Signs, as the hearing but ASL-fluent host explained to us, is a unique concept restaurant whose servers and staff are all deaf people, in a meal experience designed to teach the general public about basic sign language and the deaf community. My family got the opportunity to eat here thanks to the Summerlicious event that several eateries across Toronto participate in. Essentially, each restaurant offers a smaller sample menu at a lower price to allow people to try out their take on a three course meal. It obviously works, as my blog has covered numerous restaurants through Summer/Winterlicious that it otherwise wouldn’t have been able to comfortably afford.
Even though none of us have severe hearing problems, my family does have some prior experience with American Sign Language. My mom had a deaf friend when she was sixteen, and quickly became fascinated with learning and studying the language, it eventually proved to be useful when she became an ER nurse and especially when she had me.
As my other blog (Autism Thinking) has pointed out, I was born severely autistic and non-verbal, so I was taught sign language as a bridge to speaking English. I have seen been re-learning the language I lost, which among other things has helped me communicate with a deaf teammate on my Special Olympic basketball team. However, Signs is very inclusive and encouraging of people who know no signs at all, and menus are provided to quickly teach basic signs so you can order your food and hold basic conversation with your server.
Compared to other ‘licious menus, Signs had a surprisingly extensive menu, going beyond the minimum three options for the appetizer and entrée rounds, with four and five options respectively. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, as the menu has signs for each food item and the restaurant owners understandable didn’t want people to copy their idea. As such, I’ll simply cover the dishes that we did try.
My mother had the carrot ginger soup, my grandma the watermelon gazpacho, and I myself tried the veggie spring rolls with spiced dipping sauce. First off, all of the food came to us at just the right temperature, and this was consistent throughout the meal. That should go without saying, but all too many places let their food sit before serving, making it lose the freshness and warmth that I enjoyed so much here. For instance, my spring rolls remained toasty until the entrée arrived, and packed a fresh vegetable mix with mild wrapped inside a light and flaky pastry. I should also mention that the dipping sauce, while not spicy, was pleasantly sweet in a way not unlike good plum sauce.
On the other hand, the carrot ginger soup had more bite than one would think, having just enough ginger to be prominent without being spicy or overpowering. Combine that with the mild creaminess of the carrot, and you’ve got yourself a classic heart-warming soup.
However, the appetizer I would recommend by far would be, surprisingly, the gazpacho. There wasn’t much taste if watermelon in it, not that watermelon has much flavour aside from the noticeably absent sweetness, but there was a hint of tomato. What made this bowl was a plethora of fresh herbs that combined with the cold temperature to make something that could only be properly described as “crisp”.
By the time a truly appetizing appetizer round was over, our entrée arrived with perfect timing. I ordered the jumbo ravioli, three huge cheese-stuffed ravioli (it doesn’t sound like a lot, but I really mean huge) in a spiced cream tomato sauce with what I noticed to be a bit of coriander sauce drizzled over as well.
My mom had a beef cannelloni in a rich and red tomato sauce covered in cheese, while my grandmother had a plate filled with goat cheese agnolotti (her favourite) and a sauce similar to what I had.
What really struck me was how generous the filling of each ravioli really was. The warm, creamy cheese gelled perfectly with the orange sauce that offered little hints of nuanced spice one could notice building up bite after bite.
The goat cheese ravioli were smaller and more numerous, with a powerful, tangy filling that I found to be of high quality but probably too strong for a person like me to eat an entire plate.
For the dessert round, my mom and I both had the chocolate cake, while my gran decided to try the cannelloni. As a chocolate fan, I quite liked the cake we were offered, as it focused more on having mild taste of cocoa instead of just being sweet and brown-coloured. The texture worked well too, managing to be both richly filling and gently spongy all at once.
However, my grandmother–who has a low tolerance for sweetness–found her dessert too sugary which meant I had more of it than she did. I, on the other hand, quite liked its flavour: the pastry comes off as a high-end waffle cone and the filling had the right combination of density and creaminess to compliment its sweetness. I would say the cake is better for those woke like their desserts rich and mild, whereas the cannelloni is for people who like some creaminess sweetness that is balanced by a crunchy pastry shell.
Before I wrap up, a couple of notes on the service. They are very friendly and non-intrusive, which can be a problem in some other places. Communication isn’t a problem, even if you struggle with the signs given to you on the cards (I, for instance, am still rather slow and difficult to read), the servers still manage to get their message across. Personally, I’ve found that a fair amount of deaf people are very good at using body language, not the stereotypical mime charades, but common motions such as facial expressions and universal hand gestures like the thumbs-up. On a smaller note, Signs’ atmosphere is obviously quiet, but is not unnaturally or audibly so. You can hear the customers next to you to a reasonable degree and the washrooms even had soft music playing.
To summarize, Signs is a unique concept restaurant created to help educate the general population about the deaf community while offering a skillfully prepared meal. It works on both fronts: on a purely technical level, you can come here on a date or with friends/family for a satisfying and interesting meal, while the establishment greatly helps spread awareness about this group of people who have adapted to life without a certain sensory organ that we all take for granted. I highly recommend it to anyone who was already interested in it, or looking for something truly different and unique.
Signs 558 Yonge Street