Most Unusual Restaurants in Toronto: Sultan's Tent
The Sultan's Tent & Café Moroc stands out uniquely along a strip of Front Street better known for pubs, coffee shops, and shopping. It promises an awakening of the senses thanks to artfully created French-Moroccan cuisine and is, on first look, an exceptionally fun oasis in an otherwise redundant pub and bar scene in the area. Some of the older foodie-inclined Torontonians may recognise it from its previous location in Yorkville where it had been for many, many years before moving to Old Town in the early 2000s.
Situated almost directly across the street from the heavily Instagrammed landmark of the Gooderham Building (aka Toronto's Flatiron building) and Berzcy Park—better known now for its fun dog-themed water fountain—it's a common dinner spot for those attending shows at the Sony Centre or CanStage, both of which are within walking distance. The idea is to provide Toronto with a cuisine that we are lacking in the city: authentic French-Moroccan fare in a luxurious setting harking back to North African royalty. But this culturally diverse restaurant has a twist: Belly dance performances that you can watch during your meal. If you are lucky.
Atmosphere & Décor
The décor and atmosphere is clearly the highlight of this restaurant, and if you are there at the right time, you'll understand just how much atmosphere is possible. Upon walking through the doors off a bustling Front Street, you're greeting with the clean, bistro space of Café Moroc, complete with potted palms and old paintings from Morocco. Following the length of the bar is the entrance to the main event: the Sultan's Tent.
When I arrived, just after opening for the evening, the front area was empty of patrons but dinner seating was in the back section of the restaurant. This half is almost unrecognizable from the front although there is a distinct feeling of walking down a hidden alleyway in Souk Semmarine to find a plush secret spot for the indulgence of your taste buds, complete with Mediterranean greenery, long comfortable divans and pillows of all sizes.
This is clearly a place for groups. The interior of the space is divided into tent-like areas with seating for groups, large and small. At the time of my visit, the entire right-hand side of the restaurant was devoted to a office party of 50 people, all accommodated with plenty of room to lounge. The light fixtures and decor seem as if they have been plucked from markets in Fez and Marrakech. The entire area has a distinctly orange glow to it, exuding a sort of energized relaxation and the music level is perfect.
Sadly, the tables for couples are perhaps the most awkward I've ever sat at. They are located outside the tent areas, basically along the sides of the main corridor. It feels as if they were just added at the last minute. I was seated at one of these floating tables, even though there were tables for 4 in the tents, unused for my 1.5-hour stay. Since I was alone, I was not about to ask for a more cosy table but I felt self-conscious and on display for the entire meal. I was the only person sitting in the corridor as many guests breezed by 2 feet from me as they came and went from the tented seating to the toilets and outside. Unless you enjoy the feeling of being shuffled like an afterthought into a busy hallway whilst everyone else sits comfortably inside, I wouldn't consider this a romantic choice at all.
I'll be the first to admit that I am not particularly familiar with Moroccan food but various other highly tasty Middle Eastern and North African cuisines are available in the city. The menu itself seems to cater exactly to people like me: unfamiliar but curious.
The menu you are provided with is the prix fixe version but ordering a la carte is available as well upon request most days. The prix fixe consists of a 3-course meal for $55, which is what I went with as it hits all the right spots for a rounded dinner. The appetizer menu is large and varied, consisting of almost the same number of 13 dishes as the main course menu, which has 11. There is bound to be something that piques the interest of everyone in your party.
Ranging from hand-held snacks such as briwats, to bastilla (a Moroccan chicken pie), to salads and maftoul, there is something for vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters—but make sure to ask your server first to make sure as nothing is labelled specifically on the menu. The waitstaff are all trained to answer the questions of North African-naive guests. Everything on the list, if ordering a la carte, is between $9 for the briwats up to $19 for the seafood medley, but most offerings hover around $10-$14. If you are ordering the prix fixe, the "premium" items (those $14 and above) incur an extra charge, as do the premium entrée dishes.
The vegetarian offerings for the entrées are much more limited as the list is mainly divided into various tagines and Moroccan-inspired meat dishes. The meat plates mostly consist of beef and lamb dishes of various types, with one Peri Peri chicken and a typical seafood "royale", all ranging in price from $27 for the chicken to $39 for the rack of lamb. Tagine is a Arabic dish named after the earthen-ware pot it is cooked in and The Sultan's Tent has a healthy variety to choose from. There is chicken, fish, beef short rib, chickpea, and vegetable tagine, and all except the market-priced fish sit between $25 and $29.
