Just off the beaten King Street path, SARA sits in a subdued Victorian home on Portland. Their 4 letter sign is almost camouflaged against the awning, making double-takes and the checking of maps a pre-requisite to walking inside.
When first walking into SARA, you’re washed with a sense of calm. The cool, pastel blues and pinks echo the look and feel of the inside of a seashell; delicate, artful, and naturally beautiful. There is no wall art to divert your attention – just a streamlined, clean design conceptualized by the agency, MiiM, and executed by rising agency, ODAMI. Spill-proof tables have built-in cubbies to tuck cellphones to sleep mode for a distraction-free dining experience, to truly enjoy the space, your company and your food in peace.
I make my way to the bar, where I meet cocktail connoisseur (and SARA’s bar manager) Erik Coomber. He walks me through the elegant vodka and gin-based cocktail list, lined with custom creations that have zero-additives, low-sugar served with a unique, muddling straw to enhance your beverage with flavours. I order a Natsu cocktail, which translates to ‘Summer’ in Japanese. Made with Legend Of Kremlin vodka, fresh raspberries, apples, ginger and lime, it’s a refreshing taste of warmer days. I’m enticed to try out their detailed martini menu, but choose to save the experience for another day.
Co-owner Adrian Niman and I tuck into a rounded back booth. His business partners, Brent McClenahan [co-founder, creative director] and Adam Minster [restaurant partner, general manager Rasa and SARA], are no doubt off oiling the rest of the “Food Dudes” empire. He orders out a couple dishes to our table but leaves them a surprise. I’m a big fan of his different restaurant ventures from rough-around-the-edges Rasa, their kick-ass catering biz or the ever-so-efficient gourmet stockpile, Pantry. The big question on my mind is why SARA, why now? And why create something so vastly different than his other ventures?
“SARA has been on my mind for the last 18 to 24 months. It’s very close to our hearts. While Rasa was our flagship restaurant, it was time to open a sister restaurant. It was time for growth. We wanted to do something very different than the experience we’re offering at Rasa, not just with the food but with the design and layout of the space. You go to Rasa and it’s this hole-in-the-wall, flagship space with an open kitchen. What you see is what you get. You come to SARA and it’s a Victorian style, two-story house with marble tables, elegant couches and servers. Here, they all wear custom Mary Young uniforms where at Rasa they can wear whatever they want. I think our design team and us as operators wanted to open a sister restaurant to Rasa, but if you look at most siblings, they’re very different in the way they like things done. In the way they enjoy life, the way they enjoy food and the way they enjoy and explore themselves in numerous ways. We really want to create that Ying and Yang effect between the two restaurants; SARA had to be different. It had to be elevated and we wanted to show some sophistication in what we’ve been able to learn and experience the last five years. We wanted to show growth, we want to show refinement and I think we’ve been able to accomplish that with this space.”
Adrian doesn’t hesitate to credit his staff and customers for the ideation of SARA saying, “Your staff and clientele will tell you when it’s time to grow. We’ve built such a great team in the back of house and front of house at Rasa that if we didn’t grow and evolve and open up a new place, there was only a matter of time before someone would have to move on. Chef Mary, for example, was ready for a head chef role. Graham Gib, our sous chef, was ready for a sous chef role. I had a meeting with Mary before we even discussed the possibility of opening another place where we discussed her future with the restaurant. We found a great talent in Davin Shearer, our executive chef at SARA and Rasa. Unless he leaves the restaurant, there’s no way to move up that chain of command. So us as owners and operators had to make a decision. ‘Is there something else that we haven’t done, that we want to do?’ I think we were able to achieve what we wanted with this SARA, we created something different for our clientele and allow our staff a chance to grow and flourish.”
As if on cue, the first dish arrives. A vegan chopped salad with a mix of leafy kale, cabbage, fennel, celery, fresh mint, thai basil, and crisp champagne grapes. The plate is garnished with a cashew pablano cheese, roasted cashews and wasabi peas, giving the perfect texture to each green bite. Though SARA might have a Japanese influence, it also manages to offer a well-rounded representation of various cultures and tastes. The next plate that arrives is classicly Canadian favourite, luxuriously elevated with fine ingredients – a Reuben with tender shaved wagyu beef, caraway sauerkraut and melted gruyere cheese on an expertly toasted house-made bread with truffle mustard. The third plate playfully reinvents a Japanese staple of shrimp tempura into a fluffy, crunchy, pillowy delight served with umami sauce, pickled ginger, and shio kombu. The dish is finished with a spritz of Sudachi – a Japanese citrus fruit – which Adrian takes the liberty of adding.
When I ask Adrian how he and his team created SARA’s tailored menu he revealed that “All my ideas and focus, and Mary’s and Graham’s and Davin’s and everyone’s focus was to launch 24 amazing dishes that are going to be under public scrutiny. Food is subjective in that it’s rated and critiqued different ways. It’s part of why I love what I do because you can never perfect food. You can never perfect the restaurant experience, but you can strive to create an amazing dining experience. And at the end of the day, you hope that your palate and the product you’re putting forward is one that inspires people and at the end of the day it’s tasty.”
“I wrote the first draft of SARA more than a year ago and it literally just kicked in January. Chef Mary and I went to San Francisco early February and we ate a few places there. On the flight home, it just clicked. I knew what SARA was going to be. I wrote out the first menu. I really set it up with a focus on small dishes, dumplings, charcoal grilled Robata and sweets. Our executive chef, Davin, really helped out with the creation and selection process of this menu. This menu was challenging because we literally took 50 amazing dishes and brought them down to the final list. Literally, our noodle dish is my favourite noodle dish. The rice is my favourite rice. It’s the best iteration of the Vegan chopped salad. It’s hard for me when people come in and say, ‘Can you tell Adrian to order for us?’ It’s very difficult for me. It’s hard for me to pick favourites. This menu of 24 items, these are our favourites. I think that’s the best way to say it.”
Given SARA’s easy acceptance into the Toronto restaurant scene, Adrian is quick to note that he won’t be forgetting about his other business ventures nothing, “I still have plans for Rasa. We’re not going to stop pushing the envelope there. Sometimes you move on to the next place and forget about what’s made you successful. We’re really going to focus on elevating last time and continually trying to elevate SARA and Rasa. This is a brother, sister, restaurant love story.”
SARA, though fresh into the city’s food scene, is not rookie’s restaurant. Refined, elegant and elevated – dining at SARA is a meal you have to have – and soon. To book a reservation, visit their website here.