It was a bittersweet week for those of us who love the Toronto restaurant scene. First the bitter. Two of our most accomplished and professional restaurateurs are leaving the business. The great Georges Gurnon has sold Pastis Express. He was already a legend in the 1970s as the star maitre d’ of Noodles and the Windsor Arms; he was adored as the host of the suave and sophisticated Le Bistingo on Queen West (1985-1995), which he co-owned with chef Claude Bouillet; he brought enormous class to Acrobat Bis and Avalon then opened Pastis in 1997, charming Rosedale ever since. I had a fine dinner there this week and I am grateful to have had the chance to shake his hand again.
Our other great loss is Simon Bower, who is leaving his place Olde Towne Oyster Bar in mid- to late January. Simon was a waiter at Beaujolais when I first started writing about Toronto’s restaurants. After that he was the owner of Bowers and managed Santa Fe but we got pally in the 1990s when he opened the dashing Mercer Street Grill in a car park where the hotel Le Germain now stands. No one could sell a dish like the silver-tongued Bower – though it wasn’t hard to do when Renèe Foote was at the stoves. Then there was YYZ and then Lucien, which morphed recently into Olde Towne. We had a splendid lunch there on Thursday, the place packed. I shall miss listening to Simon talk about food.
And the sweet side of the week? The Carbon Bar has opened and it’s absolutely brilliant. This is the long-awaited new project from the Nota Bene ownership team of Yannick Bigourdan, David Lee and Franco Prevedello. They have been talking about it for two years, renovating for a year and a half (“everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong,” says Bigourdan) but it is worth the wait. The space is a vast cube with a ceiling two storeys high, massive girders and painted brick walls. Most of the visual design takes place high above customers’ heads – white spheres of light connected to the ceiling on pantographs, glossy wood panelling mounted off, not on the walls, and several clever references to the previous occupants of the place – disco mirror-balls and a white neon word – ELECTRIC – from its days as a nightclub called Electric Circus, stage spotlights and a banner reading Baby Blue to remind everyone of the soft porn Saturday night movies fledgling City TV used to broadcast from this address, and a shelf of Donald Ducks as a homage to its most recent incarnation as a Disney rehearsal studio.
I love the grown-up mood of the 104-seat room. The brasserie-style booths in dark red leather and the glossy dark wooden millwork are most convivial. You can see everything from anywhere in the dining room and while there is music playing, it’s not loud enough to drown out normal conversation. Bigourdan has opened with an army of very well-trained servers and food runners who know their business and are sincerely enthusiastic about the food. This is how “casual” can be done by true professionals and I imagine it will prove enormously popular. Prices are democratic, the ambience will suit hipsters, fashion vicitms, plutocrats in sport shirts, celebrities and even regular folks like you and me. The wine list is small but interesting. The house cocktails are imaginative but not too precious. Above all, David Lee’s food here is a revelation.
At its heart is barbecue. Lee has always been into barbecue. Ten years ago, when he was chef-co-owner at Splendido, he developed an obsession about cooking brisket in his Green Egg. As research for the Carbon Bar, he made innumerable trips south to check out the various possibilities before deciding that Texas-style was his preference. Then he went back down there with his team of cooks, standing in line for hours to get the ribs at some renowned establishment, sussing it all out.
The results can be best appreciated by ordering the Pit Master Platter ($29) containing pork ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork ssäm, smoked turkey breast and a surprisingly insipid jalapeno sausage. The meats are slow-cooked in a wood fire pit fired with white oak logs and they are superb. The ribs, in particular, are exemplary, lean and pink with tender meat that doesn’t fall from the bone but needs to be cut away (this is knife-and-fork, not messy-fingers barbecue). The flavour is complex and smoky, like the scent of a summer campfire, but it’s all from the process. Lee’s exhaustive experiments with rubs and marinades brought him back to the point of utmost simplicity – just salt and pepper. The sour, intense barbecue sauce – and a second, less puckering espresso sauce – are served on the side not slathered over the meat. The Cumbrae-sourced brisket is also impeccable – super-tender with a sweet layer of fat, the pickling flavours almost subliminal. The turkey breast is in utter contrast – juicy, delicately smoky, thickly sliced – and the pulled pork is tremendous, big soft chunks of meat with a crisp black crust that one could go on eating forever.
There are other meaty options among the mains as well as oak-fired octopus, sliced into a chic gumbo with okra, sausage, hominy corn and lobster meat – rich, tender textures in a lobster stock base with a tang of heat. From the list of side dishes we ordered collard greens, which come chopped and stirred up with onion, tomato and garlic and proved disarmingly delicious.
Starters are lighter, fresher and show more international influences. Hamachi tartare is really more of a gentle ceviche, the fish diced and tossed with morsels of fresh clementine, sliced raw pear, coriander leaf, tiny, intensely flavourful tomatoes and kombucha vinegar. The dish isn’t too sharp, the flavour of the hamachi standing out nicely.
Charred scallops are set up over a “brisket espuma” which turns out to be a rich foam intensely flavoured with brisket pickling spices. The dish gets further edge from horseradish, scruples of grainy mustard, sliced dill pickle and crunchy little caraway rye croutons. I shall always have horseradish with my scallops from this day on.
Popcorn pork are little breaded nuggets of crisply deep-fried pork: perfectly greaseless, they are the apotheosis of bar snacks. Cheddar cheese croquettes are molten inside their crisp crusts, a dip of purèed apple-chipotle sauce acting as a cool and fruity accompaniment. Split pea fritters are like miniature bhajis, crisp and piping hot, meant to be dipped into the finely minced pico de gallo sauce alongside. As gourmet-bait, Lee also includes crisp fritters of chicken skin, served in a rack with a dish of chili vinegar for dipping.
After all this, we only had room for one dessert – a clever, not-too-sweet, banana-toffee tart topped with masses of whipped cream and shattered dark chocolate.
It has taken a long time and several million dollars to set Carbon Bar in motion but the team at the top know their business. Next year, Lee plans to introduce chef’s tasting menus for the hightop near the open kitchen and the 30-seat private dining room on the second floor.
The Carbon Bar is at 99 Queen St. E., (great company for George, just a few doors east). 416-947-7000. www.thecarbonbar.ca.