I was overseas last summer when Patrick McMurray closed his lovely oyster bed and restaurant, Starfish, after 13 years. Successful years – more book and magazine deals were planned in those horseshoe booths over fruits de mer and frites than anywhere else in Toronto, I’ll wager – but the city’s needs in terms of restaurants have changed since 2001 and Patrick saw that the time had come for a reincarnation. I suspect he had only to glance at his other property, Ceiligh Cottage, to see that a more casual approach, drawing locals several times a week rather than once-a-year treat-seekers, made better financial sense. So Starfish closed. And not long ago, Pearl Diver opened in its place. This time, Patrick has a partner in restaurateur, tableware magnate and general ball of energy, Rudy Guo – and also a sister restaurant in Beijing. Initially, the word was that Pearl Diver would be borrowing all sorts of Asian culinary ideas from the sib but it turns out that is not the case. Let me cut to the chase before this paragraph suddenly ends: Pearl Diver is excellent – a bit more casual than Starfish with better food, loads of charm and considerably less expensive.
Those horseshoe booths are gone. In their place are some pale oak church pews organized into booths and separated by confessional screens (actually fancy radiator grills but perfectly good for whispering secrets through – or, since this is a relatively modern place, you can use the power points and iPhone plug-in points to share them with a wider audience). The private room at the back has been transformed into a much less contemporary space called The Pantry, with a turntable, boxes of classic vinyl and piles of excellent vintage cookbooks stacked high. I foresee it becoming one of the most sought-after party spaces in the city. McMurray has also opened up a smal window from the Pantry into the kitchen behind so you can watch the brigade at work. That’s Milosz (aka Tom) Malycha, the chef and also another partner in the business – or if he’s off on a catering gig, his place is admirably filled by chef Martin Zechel. Malycha has added plenty to the menu, including a fine house burger, chicken kiev, hangar steak and other meaty delights to balance the establishment’s natural marine bias.
What hasn’t changed, happily, is the presence of McMurray himself as genial host, shucker extraordinaire and eloquent ambassador of all things soft, wet and tasty from the world’s terraqueous marches. The best time to pin him down with a question and settle in for the answer is during the afternoon, when you can buy a dozen PEI oysters for a mere $15 and drinks cost just $5. Honestly, it’s an amazing deal – but so are the $7 appetizers on the regular evening menu. We had a fascinating mousse-like paté of emulsified chicken livers and oysters served in a baby mason jar and finished with a brûléed caramel top like the operculum on some giant periwinkle. The oyster seems to mute the livery taste of the paté then slides in at the end with its own touch of minerality – slyly rich and enhanced by the shards of caramel. It’s served with a bowl of delicate, crunchy pickled vegetables and some hearty brown toast points with almost too much flavour of their own.
A starter of pickled mackerel proved equally scrumptious, reminding me of my gran’s North Devon recipe for soused mackerel – white vinegar, white pepper, but just enough to balance out the natural aromatic oils in the thick, firmish slabs of fish without giving it that slightly chalky texture you find in a rollmop herring.
And then there’s the chowdah, already a star on social media – lightweight not thick and goopy (cream, yes, but no roux) and delectably indulgent – full of finely chopped clams and fish, pale onion and potato.
For mains, one can still get a whole lobster, or a whole fish, simply grilled – or the aforementoned hangar steak, cooked briefly with a very high heat so the surface is crunchy and carameized but the meat inside is perfectly pink and tender. I had the only ostensibly Asian dish on the menu – a plump filet of rainbow trout poached in a subtle miso broth with soba noodles, green seaweed and sliced shiitake. Very zen.
Yes, sticky toffee pudding is still on the menu. So is a scrumptious crumble of apple, pear and wild cranberry, served à la mode.
Other reasons to go to Pearl Diver? They have Tawse Chardonay and Gamay on tap, dispensed from a cunning system alongside the beer taps. On Thursday to Saturday from 10:00pm to midnight, they shuck oysters at a remarkable bargain price. Sunday sees a morning brunch with San Francisco-style hangtown fry (oyster omelette) and then a proper roast served family style in the evenings. Also, it’s an Ocean Wise establishment.
But really, here’s the thing… For McMurray to go on serving such excellent food at such scarily low prices he needs to fill Pearl Diver every night. In other words, it is in all of our best interests to go there soon and often. We can hobnob with the nabobs of Canada’s publishing industry (should we so choose) or we can sit up at the bar and listen to Patrick’s addictive blarney and eat dozens and dozens of Galway flats – each one like dipping your head into the cold Atlantic
Pearl Diver is at Starfish’s old location – 100 Adelaide Street East (just west of Jarvis Street). 416 366 7827. www.pearldiver.to.