I’m a big fan of Baldwin Street’s quaint restaurant block – the little strip that runs between Beverley and McCaul and boasts a couple of dozen little restaurants and a handful of shops left over from the influx of draft-dodging hippies in the 1960s. We live around the corner and my wife and I often nip down there for dinner when we don’t feel like cooking. There are six places that do a decent job and now there is one that takes everything up to another level. Elle M’a Dit opened in early June at number 35, premises once occupied by a deeply underwhelming Thai restaurant. They had a good summer thanks to the outdoor patio tables; now the business is moving inside and upstairs – which means, I suspect, they may have to think of new ways to attract attention. Baldwin Street is a charmed enclave on summer nights, full of casual, restaurant-hopping crowds; in the winter time it can feel totally forgotten.
Elle M’a Dit is owned by chef Gregory Furstoss and his wife, pastry chef Tory Yang. Furstoss comes from Alsace and paid his dues there and in paris before coming to Toronto in 2005 to work at Bistro Bakery Thuet. Marc Thuet was piling his ever-changing menu with fabulous Alsatian cooking at the time and Furstoss proved a very useful sous chef. It was there he met his wife but by 2006 he had moved on to Senses as sous chef to Patrick Lin, where he stayed five years. I can’t think of a more interesting mentor than Lin with his meticulous Asian-Western-fusion cuisine, and Lin was obviously keen on Furstoss. He brought him along as his sous when he competed in the Canadian Culinary Championship in 2009 and they both performed brilliantly.
This is Furstoss’s first restaurant and he is still wide-eyed with excitement at the idea. I asked him why Baldwin Street and he admitted that he had originally thought he’d end up on Ossington or Dundas West as part of that particular movement. But the landlord here offered him such a sweet deal he couldn’t turn it down. I like what they’ve done to the property. It’s very simple and austere upstairs with cream-coloured walls and ceilings and beautiful wooden tables, floor, chairs and benches, though the last could do with some kind of cushion. The menu is Alsatian and I would venture to say it is some of the best Alsatian food I’ve encountered this side of the Atlantic.
There are eight styles of tarte flambée but for this, my first visit, I chose the traditional version – an incredibly delicate, crisp crust that can just bear the weight of finely minced bacon, almost invisible onion, fromage blanc, gooey gruyère and a sprinkling of chopped chives. The texture may be insubstantial but the flavours are rich and bold. It’s one of those dishes that can become addictive.
Alsatians are masters of foie gras – Marc Thuet always did the best terrine in the city – and there’s one sitting right here on the menu giving me the glad eye, lifting its skirt to show a glimpse of Chianti wine gelée and sautéed black cherries. Next time, ma chere, next time… Tonight I can’t resist a starter of surf clams and veal kidney, a fascinating combination that works rather well. The clams, like slightly chewy red triangles, are tougher than the kidneys which look like finely sliced button mushrooms and have a sweet innocence to their flavour. A tangy grain-mustard sauce links surf to turf and the garnish of baby turnips and Brussels sprout leaves threatens to steal the show.
My wife orders sweet corn soup which is a large bowl of thick, creamily rich sweetcorn purée, its subtle taste spiked by small pieces of sautéed potato and soft fried clams as well as dill yoghurt and sliced radishes. Wendy is a purist where soup is concerned and feels there are too many extraneous elements in the bowl – it’s like a reorchestrated chowder.
Smoked trout salad looks great – snips of supple, sweetly smoked, coral-coloured fish surrounding a heap of salad greens, avocado and radish in a yuzu dressing – but the textures don’t quite work. Too many soft textures and nothing to crunch with the radish sliced so thinly.
Main courses promise much and I can’t help smiling at the thought of trying more and more of them as the weather cools down – braised beef tongue with crispy gnocchi; a baeckeoffe of beef, lamb and pork cooked in a casserole with potatoes; a bavette steak frites for $19; seared foie gras with duck crackling and sautéed plum… But the specials that the charming and thoroughly professional waitress announces sound irresistible. I opt for pigs trotter stuffed with a chicken and mushroom mousse then sliced and breaded into two thick, russet-coloured patties. It’s a great way to present trotter. All the various textures of flesh and jelly and rendered integument are pressed together with a pale vein of eggy mousse running through it. Beneath the patties is a whole nother dish of pulled pork and beans in a dark, sticky sauce, adding a superfluity of richness in the way that Alsatian chefs love to. A little top-knot of arugula and radish in a heavy vinaigrette is the most token of nods towards the notion of vegetables.
The other special is almost as intense – a superbly tender beef short rib in a black, goopy onion sauce paired with a perfectly seared scallop. An awesomely buttery cauliflower purée shares the plate with little slivers of sautéed cauliflower, fava beans and some ribbons of parsnip.
We barely have room for dessert after this but dulche de leche mousse with sautéed strawberries tips the scale into greed. It’s very sweet and comes topped with a sugared crumble like Captain Crunch cereal.
Furstoss advertizes that his cooking is a modern take on Alsatian cooking and it is, up to a point. But he has the wisdom to understand that weight and richness and marvellously big flavours are the heart and soul of the cuisine and he delivers them beautifully. The little wine list offers 20 wines, 19 of them French, including some super Alsatian bottles, all reasonably priced.
Elle M’a Dit is the new queen of Baldwin in terms of quality and a very welcome addition to my neighbourhood. It’s open for lunch Tuesday through Friday and for dinner every evening except Monday. The address is 35 Baldwin Street (right at the foot of Henry Street), 416 546 3448. www.ellemadit.com