Desserts are much more limited with all the typical Western restaurant staples of chocolate tart and créme brulée. Luckily there is also the possibility of baklava (for an extra charge if you're on the prix fixe) and keskesu, which is a sweet couscous pudding somewhat akin to the mihallabiya of Egypt or thiacry of West Africa.
Please note that side dishes are not shown on the prix fixe menu but there are a handful of options including saffron rice, couscous, and frites. Hot sauce is an extra $2. And it's important since this is really a group venue, that apparently tip is automatically included for parties of 6 or more. This is not noted on the menu as it is in some restaurants.
With so much to choose from, picking just one starter was difficult. I opted out of the types of things I could easily buy at my local Loblaws, like hummus and pita or crab cakes. But that said, I do enjoy a good couscous dish so I chose the couscous salad. Unfortunately, it did not live up to the hype I had already built up in my head. The complementary radicchio was incredibly bitter, even with the couscous and sweet honey-yoghurt. Part of the problem could be that the couscous itself was incredibly bland. It lacked the typical ingredients of almonds, raisins, onions, chickpeas or apricot. It was just couscous and tiny shavings of bell peppers. It was impossible to taste any lemon, orange zest, or spices at all. The flavour primarily came from the peppers, honey yoghurt, and a tiny dollop of olives. It was, however, a large, healthy helping of food so portion size was nothing to complain about.
I considered one of the lamb dishes as I've heard North African cuisine is known for excellent lamb preparation but for some reason, the chickpea tagine was calling my name, and I love chickpeas. After a very long wait, the tagine arrived, on a cork mat because, supposedly it was quite hot not that I would have known since the server didn't say a word. Now, I have no way to prove it either way but it did not seem as if the food was actually cooked in the tagine, making the whole thing very inauthentic and not a tagine at all. The pot itself was not even warm to the touch and the food inside was merely lukewarm. So, unless the food had been sitting in the kitchen for a long time, I find it unlikely that the tagine is what it claims.
The temperature of the food aside, more important was the taste. The menu has a long list of flavours and spices present in the dish. However, none of that was particularly noticeable. I tasted no ginger, cinnamon, or turmeric. A slight hint of cumin and possibly the spice mix ras al hanout were noted but overall it was mostly just chickpeas and tomato, which were possibly the culprit for the dilution of the flavours; nothing more complicated than something I could make myself at home in 15 minutes out of a tin. Furthermore, there was absolutely no heat to be found, despite the claim of cayenne pepper. It was piled high with decently sautéed zucchini and 2 small pieces of a carrot. There was no wow factor, no complexity, no bite to the dish. If I had the flu, this would be the sort of comfy, feel-good hot meal to eat on my sofa under a blanket, for $6, not $30. And although it was all rather lukewarm, everything was cooked well.
The thin pita as well was nothing to write home about. There was a distinct taste of store-bought pita and the butter did absolutely nothing beneficial for the accompaniment. It was tasteless and only worked to make the crispy pitta chewy and slightly soggy. Although you are meant to dip it, it just seemed like more work than it was worth for such a bland pita.
In an attempt to continue reaching for some authentic Morrocan fare, I went with the sweet keskesu since nothing else on the dessert menu really struck me as particularly North African. I actually had no idea what keskesu was before ordering, nor do I really know what it's supposed to be even after a bit of research, although the word comes from the Tuareg (Berber) language and simply means "couscous". It seems as if The Sultan's Tent has two different dishes with the same name as my version of keskesu was rice-pudding-like dish: a thick, cold pudding of couscous, milk, raisins, and almond slices. Other versions appear to look drier and shaped like a loaf, more like the couscous salad I had.
Regardless, the main ingredient is sweet couscous. I would have to admit that this was the most interesting of the dishes. A healthy dose of cinnamon certainly helped. The texture was actually quite pleasing with the snap of almonds and the feel of couscous in smooth milk. As someone who dislikes raisins, I found their inclusion actually quite nice and innocuous. It was the most flavourful of all the dishes, which in retrospect, is quite sad and it is not enough to salvage the blandness of the rest of the meal.
