So it’s finally happened. Toronto has scored a big-time foreign chef. The rumours have been flitting about for years – Gordon Ramsey was coming to the condo tower at One Bloor Street; Jean-Georges Vongerichten was seriously thinking about building a bridgehead in one of the new boutique hotels; Nobu had been checking out fish wholesalers in J-Town… None of those came to pass. What we did get is Scott Conant, one of New York’s finest, chef of L’Impero (2002, James Beard Best New Restaurant in the US), and of Alto, and of Scarpetta (2008) in New York and later Miami Beach, and now of Toronto, Ont.
Our Scarpetta is the lobby-level restaurant in the new Thompson Toronto boutique hotel at the corner of Bathurst and Wellington West and it opened on Wednesday night with a very typical Toronto fanfare of fire trucks and fire alarms (called in error, but talk about a baptism by fire (alarm)) and – you guessed it – no liquor licence. Guests who wished to wander into the restaurant from the lobby carrying a glass of wine were told it was verboten. Welcome to Toronto, Mr Conant. Yes, it’s true that the restaurant and hospitality industry is the most important economic sector in Ontario, the number one employer in the province, and that we’re trying to bring back American tourists to the benefit of all, but you must understand that the powers that pertain in our city have made it their mission to throw every kind of obfuscation and problem in front of anyone who seeks to enhance our gastronomic reputation by opening a new restaurant in Toronto. Or you could look at it another way, pointed out Amy Rosen, also at the party: why do these places open before they get all their licences and paperwork in order? Why not wait a couple of extra days?
But I digress…
Scott Conant, chef, and our newest immigrant (kind-of – he still lives in NYC but will drop by here from time to time) has written an open letter to Toronto and published it on the revered American blog, the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-conant/an-open-letter-to-toronto_b_651231.html It’s a friendly message, full of flattery of Niagara produce, Ontario salumi, et alia. He seems to think we call our city “T.dot” (don’t know where he picked that one up – not from Toronto, obviously) and it’s written as if he’s talking to children in the second grade. But in all other respects it is far less condescending than it might have been. The tone is almost apologetic – as if he senses a potential resentment against big-shot New York chefs barging in and teaching us how to eat Italian. Heaven forfend.
Conant has a TV smile and a baseball player’s gift for the apropos summation and he did his duty by us on Wednesday night. In the end, however, it will all come down to the food on the Scarpetta plate. The bite-sized treats and chafing-dish pastas at the debut were intended to showcase the actual menu and while everything was yummy, nothing was OMGwhere’smynotebook amazing. But you can’t judge a cook by his canapés. I’m going to wait until September to dine there properly and make up my mind.
But consider this… Wouldn’t it be interesting if Toronto (half the city is Italian – or so we have always been told) were to find that we had been missing out on Italian food until now… That Conant and Scarpetta were to open our eyes to what New World-Italian food can be!
On the other hand, what if we all went to Scarpetta with an open mind, tasted it, pondered it (in a true state of superhuman objectivity) and decided it was actually pretty simple stuff, no better than anything we are already used to eating at Via Allegro or Il Mulino or Zucca or Biagio – or even Local Kitchen? What then?
Conant’s signature dishes were front and centre on Wednesday night – spaghetti with basil-scented tomato sauce; calamarata of pasta cuffs with tender mussels and baby squid in a sort of chicken broth; crostini with marinated eggplant and lardo (which really were scrumptious); super-tender braised short ribs with farro risotto; creamy polenta with a fricassee of truffled mushrooms… The jury is out. One thing, though: it really is good to have some new blood in the city! I can’t wait to read what our local media make of Scarpetta. Some will love it; others will not. That goes without saying. And I dare say we can all guess who will kiss and who will diss, who will drool and who’s too-cool-for-school…
Meanwhile, Counter, the diner that is also part of the new Thompson hotel, has already changed chefs – after only a week. There’s another place I have to try.