Go out to dinner on October 21 at one of our Restaurants for Change and you can help change Canada for the better.
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Go out to dinner on October 21 at one of our Restaurants for Change and you can help change Canada for the better.
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On perfect summer evenings like this one there is really no finer or more pleasant destination in the city than the Terrace at the Fifth. You ride that old freight elevator up out of the crowded night club or the equally crowded Pubhouse and you discover that the old magic is more than intact – it has intensified – especially now that chef J-P Challet has returned there as guest chef for the summer.
Libell Geddes is the owner of the Fifth – her impeccable taste has always informed its ambience and she has a knack for getting the absolute best out of her chefs. I would argue that Didier Leroy, J-P Challet and Marc Thuet all did their finest work in the tiny kitchen at the Fifth and it was such a treat to taste Challet’s food again. After he closed Ici, his charming little bistro on Harbord Street, he went back to his old stomping ground at the Windsor Arms for a year. One feels he is happier to be at the Fifth. And his legions of fans will be thrilled to discover that he is working on a new book and testing some of the recipes in the restaurant. Should you go – and you should, you really should – and if you are very lucky you might find some of the same things on the menu as we tasted last week.
We started with excellent Italian caviar presented in three different ways – as a garnish on a spoonful of tangy, mustardy beef tartare; as the dark crown on a perfectly cooked potato and lemon raviolo; and, unforgettably, strirred with a little cream and just an unexpected drop of maple syrup into very soft-boiled egg, served in its shell.
Then there was a salad, in celebration of the first good weather of the year, made with sweet, juicy kumato tomatoes with crispy pickled ginger avocado and a goat cheese burrek that stole the show, the unctuous cheese bursting out of the little pastry pouch.
We tasted a scallop, barely cooked, dressed with asian pear and king crab, and sharing the elegant plate with white asparagus, a single potato gnocchi and a subtle harissa mayonnaise.
Our main course brought a tremblingly tender cuboid of braised beef short rib with some glazed heirloom carrots of a delightfully intense flavour and two examples of J-P’s affection for frying – a truffle cromesquis and a soft potato croquette, perfect for mopping up the moment of bordelaise sauce.
Dessert was simplicity itself – a slice of lemon tart that J-P had made that day paired with a crisp white meringue and some berries.
I think we are all aware that Toronto is swinging back a little towards elegant dining and accomplished service after so many years at the comfort end of the gastronomical spectrum. It’s great to see that the Fifth is still a leader in the field.
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.
If you hanker to be the anti-hero of your very own film noir, I know the place where your adventure can begin. Head over to The Senator after 9:00 p.m., when the last of the dinner crowd has melted into the night. That’s when they turn down the lights and set out candles on the tables in those vintage booths. Ease onto a stool at the bar and ask bartender Tim Morse to make you a house Derby – a tart, boozy mix of Maker’s Mark bourbon, Earl Grey-infused Dillon’s gin, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice and fresh mint. Look around you while you nurse the first of many. Sure, it’s still The Senator – still rocking 1948, when the place was last redecorated – and it’ll be serving breakfast as usual in a few short hours. But Bobby Sniderman, his son Zachary and manager Peter Moscone have a new plan for their beloved sanctum. From 9 to midnight it becomes Bar Senator and a very cool spot it is.
I was there last Thursday night when they launched the concept. I had expected Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks but the mood was far more merry. DJ Matt Cully of “Goin’ Steady” was playing anything from Motown girl bands to Dolly Parton to Sinatra. Chef Andrew Taylor was sending out miniaturized versions of his wicked, panko-crusted crab cakes, Cumbrae beef sliders, tangy guacamole with crunchy crudités, and tiny grilled cheese sandwiches as if afternoon tea at Downton Abbey had found its way to Pittsburgh. They are all parts of the new bar menu at Bar Senator and the crowd was loving them.
