It can often feel difficult replicating the food and atmosphere of tropical locales in Toronto, especially in the dead of winter when snow is falling in thick white sheets and frigid winds are howling outside. An exception to this rule is the Jamaican-inspired Chubby's in the King West neighbourhood where you step inside a 1890's row house and get transported to an island resort instead. What a way to spend a cold winter evening when everyone else is bundled up and shivering on the street.
Atmosphere and Decor
The owner of this new establishment, Janet Zuccarini, may seem like a familiar Toronto name, and that's because she is as she's also the owner of the much-buzzed Gusto 101 which is conveniently located right across the street on Portland. She considers her restaurant a celebration of Jamaica from her vacations to the island nation. Joining her in this endeavour are executive chef Elio Zannoni, development lead Angela Lawrence, and chef de cuisine and Jamaican-born Donavon Campbell who brings heat, flavour, and zest to what could have easily ended up yet another jerk place in Toronto. So, if the winter blues have got you feeling a bit down, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better place to pick your mood—and tastebuds—up without hopping on a plane to an all-inclusive in the Caribbean.
There's something particularly special about these old houses-turned-eateries in Toronto. Not only do you feel like maybe you've stumbled across a secret or are visiting a long-lost friend, but it immediately brings about a sense of comfort that many restaurants lack. The building is fairly nondescript with nothing but a whitewash and a small neon pink sign above the door. But as soon as you pull the door open, you'll see a whole different world. 2 storeys of resort-style, laid-back tropical decor have been designed in a way that avoids the kitschy tackiness that themed restaurants so often fall back on. This is an upscale getaway, not a 2-star Caribbean-themed student party. Alternately, decor can often swing too far the other way into pretentiousness but Chubby's is cool without being too hipster.
Lighting is perfect, the colours pleasing and calm without being boring, and everything from the furniture to the live plants gives off a feeling of being close to a beach with a turquoise ocean, even if the closest body of water is 2 kilometres south and it's Lake Ontario instead. On a busy night, you may feel particularly cosy with your neighbours as the tables tend to be quite close to each other but otherwise, it's airy and relaxing. The music, even though it may be a bit loud at times, fit the mood perfectly with a mix of reggae, hip hop, and old school jams.
It's pretty obvious from the get-go what you're likely to find on Chubby's menu, but some dishes may surprise you. It's a short menu but it's precise, well-thought-out, and amazingly cohesive. It offers the usual favourites and includes more home-style and traditional cooking, alongside adventures into more modern takes on Jamaican cuisine. All at pretty affordable prices.
"Likkle Bites" starts off the appetizers with 7 choices to whet your palate ranging from $6 for spicy jerk plantain and taro chips to $15 for akee & lentil dip with chips. Filling out the rest of the section are familiar offerings such as saltfish fritters for $12, mini-patties, pepper shrimp, ackee and saltfish bites, and jerk wings.
Next comes "Big it up" featuring both home style and new style main dishes. Again we have 7 choices, with the 4 home-style options coming up as familiar menu items from many authentically Jamaican spots in Scarborough or Eglinton West including curry goat, oxtail stew, curry chicken, and veggie stew. All of these range from $15 to $17. If you're ready to spend a little bit more and get a little more adventurous (or less depending on your experiences), the new style section has you covered. There's the ubiquitous Toronto menu offering of a burger, this one beef with jerk seasoning and mango salsa but accompanied by the usual french fries for $16. Grilled shrimp wraps come up next with a very tropical set of accoutrements such as pineapple-jicama salsa and papaya chutney, as well as necessary collard greens, for a very reasonable $18. Interestingly, the shrimp can actually be substituted for jerk tempeh for vegans and vegetarians. Quite a nice touch that generally one wouldn't expect. Finally, for $23, there's an elevated option of coconut-herb-crusted sea bream with escovitch vegetables.
There are only two salads on offer but both sound flavourful and fresh. Kale and pomegranate with squash, almonds, and goat cheese goes for $14 while the watercress & papaya salad is even cheaper at $12. As a bonus, jerk chicken can be added for an extra $7 or shrimp skewers for $8 to round out the protein.
When most non-Jamaicans think of the cuisine, it's all patties and jerk chicken. So, to find a small offering of jerk does not go amiss here. Chicken is available as a quarter, half or whole bird for $14, $18, and $31 respectively. There's also the jerk pork option for $16 per half a pound of buckeye and belly with sauteed greens. For seafood lovers, grilled shrimp skewers also will cost you $16 and come with slaw.
