The Beast

Whether he likes it or not, Scott Vivian’s name still seems to be snagging the monikers of mighty forebears. As co-owner of Wine Bar on Church he was always going to be in the shadow cast by Jamie Kennedy. It was Kennedy’s place, Vivian had risen through the ranks of Kennedy’s properties as saucier then chef de cuisine, and when he and his partners bought the wine bar they made the smart decision to stick to the Kennedy formula where the menu was concerned. But Vivian and his pastry-chef wife, Rachelle, were ready to step out into the light of independence and they jumped when Jason Inniss and Bertrand Alépée called them this spring to say they weren’t going to renew the lease on Amuse Bouche. The property is of major historical importance, of course. From 1987 to 1997, the little house on the corner of Tecumseth and Whitaker was Susur Lee’s Lotus, one of Toronto’s seminal restaurants. It was also a hang-out for Lee’s culinary generation, an afternoon gathering place for chefs before they went to work – Michael Stadtländer first met his wife Nobuyo in the little sidewalk patio out front. When Lee closed Lotus, the place became Nonna (a distinct improvement in terms of looks with the noisy old wine fridges going and a quaint little bar appearing in the rear). Then Nonna became Amuse Bouche for a very successful five years.
Now it’s Beast. The Vivians have painted the old orange walls beige but otherwise little has changed. The kitchen is still ridiculously small. The room is still too hot in the summer and will be too cold in the winter. The front patio is still one of the most pleasant places in the city to eat on a warm summer night. Just as Susur Lee and his wife once did, the Vivians are living in the bijou upstairs apartment and have turned the upper deck into a herb garden to supply the restaurant. And the origami dragon left over from Lotus days that the Amuse Bouche team found in the basement and kept as a talisman of continuity still has a discreet place on the bar.
What has changed is the intention of the operation. Amuse Bouche was a destination for gourmets from across the city. Beast is setting out to be more of a local hub. Only three weekends in, Sunday brunch there is already a crowded event (it’s a meaty Quebec-style brunch menu with pork pastrami eggs Benedict, for example). And dinner prices are pretty reasonable – starters $10-$15, mains $12-$29, while the miniature wine list has a couple of bargains such as Tenuta Ponte Greco di Tufo at $55 or Vicente Vargas Videla Malbec rosé at $40.
Such are the fashions of the day that a menu set out with starters, mains and desserts seems almost a novelty. My friends and I ignored such an old-fashioned structure, ordering a bunch of things and then sharing. There was plenty to enjoy, including the breads Rachelle Vivian bakes – a miniature, herb-flecked baguette made with oregano from the rooftop garden and a moist, buttery Parker House roll. An amuse appeared from the kitchen – a salty, juicy cattail heart wrapped in prosciutto and set upon a pile of soft white powder that had once been pine nut oil, magically transformed, and a dab of last year`s peach butter for sweetness.
Three sweetbreads were cooked just shy of creaminess, coated in crunchy batter that was lightweight and not remotely oily. Vivian set them on top of a salad of delectably tangy red and orange grape tomatoes scattered with chewy bacon lardons, a hint of onion and a drizzle of a subtle ranch dressing. The acidity of the tomatoes and the dressing offered a precise balance to the richness of the glands.
Beetroot tart was another starter, the season`s last purple beets sliced over a disc of Rachelle Vivian`s buttery puff pastry with horseradish crème fraîche, a suggestion of feta and some chopped caperberries for salt.
Soft, sleek petals of home-smoked black cod were served cold, tumbled over frisée with sliced radish and raw orange. Three glossy, ethereally light chicharrons of exploded pork crackling added textural crunch.
From the list of mains, house-made mezzaluna were half-moon-shaped ravioli filled with a ricotta-and-herb mixture. I found the pasta a tad too sturdy and the filling too bland but I loved the environment Vivian created for the little parcels – soft morsels of pork forked off a braised pig`s head, pea shoots for freshness and colour, masses of grated parmesan and a whole runny egg yolk on top.
Venison striploin was a perfectly cooked slab of locally farmed red deer, lean but juicy and tender, sliced over a jumble of spätzle, wild mushrooms and wilted lamb`s quarters. Slivers of liver the size of a penny black postage stamp added unexpected but welcome gaminess to the proceedings but the star of the dish was the mole sauce that underpinned all the other flavours. This was not a sauce made from actual moles, you understand, so much as the Mexican classic. Vivian learned to make it years ago while working in the States. A Oaxacan dish washer at the restaurant sometimes prepared the staff meal and he shared the secrets of the sauce with the young cook. It`s a beautiful version textured like a moussy purée with a complexity of spicing, a suggestion of chili heat, a dry and subtle richness from the chocolate.
Desserts were predictably yummy. A most fragile and delicate shell of peppered pastry was filled with strawberries, some preserved, some fresh, all of them full of sweet flavour and running with juice. There was a globe of lemon-ricotta ice cream. There were crispy triangular beignets as light as wonton wrappers filled with unctuous dark chocolate fondant, scattered with pecans and sitting in a plate-lickingly good salted caramel sauce.
Service was excellent but then, the place was very quiet – just Slow Food guru Paul de Campo and a group of his friends at an outside table; a loving couple in a corner. That will change, I predict. Beast will catch on quickly – opening another successful chapter in the long story of the little house on Tecumseth.
Beast, 96 Tecumseth St., 647 352 6000.

  1. I had brunch there when they first opened and thought it a great neighbourhood spot. It was overcast the day I went, but the rain held off, and so the patio was full. I quite enjoyed my Kouign Amann that I had and am looking forward to a dinner visit, especially after reading your thoughts!

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