As a teenager, I used to bus downtown from school to see my mom at her gift shop. Sometimes I would stay and help her out at the store, and, other times, I would venture off through the pedway to walk around City Centre mall or poke through the merchandise at Holt Renfrew. I’d act all adult in this high end boutique (I call it that because, let’s face it, it’s nowhere near as good as the ones to be found across the rest of Canada), even though I was far from it.
When I graduated from university and I got my first real job as a young adult, I’d do the same thing. The only difference was I was now really more of a grown up. If I wanted to, I could save my earnings and spend it on that hot pink patent leather Louis Vuitton wallet embossed with their LV logo, or whatever was the “hot” item of the day. Of course, I was never one to splurge on big ticket purchases like that, so, alas, Holt Renfrew would need to make money off me some other way.
On my many trips to the store, I paid very little attention to the back corner on the top floor. It never really occurred to me that a restaurant existed there. But, over time, I started to notice that tables were tucked away there, and, eventually, Holt’s Cafe was added to my list of places to try. It has been several years since I started working downtown, and just before the new year is when my friend and I finally made a point of heading there for lunch.
The two of us ventured to the cafe the week after Christmas, so, even though it was significantly quieter in the area, we still made a reservation. Upon arriving, I was surprised at how cute the space is. Decked with simple light-coloured wood grain chairs, tables covered in white cloths, white walls accented with rainbow striped wallpaper and a Christmas tree, it was minimalist chic. What I loved most about the look of the restaurant was the far wall, which consists of floor to ceiling windows that overlook the street-level atrium entrance to the Manulife building, allowing plenty of natural light to bathe the room as well as an opportunity for people watching.
Much of the menu was appealing, and, considering the venue, the prices weren’t as high as I would have expected. The two of us decided we would each order a main and we would split them both. We ended up selecting the pumpkin gnocchi and the squash risotto cakes.
The pumpkin gnocchi was a bit of a surprise in that the number of gnocchi provided for a $16 dish was fairly miniscule. I believe there were a total of 6 or 7 pieces. They were of a decent size, but, ultimately, the dish they came in was about the size of a my hand (and my hands are small). On the plus side, they were deliciously plump. The sage butter provided an additional layer of flavour and the side of greens made it a lighter dish than we anticipated.
Squash risotto cakes sounded like a nice change of pace from a bowl of regular risotto. The round patties were relatively large, sitting atop a huge bed of the same greens that came with the gnocchi. Nicely crisp on the outside, they tasted great having been garnished with a light tomato-based sauce. The salad that accompanied both plates was a good mix of lettuce, carrot and beet (?) peel, cranberries and a lovely smokey flavour from what I believe were thin slices of purple potato that had either been baked or pan fried.
Since we had the time, we also indulged in a couple of desserts. My friend ordered the pomegranate gingerbread cake with salted caramel sauce. I think it was the words “salted caramel” that got to her because she can’t pass up anything that has that ingredient. It was a sweet, rich dessert that at one or two bites was perfect, but I was told was a little too much as a whole. She also noted that she couldn’t really taste the pomegranate, and the ginger flavour wasn’t as prominent as in my choice, which was a ginger pear amaretto cake. While my cake was sugary as well, I would agree with her that it was more subtly so. The amaretto and ginger paired really well together, and the slices of pear that adorned the surface of the dessert added a much needed tartness.
There were only two people on staff at the restaurant that day (not that it was busy), and they both did a good job of attending to all the tables. Food was prepared in a timely fashion – where exactly they fit their kitchen, I don’t know – and we were in and out in just over an hour.
I quite enjoyed our meal. Although, I’d be inclined to try something different on my next visit. Some of their daily specials sounded great, so I’ll have to keep an eye out on those whenever I walk through the building, but most of the other options on the regular menu appealed to me, too.
Overall, Holt’s Cafe feels almost like a secret little oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the work day. Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed; it’s a place to take a much deserved break and recharge yourself for what lies ahead.