The Huntsman Tavern opened recently on College Street – on the corner where Red Fish used to be – and we went there on Friday evening with friends. It was smarter than we had expected – dark but walled with midnight-coloured tile and crisply framed mirror rather than the usual rustic wattle and daub of hipster dives. We stayed for hours, working our way through much of the menu, which is divided into small, medium and large dishes – the prices very reasonable and the quality certainly good enough to prompt a return visit soon, especially since it actually takes reservations for its comfortable leather booths and sidewalk patio tables.
Let’s start with some gastronomical highlights.
Delectable fried chicken wings with a sticky, mildly spicy sauce, a combo of ranch and sriracha – plenty of meat on them, suggesting that these hens could actually fly.
Sound fish and chips. The fish was terrific (though the Brit in me wished there had been some salt on the table to throw at it) – flaky and juicy, the batter almost ethereal. Not sure about the chips. They are a frequent feature of the menu and should be earth-shatteringly wicked. Properly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, they nonetheless seemed a tad bland and lightweight.
Really moist, tender, tasty fried chicken in a crisp, greaseless batter would have been the star of the soir, I suspect, except that the kitchen smothers it in a rose-coloured, mildly piquant sauce which soggies away the batter’s lovely crispness and masks some of the chicken’s own flavour. An odd plating decision – the sauce would have been better on the side. A beautifully balanced cabbage slaw shares the platter with a stolid cheddar “biscuit” like a scone that has shown up at the wrong party but refuses to leave.
Duck rillettes was (were?) one of the small dishes. Not bad! The rillettes themselves (itself?) were tasty and moist and appropriately unctuous but again the presentation was weird. You couldn’t actually see the rillettes because they were spread under the ends of four stacked crostini (slim but butch, like hard, sugar-free biscotti). Once we’d eaten the last crostini we found the mustard hidden at the bottom of the pile. It would have been welcome earlier on. (Chef Mike Tan, I’m only being so nit-picky because the food at the Huntsman has so much promise. You’re almost there!)
Smoked trout fragments on green pea blinis with crème fraîche dabbed on top were dainty half-bite-sized morsels, like passed hors d’oeuvres at a gallery opening. And there were four of us at the table but only three on the plate. I know three is the orthodoxy – chefs are taught always an odd, never an even number for this sort of thing – but when there are four customers who announce they will be sharing everything the server should twig and suggest he/she brings one each. We’d have been happy to pay an extra buck or two. Ditto for the wings which also came as a trio when we were a quartet. Whatever the surgical geometry required to divide three chicken wings into four equal portions was beyond me. So we just ordered more wings. (Which may be the cunning point, now I come to think of it).
What else did we have…? Oh yes, a good green salad with pickled grapes that restored a little of the God-given virtues of our souls after so many fried indulgences. And a successful take on a tourtiere hand-pie with moist, saucy meats wrapped in a latice of pie crust.
And then there were the cocktails. The manager of the Huntsman is Aja Sax, recently manager and cocktail mistress of County General. I interviewed her there once for Food & Drink magazine because she is a genius when it comes to bourbon and bourbon cocktails. She is famous for it, so it may be a deliberate career volte-face on her part to have no discernible bourbons on her list at the Huntsman. Instead she let us taste an amazing Vesper (almost the echt recipe from Casino Royale but with regular Lillet instead of Kina Lillet, which I believe is now an extinct vermouth (please let me know if it isn’t)), an awesome kind of Sazerac made with rum (why not, when the familiar bourbon version is itself a bowdlerization of the Cognac-based original?) and something she calls a Scotchy Scotch Scotch which is a blend of several lordly Scotch whiskies (and other minor family retainers) and drinks like the wild and headstrong offspring of some incestuous liaison in a remote Highland glen.
We had a super time and I’d like to say I’m sorry to the group of scowlers who were waiting so long for us to vacate our table and who rose menacingly from their bar stools as we started for the door. If looks could kill, I would have ended the evening in a body bag.
The Huntsman Tavern is at 890 College Street, one block east of Dovercourt. 416 901 9919. Can’t find a web site. I’m going back soon to sit at the bar under the clever dangle of illuminated decanters to try the venison stew and another Scotchy Scotch Scotch.