News / Toronto

Toronto restaurant caught selling fake 'homemade,' 'organic' ingredients

"Organic" granola? No, just good ol' Quaker cereal at Azure Restaurant & Bar in Intercontinent Hotel in Toronto.

Torstar News Service

Wild Canadian salmon. “Organic” granola, “homemade” salad dressing and grilled “Wagyu skirt steak.”

Toronto’s Azure Restaurant & Bar, in Intercontinental Hotel Toronto Centre on Front St., boasted some of the best ingredients — and today’s biggest foodie buzzwords.

Turns out, some of the good stuff was only in the description.

Unbeknownst to customers, when the “wild” salmon appeared on the table it was a farmed Atlantic variety, according to food inspection documents obtained by Torstar News Service. The “organic” granola was boxed Quaker Harvest Crunch and the “homemade” dressing was bought from Renée’s Gourmet. The promised Japanese beef, a rare, well-marbled delicacy that reportedly can fetch around $200 a strip, was really regular skirt steak from a lesser breed of cow.

Three menu verification inspections conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) revealed “misrepresentation” or incorrect food descriptions in 20 instances at the pricey eatery between 2013 and 2015. The federal agency has a dual responsibility: it enforces standards regarding how food is described, and governs the safety and nutritional quality of food sold in Canada. The Azure reports relate only to how food was described.

Alexi Hakim, The Intercontinental Hotel’s general manager told Torstar that, to his knowledge, the CFIA’s concerns in each of the reports were addressed “immediately” in each case and “sometimes on the spot.”

With such a large restaurant, which serves thousands a year, it’s hard, he said, to change the menu each time an ingredient changes. But none of the mistakes were malicious.

Today, he said, the Front St. hotel has a “deliberate policy to ensure all food on the menu is accurately described.”

When Torstar visited Azure restaurant recently, it found only sparse descriptions of items on the menu. But a $6 glass of orange juice was verbally described by wait staff as “freshly squeezed” when, in fact, it was bottled juice from Lambeth Groves.

Hakim said his staff were probably “referencing the supplier which bills the juice as ‘fresh squeezed.’ ” Lambeth Groves, he said, use “fresh oranges that were picked up from the tree, squeezed into bottles and shipped to consumers to use.”

“If there were any violations, we have corrected them and corrected them immediately,” he said. “We have put strict rules in place to prevent such violations moving forward.”

The CFIA first inspected Azure’s menu for false claims in early 2013 after receiving a complaint from a long-time Intercontinental employee.

He told investigators in a written complaint he couldn’t abide “thousands of dollars being taken from (the) public pocket by false representation” at his workplace.”

“The public is being mislead to believe they are getting a high quality product when they are actually getting a much cheaper lower quality food product,” he wrote to the CFIA.

The hotel, he wrote, was passing off farmed fish as wild caught and referring to bocconcini cheese that accompanied a lobster ravioli dish as “Buffalo Mozzarella.”

As well, he said in his complaint, the hotel was describing run-of-the-mill skirt steak as Wagyu, a rare, expensive meat from a special breed of cattle. And, on a Christmas Eve “festive” dinner menu, he wrote, the menu falsely noted that a regular, factory-farmed beef tenderloin came from “Wellington County,” a region known for its high quality livestock.

When inspectors visited, they discovered other examples of misrepresentation, including passing off Crown Brand Corn Syrup as “Canadian Maple Syrup.” Inspectors also found that regular versions of products were being passed off as free-run eggs, free-range chicken, and organic beets.

In the first inspection in April, 2013, CFIA inspector Ivano Di Matteo visited Azure’s kitchen and found at least 13 “advertising violations,” his report shows. The report describes how he and a fellow inspector put on “clean white lab coats and hairnets,” washed their hands with soap and water and then had restaurant staff bring each product out for examination.

The report from that visit requested “corrective action” on the violations and it noted in a subsequent July 25, 2013 report that a “new menu was printed.” The CFIA was back to inspect Azure’s kitchen a year later.

This time Di Matteo found three violations.

A “Wagyu” beef burger contained a fraction of Wagyu, the report shows. And the CFIA also found that a menu item labelled “BC Organic Salmon” did not live up to its name. “The letters ‘BC’ listed on the restaurant menu descriptions can mislead consumers to believe that the salmon is from British Columbia,” the inspector stated after finding no evidence the salmon was from the province. Instead, the inspector noted that the “B/C” on the Toronto supplier invoice may refer to an acronym for “Boned & Cut or Boned & Cleaned.”

Additionally, Azure’s menu falsely claimed that in preparation of its menu it used the “region’s freshest artisan ingredients,” when, the inspection report says, “frozen, processed and preserved” products were used to prepare some food items.

In April 2014, Di Matteo gave Azure 30 days to rectify the violations, noting that further violations of a similar nature may result in “more stringent enforcement action,” an issue detail report says.

Though Di Matteo’s report indicates the investigation was completed that year, emails show the employee who made the original complaint reached out to CFIA inspectors again in March 2015.

A series of emails obtained by Torstar, between the restaurant employee and a CFIA inspector, show that at least one more on-site inspection of Azure was conducted and still there were false claims on the menu. This time, the emails say, kids’ meals, including hamburgers and fries were described as homemade, when they were not. And, other items were called “local” when they were not.

It wasn’t until Oct. 5, 2015, that the employee got an email from a CFIA inspector saying Azure’s menus had been changed and the “freshly squeezed” “homemade” and “local” claims were removed and everything was now “correct.”

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