock Lobster’s final mark to a 9) would be to have some of the cooking liquid and toasted bread to dip it in. Of course, the steampot is “steamed” so makes sense that the ingredients arrive without any water; so, next time I’ll have to try the lobster boil instead and hope for some liquid.
Rock Lobster definitely has potential to become one of my favourite restaurants in Toronto with its seafood focus and down-to-earth approach. They offer decent portions of fresh seafood at a reasonable price. So grab a few friends and head down for the steampot or boil dishes, just arrive early to avoid having to wait.
Overall mark - 8.5 out of 10
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Gastro World's Grading System
- Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
- 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
- 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
- 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
- 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
- 10 - absolute perfection!