So sad to hear that Dale Mackay has closed his two Vancouver restaurants, Ensemble and Ensemble Tap, neither of them yet two years old. The intense – and intensely talented – young chef was the winner of Top Chef Canada season one and a lot of us were excited to see what he did next. Here in Toronto, the victor from Top Chef Canada season two, Carl Heinrich, has made a more promising start. He too has parlayed his prize money of $100,000 into a place of his own, co-owned with butcher and charcutier Ryan Donovan. The two men were together at Marben in the same roles, advocating farm-to-table cooking and practising what they preached. I liked their work at Marben; I’m even happier with Richmond Station.
Physically, it’s really two restaurants – a large bar and dining room with soaring ceilings, a dramatic round window onto the street and an understated TTC-subway theme. (Well, why not? Torontonians wax lyrical about the Paris Metro and have an awed affection for the London Underground – why not the TTC?) Up some stairs at the rear is a more intimate area where design firm Stacklab has removed most of a wall to reveal the kitchen bustling with no fewer than 12 cooks on the night we visited. Ryan Donovan was quick to explain that the reason for such a large brigade was that they had all come in that day to break down a whole cow and a whole pig that had arrived earlier. Donovan is a total nose-to-tailer, of course, having worked at the Healthy Butcher and Cowbell, and it’s a very good sign that he’s passing on his knowledge and enthusiasm to others. Rumour has it there are always a dozen men and women in whites in the kitchen.
Richmond Station isn’t just a temple to meat, however. Both Donovan and Heinrichs are quick to point out that they care about fish and vegetables too. So we balance our starters with half a dozen mild, sweet, plump Lamarque Vert oysters from New Brunswick and a wooden plank of the daily charcuterie. There are slices of a softish, crimson beef heart salami with an intense beefy flavour; some bigger, pink, thinly cut slices of “Moscow sausage” made of finely ground pork and beef and served hot fron the grill; a coarse duck terrine en croute, its moist pastry crust just the merest sliver around the yummy terrine. A scoop of gorgeous duck parfait completes the selection along with two kinds of mustard, a beet relish, some pickled red onion and a little bowl of crispbreads. The waiter persuades me that a cocktail would be just right with the charcuterie and brings me a Chet Baker made with 12-year-old Eldorado rum, ginger, honey, vermouth and angostura – like a sweet, spicy rum Manhattan. I’d lose the honey but it works well with the meats.
Other treats? An excellent lobster bisque with an unusual texture as if two soups had been folded together, one a regular, creamy, middleweight bisque, the other foaming. There was plenty of lobster in the soup and a whack of fresh tarragon – and also some miniature croutons that someone had cunningly added at the very last minute so they were still crunchy.
On to moist, grill-charred fillets of sea bream served with wedges of potato rösti that for once in this city weren’t soggy with oil. There were perfect baby heirloom carrots, juicy pink-stemmed Swiss chard and a little herb salad of chives and delicate green leaves as a sort of garland. Like all Heinrich’s dishes, it showed a satisfying balance and a lack of fuss – just the way you or I might cook at home if we had chef’s naus and 12 dedicated people to help.
The best dish of the evening was a main course of roasted venison leg – the most tender and flavourful venison I can ever remember eating. Heinrich paired it with some deliciously logical, seasonal accompaniments – tiny lentils spiked with a carrot brunoise, a luxe celeriac puree, some teeny-weeny pan-fried cauliflower florets and a big, tangy cranberry-allspice jus that set all the other flavours on their best behaviour.
Heinrich is 27, Donovan 32; pastry chef Farzam Fallah looks about 16 but his work has a mature assurance. Apple pie cheesecake was exactly that – cheesecake on a graham crumb base with big juicy chunks of lightly poached, cinnamon-dusted apple and an add-on of walnut streusel – altogether soft, sweet and tangy. Date tart is like a date square from a country fair gussied up with a bourbon glaze, a mound of crunchy, salty shortbread crumbs and some crisp, translucent shards of whisky caramel. Fallah pairs it with an extraordinary ice cream infused with the flavour of toasted hay.
Richmond Station was packed the night I went and Donovan and Heinrich made frequent journeys into the dining rooms – as did other members of the kitchen brigade. The place had a great vibe like a braid of hope and energy and accomplishment that was as uplifting as a glass of Champagne, and service was friendly, smooth and professional (which is unusual among new restaurants these days).
Richmond Station is at 1 Richmond St. W., 647 748 1444, www.richmondstation.ca
Mon-Fri 11:30-10:30, Sat 5-10:30.