Quetzal (“ket-zal”) is one of the latest restaurants to nest up in Little Italy and it comes from some familiar Toronto faces. Owned and operated by Kate Chomyshyn, Julio Guajardo, Owen Walker (El Rey) and Grant van Gameren (Bar Isabel, Bar Raval), Quetzal is all about Mexican cuisine and drinks that focus on New World flavours with much of the menu being gluten-free, just by the nature of the dishes.
Quetzal marks Grant van Gameren’s seventh restaurant in the city and third on College Street.
Sitting just past the southeast corner of College and Bathurst, one that houses the likes of Sneaky Dee’s and Nest, Quetzal welcomes with a white-brick exterior and once entering there’s an instant feeling of privacy. You’re greeted by multiple faces yet you feel away from the outside noise thanks to the concave architecture.
After four years of exploring Mexico, throughout multiple regions, Chomyshyn and Guajardo brought back what they loved and went to work. The couple have been cooking together 14 years.
Quetzal comes with a 26-foot-long wood-fired oven where guests can perch from their neighbouring tables and watch a variety of selections being cooked — meats and fish cooked at one end and the other end dedicated to tortillas.
The food is the main seller, but the drinks concocted by Owen Walker aren’t to be missed. Walker, who has been working in kitchens since he was 12, says he takes “a more culinary approach to making drinks” because of this background diving between bar and kitchen, and you can expect Ontario ingredients like spruce tip to make an appearance just as much as key lime.
One of the hands-down highlights was the Tiradito Estilo Baja, which is Baja-style Tiradito: a raw dressed fish rather than a ceviche dressed fish that is topped with a white soy leche. Coated underneath is chili oil droplets which separate the lime juice and then on top, there is an avocado puree and Serrano chili brunoise shallots. This was a major standout visually and our favourite dish of the lot. It was eaten in five minutes.
Pro tip: Have one as is and then try the next by tilting the plate and dredging the juice over top of the fish and you’ll see the colour of the fish change. The colour of the fish will start out bright pink and then after dressing it, it’ll get denser.
“You’re actually ‘ceviching’ it while you’re dressing it so the acid cooks the fish,” says Quetzal’s general manager Matt Kopysh, who counts the dish among his absolute favourite.
When it comes to eating tostadas, there are nine different salsas to dip into and you can get all nine ($25) or many ask for the chef’s choice and enjoy three of the selections picked. The Agucate (smooth avocado, serrano) is the most popular according to Chomyshyn. We really dug the Molcajete (grilled tomatillo, chile de arbol) while Chomyshyn’s says she’s a big fan of the Macha (walnut, dried chili), which has chocolate in it. Choices, folks!
The tostadas are dried not fried, undergoing the process of nixtamalization (the process by which corn is rested in an alkaline substance).
“We mix and grind all of the corn here for our masa,” says Chomyshyn. “Every night we boil the corn with calcium hydroxide, it soaks overnight, we rinse it and then pass it through the grinder.”
“We encourage people to take the salsa and add it to their meats…so order some steak, some salsa, some tortillas and make a taco,” she adds.
Masa is a must at Quetzal. So is the fresh fish, ceviche, salsa, and moles.
The staff is fun, stylish and serious about the food — you really get that sense of concentration but also chill. When asked who Walker and Kopysh would love to see come through doors, they two collectively named Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Attenborough (“so he could narrate everything happening in the restaurant”), Anthony Bourdain (if he was still among us) and Valentino Rossi.
And when you check out Quetzal, make sure to let Owen know that John Goodman is in fact still alive.
If you’re looking for a go-to healthy and satisfying filler, try the Mollejas (Sweetbreads), pictured on the plate above.
Order this: Mollejas – estofado almendrado, olive, caper, jalapeño, sesame seed
Quetzal, is located at 419 College St. in Toronto.