The biggest problem with the drinks is that I was not even offered the wine and cocktail list. Normally, I find it already on the table when I'm seated. Not so with The Sultan's Tent. I was asked if I was going to have wine but after turning that down, the waitress took my glass and wandered off without even asking about my interest in anything else. Unfortunately, this also meant that I was not given the non-alcoholic drink options either as they are on the same menu. The only choices on the food menu are coffees and teas. (I opted for tap water and an incredibly sour espresso.)
Luckily the drinks list is available on their website and outlines a significant number of cocktails, which is serviced by a very large bar selection. On offer are a fairly robust selection of scotch and whiskey for such a place and the cocktails themselves have kitschy Moroccan-themed names but are just the same uninspired and common cocktails you can find all over Toronto—perhaps with a twist of pomegranate instead of the usual fruit juice. The most striking drink was the Blue Tan Tan which one of the groups of people seemed to have an endless supply of, a bright blue cocktail in a champagne glass. Most cocktails are around $12 a glass.
Beer offerings are sparse with only 3 selections on tap: a Spanish beer called Estrella Damm, Grolsch, a Dutch lager, and the Moroccan Brown Ale—which is not from Morocco but rather an independent Toronto craft brewery called Spearhead. For $9-10 a pint, it seems a bit steep.
The wine list is fair with the majority of wines being of Californian and Australian origin, with a sprinkling of Italian. I found it curious that very few wines were from areas around Morocco and there was not a single French wine other than Veuve Clicquot champagne. Whilst Morocco is a majority Muslim country and very little alcohol is available, they do have regional beers made in-country, many red wines, and a tea-absinthe mix, thanks to the French influence. And with the supposed fusion of French cuisine that The Sultan's Tent is meant to have, it seemed like an oversight to ignore France almost entirely. Many of the wines are not available by the glass and the price range per bottle is anywhere from $34 to $150.
The best I can say about the service is that it wasn't unfriendly. Overall, it felt very indifferent, as if they did not care whether I was there or not—and I often felt as if they had no idea I was even there. The server was never rude or short but she offered very little in terms of customer service. I was left waiting for exceptionally long periods of time between courses, and basically ignored even thought I was sitting in the middle of the hallway. Inattentive would be a mild way to put it. Granted, they only seemed to have a staff of 5 working and 4 large holiday groups to manage. It doesn't not excuse overlooking a guest, but it does lend some understanding to the situation.
At one point before getting me the bill, she asked me what time it was. She then informed me that there was a belly-dancing show but that would be another hour and a half wait. I can't imagine sitting there for that long, even if the belly-dancing might be the primary draw of this eatery. It would have been nice to be informed of the belly-dance times when making the reservation as some people might not be even aware that was an option. Overall, even though I've eaten alone many, many times, I felt like a third wheel at someone else's party here.
Full but unimpressed. Since I didn't get to see the show, although that is the main reason people stop by. It certainly can't be the food. Nothing from my meal struck me as anything better than I could make at home with a Canadian Living recipe. The quality was that of a decent supermarket buffet and just as lukewarm. Perhaps if the food had been at least hot, it would have felt more like a meal but for $55, it was definitely over-priced plates of bland attempts at Mediterranean food. Again, had a show been included, perhaps that price would seem fairer. I feel that if you're taking reservations for 5 PM and the show does not start until 8 or 9 PM, the price should reflect that. Nobody is sitting at this restaurant for 3.5 hours. It's just not that good or appealing. And at $12 for a run-of-the-mill cocktail, it's too expensive when across the park are Pravda Vodka Bar, East Thirty Six and the notable Reservoir Lounge—all of which excel at cocktails and liquors.
All that leaves The Sultan's Tent with is great decor, unique atmosphere, and belly-dancing which just makes it feel like a kitschy trap rather than a go-to spot to impress any romantic company you may have. But if good location, decor and belly-dancing is your thing, and you're not interested as much in prompt service or full-flavoured food, I'd wager this is the place to come with friends. It also seems to really appeal to large groups and I can see why it could be the perfect spot for that as the menu has a good variety, the dishes are not challenging, and the live entertainment is bound to be enjoyed by a large, happy party of friends or coworkers.