I’ve been looking forward to going to Campagnolo ever since Joanne Kates gushed so enthusiastically about chef Craig Harding’s “dreamworld pasta” last March. I called often during the spring but there was never a table available, then I forgot about it for a couple of months. This week I called again and while the place was still fantastically busy I was finally able to get a reservation, but only if our group of four arrived promptly at 6:30. Not 7:00… 6:30. Ever obedient, we did as we were bidden, though the scorching sun was a little high in the sky for anyone to be thinking much about dinner. Perhaps the restaurant sensed that, because we had to wait 40 minutes for our repeatedly requested plate of bread and gougères and bowl of warm olives in orange-scented oil.
I don’t do outrage – I’m really too easy-going to get flustered by that sort of thing – but it was odd. Campagnolo has an open kitchen and we could see the four cooks standing and talking, could see our waiter explaining our needs. We could also see a basket of loaves of bread on the counter. It was obvious that they were baking new bread and cooking new gougères – which is just silly when you make customers come at 6:30. No one offered an explanation or thought to send out something else to take the edge off our hunger. Oh well. Hey ho.
At least we had plenty of time to study our surroundings. The corner spot was once a Coffee Time and you can still see the old lines in the shape of the space. There’s a new bar with a fancy light fixture above it that looks like a miniature Dale Chihuly zoomorphic glass sculpture. Big caramel-coloured plush curtains soften the angles of the walls and help control the sound of merry voices that bounces up and down between the tiled floor and low ceiling. Little brass candelabra and blue-and-white china water jugs add a quaint charm.
But no one is here for the décor. It’s Craig Harding’s food that has caused such a fluttering of fans amongst the critical community. And I do see why. It’s very good food – thoughtful, balanced, beautifully executed – rooted in Italian traditions but with a contemporary refinement.
A little dish of zucchini carpaccio, for example, was a simple but brilliant little hymn to summer – crunchy ribbons of fennel sliced so thinly they were almost translucent set over broader strips of raw zucchini, strewn with shaved parmiggiano reggiano and peppery baby nasturtium leaves, all refreshed by a deftly harmonious tomato vinaigrette.
Testina was a very different proposition but equally well achieved. Testina is head cheese but instead of slicing the jellied brawn as a terrine, Harding turns it into a patty, breaded and pan-fried, which warms up the various pieces of pigface and turns the matrix of jelly into rich juice. Flavours are released and the unusually large size of the bits of meat lets you experience their different textures. A good, tart gribiche sauce around the plate cut the fat when required while the frisée topknot looked pretty.
An even richer treat for carnivores used half a vertically sawn marrowbone as a vessel of pleasure. The marrow was still in the bone but hidden by morsels of tender braised oxtail and traces of nectarine marmalade adding a lovely fruity sweetness. A close look revealed chopped herbs and tiny gratings of lemon zest – a sly gremolata that was as scrumptious as it always is with oxtail. A spoon was provided to scoop out bonemarrow, oxtail and fruit together to be spread onto crunchy toasts. Though it sounds like a heavy dish for the hottest day in Canadian history, it wasn’t. Sumptuous, yes, but so nicely balanced it almost seemed dainty.
Having heard so much about Harding’s pasta, I had to try the agnolotti that headed up the list of main courses. Yes, they were superb. The pasta itself was perfectly textured, soft little pouches that held a fresh pea purée. Whole peas, pea leaves and shoots nestled in amongst them while awesomely tender lobster meat lolled about on top. A mild fennel purée and a sort of bisque-like sauce lurked in the bottom of the bowl, bringing all the flavours together.
If peas and lobster is a classic combination, so is chorizo and octopus. There is no nonsense about the relationship on Harding’s dish – you get a big juicy, spicily seasoned fresh chorizo sausage hot off the grill and a single tender octopus limb that has also been finished on the grill (just a moment too long, I felt, because the diminishing curl of the tentacle was over-charred). Between the two principals is a soft, deliciously tangy peperonata while a puck of firm polenta represents the world of starch.
A subtler textural game is played on another main course – perfectly seared scallops, moist and creamy at heart, share the plate with smoked steelhead trout the colour of a carola rose, not sliced but cut into juicy chunks. Little new potatoes, a lively caper aioli and some shavings of radish complete the moment.
Roast lamb saddle represents a more conventional aesthetic, the succulent meat paired with cannelini beans but then perked up with a dark cherry balsamic and some shaved parm regg. The cheese was great with the beans but I’m not sure it sat so happily with the lamb, but that’s because the flavour of the meat was so good, especially when enhanced by some shavings of black summer truffle, that I would have resented any extraneous interference.
Two desserts were offered. One was a flaky canoli filled with chocolate-flecked, amaretto-spiked ricotta and served with a spoonful of gentle orange marmalade. The other was a slab of “chocolate paté” with the gelatinous texture of pudding – yummy in a childish sort of way – topped with crumbled macaroon and some boozy figs that had ended their lives poached in red wine – a great match for the chocolate.
Campagnolo’s wine list is rather clever – about 50 wines in total with four sparklers and lots of interesting, aromatic whites. Reds are a more serious gathering – only two under $50, seven in three figures. I was glad to see some decent representation from Ontario but the big guns were mostly Italian – which suits an Italianate menu, to be sure.
Craig Harding is clearly the real deal and success has allowed him to build a large brigade in the kitchen and front-of-house. I hate the fascism of a reservation policy so obviously built around turning the tables but the temptation is irresistible, I guess, when you have less than 40 seats. Still, that sort of “screw the customer” attitude can bite you back in the long run. And there’s one other element missing from the evening – any sense of verbal connection between the kitchen and the table. I would have loved to have had a brief word with someone about any of the dishes – some little tidbit about where an ingredient came from, why the chef had done this or that, even a standard enquiry about whether we were enjoying the food. So many other, less interesting restaurants do this as a matter of course, but there seems to be an endemic lack of gastronomic communication between the staff and the customers. It comes across as arrogance and, no matter how good the cooking, that always leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.
Campagnolo is at 832 Dundas Street West (just at Euclid Avenue). 416 364 4785.