Ici – J-P Challet’s noble bistronomy

Shrimp frites with rouille ravioli


Things fall apart. The words come from Yeats – from his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, but another brilliant writer borrowed them for the title of a book. “Oh, you mean Chinua Achebe,” said the waitress at Ici, “the great Nigerian novelist.” It’s good when a keen young mind can come to the rescue of a fading memory. And she waited table impeccably, too.

Things come together. I wrote about Ici when it finally opened in October, happy for chef Jean-Pierre Challet and his co-owner, Jennifer Decorte, that the two-year gestation was over. Last week, my wife and I decided we had given them a long enough period of grace and went in for dinner. We were lucky the super-friendly Decorte was able to find us a table. The chic, modern little space on the corner of Harbord and Manning is packed every night from five-thirty to closing time, already a hit with the neighbourhood and a destination for loyal Challet fans from across the GTA. With good reason. For those of us who have followed him since his dazzling Ontario sojourn at the Inn at Manitou in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the news couldn’t be better: J-P is back.

We sat on surprisingly comfortable stools at a counter in the window – a good idea if one has anything remotely private to discuss, as the small tables in the main area of the room are closely set. The menu was full of things we wanted to eat, with every dish available in a large or smaller portion (such an attractive idea) backed up with five or six items for sharing – a plate of oysters perhaps, or charcuterie or a selection of little croquettes. An amuse arrived from the open kitchen while we were making up our minds – a tiny fried crab cake full of sapid crab meat with a chili-spiked mayo for dipping. The big flavour and delicate texture turned out to be typical of the meal that followed. Here were plump juicy shrimp that had been wrapped in potato strings and then swiftly fried so that the potato turned into crisp frite bondage. A rich, silky aïoli shared the plate and then the lily was gilded with three tender, fine ravioli filled with garlicky, red-peppery rouille. A dab of pureed beetroot added startling colour. Another starter brought a goat cheese tart like a miniature quiche made with Challet’s soft, flaky pastry filled with mild melted goat cheese and tangy shallots caramelized with sugar and balsamic. Beside it was a fresh salad of frisée and mache, a single disc shaved from a raw golden beet, and a mound of grated celeriac in a traditional lemon and mustard-spiked mayonnaise dressing.

Challet’s mission these days is to reinterpret classical French bistro ideas in a modern, lightweight manner, sometimes redistributing the elements of a dish. So blanquette of veal arrives as a soft, very thin crepe wrapped around the juicy pulled meat with its white mushroom sauce. Chopped morels and black trumpet mushrooms reinforced the theme in a darker, richer truffled sauce. A cube of perfectly cooked boiled potato, a trembling flan of puréed squash seasoned with lots of white pepper, green beans and strips of heirloom purple carrots as thin as pencils completed the dish.

Magret of duck "Apicius"

Duck magret “Apicius” was our other main course – an old recipe honouring the ancient Roman food writer. The duck’s skin had been marinated with honey, fennel, saffron and anise then fried until the skin was slightly crisp, the layer of fat almost rendered away and the lean breast still ruby-rare. The trick is to cook it long enough to tenderize and bring out the flavour of the meat but not to overcook – a trick of which Challet is the master. The thickly sliced magret was laid over big chunks of sautéed chanterelles beside admirably crusty scalloped potatoes and squeaky green beans.

To follow there are cheeses or a Grand Marnier soufflé that takes 20 minutes to make from scratch. We ordered the lemon trio and it turned out to be a brilliant decision. On the plate was a scoop of creamy lemon ice cream, a lemon tart that I think is the best in the city – the curd exactly sour enough, the pastry ethereal, and a lemon chiboust. Chiboust is best described as the caramelized top of a gâteau St-Honoré that some greedy gastronome has ordered on its own – a layer of stiff lemon pastry cream studded with whole blueberries and topped with very soft Italian meringue which has been caramelized to a light tan with a blow torch. Heavenly.

Challet is a qualified sommelier as well as a chef and suggests a couple of matches by the glass with every dish. His wine list is a thing of beauty with Canadian bottlings outnumbering French and certain local producers strongly favoured – Southbrook, Flat Rock, Malivoire, Ravine, Lailey and Peninsula Ridge the names that leap most readily from the page. Mark-ups are reasonable and most are available in 3-oz or 6-oz pours. Like the menu, the list will change frequently.

It’s great to have Challet back in the saddle, cooking such graceful bistronomy.

Ici is open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. 538 Manning Street (at Harbord). 416 536 0079. www.jpco.ca

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