While many restaurants don't take their sides too seriously, Chubby's has a very solid list and it offers many things that aren't part of main dishes and all of them fall between $5 and $7 each. Obviously, no Caribbean restaurant would be complete without rice and peas ($6.50), but for the slightly more hipster of us, there's also quinoa and peas for the same price. Rice, slaw, greens, and fried plantains also feature here but of special note are yammings ($7), fried okra ($5), jerk tempeh ($6) and festival—a dumpling ($5).
The "Sweet tings" or desserts round off the menu, with 4 varied options to soothe a sweet tooth after all the spice. Every dessert is only $9. Rum raisin bread pudding with vanilla gelato is the first choice followed then by carrot sponge cake with coconut meringue, passion fruit coconut creme pie with toasted coconut, and Better Than Sundae which is built from coconut ice cream, rum caramel, banana cake, candied nuts and sugar cone tuile.
As I was there for an early dinner, I decided to start slowly with the spicy jerk chips as they featured one of my major weaknesses: plantain. It was quite a large bowl of chips, which was a bit surprising (although I have been to other Caribbean places where such things are free on the table, like bread at Italian & French eateries). They were tasty with just a twinge of jerk seasoning.
To accompany the very crunchy chips, I was handed the hot sauce selection which consists of a "hot" and not quite so hot option. The orange scotch bonnet sauce is considered the visitor favourite and the yellow is more mango-based. Whilst I can handle a fair amount of heat, I find having a hot sauce that sets my mouth on fire is not all that makes a good hot sauce since the flavour is just as important as pain. Now, everyone experiences spice and heat differently and what may be very hot to one could be mild to another. Neither of these sauces is nearly as hot as could be but I wouldn't assume most patrons are coming here for sauces with a Scoville score of 3 million. So, with that said, they had a pleasant enough flavour without overwhelming anyone's palate with burning. If you are looking to fry your taste buds, you'd better bring your own Naga chillies from home.
While there is a nice selection of hot plates to choose from, I've recently enjoyed goat curry and oxtail from other places and felt like going healthy. Okay, healthier. The server suggested the watercress and papaya salad which was funny since it was also on my shortlist and I opted to add the jerk chicken because I wasn't sure how I could judge a Jamaican-inspired restaurant without sampling the jerk flavours. It turns out I got the best of both worlds and made my decision that much easier.
The salad was fairly large and loaded with papaya and watercress, as the name would suggest. The greens were a bit wilted but retained enough flavour to make that less noticeable, especially when combined with the delicious avocado puree that held the salad together. Crunch was found instead in the generous helping of pimento-roasted cashews. There was a nice, subtle flavour to the dressing but overall, it was a salad. A satisfying one but not something I would consider ground-breaking or shocking. The papaya was juicy and added a pleasing burst of sweetness against the creaminess of avocado and very, very slight bitterness of watercress.
Then there was the jerk chicken. Unlike some chicken places, a quarter of chicken here consists of a piece of breast, a leg, and a piece of the back. It was nice to have the ability to munch on different parts instead of just back or just leg. The chicken itself wasn't large which made me think that perhaps they are using non-hormone meat but I can't be sure, of course. Wishful thinking, maybe. But more importantly perhaps is the way the meat was cooked and seasoned. Both aspects were done to perfection. The chicken was moist yet nice and hot, with just that thin, thin crust of charred spice slathered over it. Again, here is it not about the spiciness of the seasoning but the overall balance of flavours and Chubby's jerk chicken is popular for a reason. There's a smokiness, and twinge of sweetness, mixed with the peppery fundamentals of what makes jerk just so unique. And the flavour is not limited to the skin but seems to have soaked into the juicy meat itself. It's a pleasure to have jerk chicken that isn't dry as sandpaper.
I had initially wanted to try the fried plantains but Chubby's will not serve unripe plantain so they were off the menu for the night. Instead my server very helpfully suggested the fried okra as a side. Now, I'm the first one to admit okra is not my favourite vegetable. Often I find it slimy, bland, and insipid no matter how it's cooked. But this okra? It was a whole new world! Small okra pods fried to perfect crispness and slathered in a smooth, delectable banana gastrique that I'd also never had before. Divine would be an understatement. After this, okra may have just jumped to the top of my favourite vegetables if cooked like this.
I'd taken my server's advice for the whole meal already so when he suggested that the rum raisin bread pudding would be the best way to end the meal, I went with it. He hadn't steered me wrong before. The small tower of bread cubes appeared not long after with a sizable dollop of vanilla gelato drizzled with a sweet rum caramel sauce. Bread pudding was another food I'd never tried previously simply because it always looked so sad and soggy in England. This was thick and heavy sweet bread, with a great crust on the top. There was nothing soggy about it but it melted in my mouth all the same.
