Self-coined as the world’s first immersive, multi-sensory art resto bar, Selva’s accolade is debateable. Indeed, the restaurant is a visuallystimulating environment, and I could taste fresh ingredients that might be found in a jungle, but there were other senses missing:
- What could I smell other than the pungent deep woodsy citrus aroma of the magrud lime that seemed to be part of half of the dishes? Possibly if even a few dishes were served in a cloche encapsulating an aromatic scent or if a powerful broth is poured table-side, it would help emit a smell to add to the sensory experience. At the very least, using diffusers in the non-dining room portions of the restaurant that lets out a “jungle” aroma could check this box.
- Unless you count the dishes that could be eaten with your hands, there’s not a touch element to Selva. Maybe they could incorporate this by changing up the cutlery and plates for certain dishes (serving the ceviche on individual leaves, creating savoury cotton candy, or even dehydrating some ingredients so that it becomes an edible handheld vessel). I know, these are all things that are difficult to create, but if you’re going to call yourself multi-sensory…
- And finally, there weren’t even any sounds that reminded me of being in a jungle, the easiest sense to create. Of course, Selva shouldn’t become a reincarnated Rainforest Café (who is old enough to remember this place?), but even adding noises at the entrance and in the restrooms – the same areas with the diffusing scents - would help.
This is all to say that Selva is hardly a multi-sensory experience, especially not the first in the world. If anything, my dining experiences at Alinea or even Hutaoli’s Markham location would be way more multi-sensory. Nonetheless, Selva is still a lovely environment to dine in: there’s something about the brightly coloured foliage hanging from the ceiling and beautifully presented dishes that puts you in a good mood. And the gorgeous artwork all over the restaurant’s walls, ceiling, and floor by Clandestinos Art is certainly something to behold. Would it be strange to commission a replica in my dining room?
It pains me to say this, as I deeply respect Chef Nuit and love her other restaurants, but Selva’s menu needs an overhaul. The best dish of night, unanimously agreed upon at our table, was the eggplant dip ($18 plus an extra $6 for the guacamole). It was such a nice thick consistency, but also flavoured in an interesting manner with shrimp paste (?) and chili so there’s an umami spiciness to the meaty vegetable. Even the shredded mint on top was a great touch. On the other hand, the guacamole is run-of-the-mill and could benefit from a twist to make it special, whether it be the addition of finely chopped chilis or Thai herbs. All in all, the dips are beautifully presented with an array of fresh vegetables and warm crispy tortillas. In retrospect, I would have happily had the entire platter to myself as a meal.
Perhaps I’d add on the yellowfin tuna ceviche ($18) as a starter to get the sole smell element once we squeezed the magrudlime and that distinctive aroma engulfed the table. Plus, it’s a decent dish with the delicate soft tuna contrasted with plenty of crunchy ingredients (roasted peanuts, grilled corn, celery, pickled onion) and slices of red serrano chili adding a light spice. If anything, the ceviche could use a bit more salt and oil to balance out all the acidity.
The meal starts to go downhill from here… literally as each successive dish is presented it’s worse than the one before. The grilled sea bream ($36) is still fine: while it could be taken off the grill sooner to keep the flesh moister, the skin had a lovely crispy texture. The lemongrass sandwiched in the middle of the fish was a great start, but surprisingly didn’t really diffuse any flavours into the flesh. Once we added pieces of pickled chayote, onion, and a dash of yellow pepper sauce the flavours improved, but the fish could still benefit from more salt. Who knows, maybe the sea bream was actually seasoned perfectly, and I just couldn’t taste it over all the raw garlic used in the tomato rice. Wow is this garlicky, beware to people who are on dates.
In fact, the tomato rice would go better with the grilled Denver steak ($30), which by itself is forgettable. The thin under-blade cut of beef was overcooked, but thankfully due to the marbling remained tender. It just doesn’t have a lot of flavour: like the fish, it could be seasoned more, and the sriracha-looking condiment was a sweet pepper sauce that doesn’t really add anything to the steak. If the beef was served over a bed of tomato rice perhaps the garlic in the grains would give it a punch of flavour and the beef’s fat and juices mellow out the rice. At the very least, I’d replace the sweet pepper sauce with a more traditional chimichurri, perhaps made from the leaves from the baby radishes and carrots used in the dip platter, a bit of Thai basil, and bird’s eye chili for a Chef Nuit inspired touch.
The corn fritters ($14) were shaped too small so they resembled popcorn corn versus a fritter and could have benefited from being drained longer so it wasn’t as oily. If the batter truly incorporated red curry paste and lime leaf, the ratio of spices to flour needs to increase as it didn’t taste like much. In fact, we really couldn’t even taste the corn.
Yet, the fritters were still better the fried calamari ($18), which I couldn’t stomach more than two pieces. Firstly, the sweet and sour sauce covering the bottom of the plate, rather than being served on the side, meant the sesame batter fell off the calamari leaving us with chunks of syrupy batter and naked squid. The calamari were also cut much too small so without serving spoons it was difficult to pick up with a fork.
In general, I’m surprised a restaurant that creates a family-style menu doesn’t include sharing utensils with their dishes. I finally asked for an extra spoon and fork with the fish, but these were cleared away with the sea bream and it seemed like a pain to ask for new ones with each dish. If you’re serving a sharing menu, especially under COVID conditions, providing tables with proper serving utensils is key. Moreover, swapping out the plates after every few dishes would be even better as by the end of the meal those small plates were messy.
And the worst dish of the night was also the last – talk about not ending with a bang. The shrimp in the tacos ($46 for 6 servings) were over done and rubbery and the amount of salsa, guacamole and red pepper sauce that arrive for six tacos is comical, there was enough for two tacos at best. Especially when paired with corn tortillas, which are such dry wrappers that need a lot of sauce and ingredients to stand up to the rich earthy corn flavour. In retrospect, had I known there was a lack of condiments, I would have asked for the tacos to be served with the lettuce instead.
We all grumbled over the make-your-own factor of the dish… did we seriously just spend $46 for a Chilli’s experience? Maybe this is meant to be the “immersive” factor where you feel like you’re foraging the ingredients to create your own meal, but the dish really doesn’t work in a dark restaurant where we could hardly what’s on the plate – boy did I feel old having to whip out a phone to see all the garnishes. Maybe if our table had more than one tealight in a wax-stained holder (that we had to request) we could have seen better. Selva, if you’re going to keep serving these tacos, please just make them for the table. Give me those pre-made tacos in an accordion metal holder any day.
On top of the lack of sauce and lighting, without any tongs it was impossible to pick up the julienned cabbage, lettuce, chayote, mango, red bell peppers and onion with a fork. We eventually had to abandon the unsanitary mass of forks diving into the same plate and use our hands instead. If you’re afraid of germs or eating with people you’re not close with, skip this dish. On second thought, even if you’re eating with your partner who’d you gladly swap spit with, I’d skip the tacos.
So, what made us stay after dinner for another three hours and close the place down? What Selva has going for it is their great vibe and pleasant service – Alexa came by to check on us frequently and those cocktails just seem to keep flowing. Maybe we should have started with shot and six drinks. Afterwards, all inhibitions would disappear, and I’d dive into each dish like a cave person. Final verdict of Selva: it’s a perfect place for drinks and dip but not for dinner.
Gastro World's Grading System
- Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
- 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
- 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
- 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
- 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
- 10 - absolute perfection!
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