Alcoholic drinks at Chubby's are obviously centred around one of the island's most well-known exports: rum. This isn't to say that they don't have other options but if you don't like rum, you're going to miss out on some of the best cocktails on offer. From names such as Everything Nice, Nana's Love, Kingston 10, and Buffalo Soldier, you can see the theme of the signature cocktails. 3 out of the 6 contain rum, with gin, tequila, or bourbon cocktails rounding out the rest. The majority are $12.50 for 2oz, but the Kalabash Bay will run you $21—the bonus being that it's 3oz and served in a pineapple. On tap, they've got their own rum punch for $13 and Jamaican Ginger Beer for $7. Then, of course, there are cocktails for the more traditionally-minded patrons including Caribbean-inspired mojito, mules, gin, and a rum old-fashioned —all for between $11 and $15.50.
I went with the first choice on the list: Everything Nice. With a name like that, I suspected it would be hard to dislike. And I was right! Apparently, it's the most popular of the signature cocktails and with good reason. It mixes Appleton signature rum with Aperol, mango juice, lemon, tamarind and the subtle but necessary star: scotch bonnet. It may seem a bit odd to add hot pepper to what is meant to be a refreshing libation but somehow, the drink works incredibly well, even when using it to diffuse some of the heat from the food. The scotch bonnet is not immediately noticeable when you sip but it sneaks up on you after a few moments and the spice with the sweet and sour of the rest of the drink and makes for a surprisingly robust flavour explosion.
But what's unique to the bar selection is their "Rum bar" claiming to serve seven of the world's best rums from Jamaica, Guyana, Nicaragua, St. Lucia, and Florida. Each 1.5oz will cost between $8 to $19 so if you have an itch for some serious rum-tasting along with your food, this is the place.
Of course, the restaurant also has a small selection of white, red, and sparkling wines from France, Italy, California, and Spain. And there's also the beer list which is fairly predictable for a Toronto eatery including 2 craft beers (for $7 and $8), Red Stripe, Heineken, and Guinness (for $6 a pint). There are also teas and coffees for something warmer and a delicious selection of "Cool Runnings" or fruit juices. I opted to try the sorrel punch and was not disappointed, especially as it came with a biodegradable paper straw which is a nice touch that you don't see often enough. It paired very well with the jerk chicken.
From the moment I walked in, the staff were amazing. You're greeted at the door by a friendly, happy hostess who has a relaxed charm that can put anyone at ease. There is a casual vibe that never borders on neglectful like it does at some other King West venues.
Table service was prompt, even quicker than expected really and I was never left waiting and wondering where my meal was. Everything came out hot or cold as it needed to be. I was very pleased with my server, PJ, who not only knew the menu like he eats it for every meal, but was personable, talkative, and seemed genuine in his interest about my experience. While not everyone would be down to chat as much as me, he can read a table and adjust as necessary. I found his knowledge of the menu and his sheer enthusiasm for his picks to be contagious almost. By the end of the meal, I knew that I could trust him to tell me exactly what a dish was like and whether I'd like it or not. It's always beneficial to have servers so enthused about the food they serve. Someone please get PJ a whole pan of the rum raisin bread pudding for his birthday! It's all he's asking for.
To say I was bursting would be an understatement but I had to soak up every bite of bread pudding before I left. It seemed a crime to leave any behind. But with my doggy packed from the meal and ready to go, I walked out with a smile on my face and round belly. It's possible I actually rolled out through the door and into the freezing cold Toronto night. It was almost like the feeling stepping off a plane from a tropical midwinter destination and back into reality. The food was filling, and satisfying and I remained so for many hours after.
Now, I've heard some unhappy rumbles about the inauthenticity of this restaurant, especially in terms of cultural appropriation and the "hipsterization" of King West which is an issue that should be mentioned but overall, I found the flavours in the food to be worth the visit and the price, and the atmosphere itself just felt very friendly and relaxed. That's a very hard balance to achieve successfully. Not to mention I found the menu to be surprisingly cohesive as it all seemed to flow together, and although I didn't try every item, I'd assume it doesn't matter what combination you build, it'll be a smooth transition from dish to dish. Am I an expert on Jamaican cuisine? Not at all. But as someone who enjoys the flavours, comfort, and chill I feel that Chubby's hits the nail on the head for something different and welcome in the neighbourhood.