The crowd… Who will they be on nights to come, I wonder? There aren’t many places this close to Dundas Square where a person can relax with a cocktail and a crab cake. The after-theatre crowd will congregate, I imagine. Hipsters will totally get it, sliding into the booth under the retro Coca Cola billboard (there are many homages to the Dark Master at the Senator). Ryerson sophisticates who crave style, not just empty calories, may also contribute to the clientele. As will any citizens of our unique metropolis who have a sense of history. And also, of course, the aforementioned wannabe-film-noir-anti-heroes in their trench coats and homburgs. I have a special pair of spectacles that turn this garish technicolor world to black-and-white and I wore them all through the party that Thursday night. It was the right thing to do.
Bar Senator (The Senator Restaurant) 249 Victoria Street, (416) 364-7517 www.thesenator.com.
I dropped into Ici Bistro this morning, invited by chef-patron Jean-Pierre Challet, who had some news he wanted to share. J-P and I have been in conversation, off and on, since about 1988, when he was chef of the Inn at Manitou and I was just starting out at Toronto Life, and I am always interested in what he has to say. On the quiet north-west corner of Harbord and Manning, Ici has been his domain for the last five years – intimate, charming, casual, 25-seats which have to be reserved weeks – even months – in advance. Everyone loves Ici, including J-P himself. But, come the end of April, he is moving on.
“Sit down while I make us some breakfast,” he suggested, “and I’ll tell you about the plans.”
Here is the gist of it. In May, J-P is returning to The Windsor Arms, the boutique hotel rebuilt and reopened by developer George Friedmann in 1999, with J-P as the original chef. But this time, J-P is going in with a different concept, basically moving his successful Ici into the recently redecorated restaurant space beside the Courtyard. Instead of 25 seats, he will have 40, but Ici’s brigade travels with him and so does his philosophy of “bistronomy” – together with the reasonable prices that have always made Ici such good value. He’ll be cooking there four nights a week, in person, and taking occasional weeks off to carry on with the renovations of his farm near Lyon in France.
And another thing – Friedmann is backing him with a retail bakery in the old market space opposite CityTV on Queen Street West. J-P’s famous croissants will be for sale there along with a glorious selection of quiches and fruit tarts and pies – a huge treat for a part of the city that is so poorly served with top-quality bakers and patissiers.
And Ici…? J-P isn’t sure. He intends to retain control of the space, maybe install a protégé behind the stoves… We must wait and see.
Time travel is possible and I have experienced it. Last Thursday. At The Fifth. That famously slow freight elevator carried me back 15 years as it rose to the fifth floor. And when the heavy wooden doors slid apart, everything was as I remembered it. A log fire blazed in the hearth. Candles twinkled on linen-covered tables and gleamed off the old wooden posts and beams of that timelessly elegant space. And there in the tiny kitchen was chef Didier Leroy, tousled black hair and all, hard at work grating black Perigord truffle into oeufs en cocotte, looking exactly the same as he did in the year 2000 when I named his work at The Fifth the best food in Toronto.
Bringing Didier back for a guest appearance was just the latest brilliant idea from owner Libell Geddes (though there are two even more recent brainwaves to be found at the bottom of this post). The Fifth Grill’s resident Executive Chef, Brad Livergant (one of Brad Long’s talented protégés) was delighted to share his stoves for the evening. I was delighted to taste Didier’s impeccably disciplined, refined cooking once again in such a beautiful setting.
He began by sending out a disarmingly simple amuse – a toonie-sized disc of perfect pastry spread with a teaspoonful of finely chopped ratatouille, sprinkled with a suggestion of parmesan cheese.
I couldn’t resist ordering the oeuf en cocotte Perigourdine. There were two of them, identical in their ramekins, each one a dark and blissful well of flavour. The egg’s yolk was still runny, thick shavings of truffle and cubes of foie gras nestled over and beside it, then the whole treasure trove was drowned in a dark, heavy Madeira reduction. It was spectacularly rich, the silken textures cut by the accompanying wine, Norman Hardie’s razor-sharp, minerally 2012 Riesling.
My date, Libell Geddes, chose Didier’s alternative appetizer, a subtle, delicately flavoured tartare of loup de mer, the fish’s natural sweetness enhanced by a generous amount of chopped fresh herbs – chives, parsley and capers amongst them. Again, the wine match was spot on – Château Tour de Mirambeau 2012 Sauvignon Reserve – all elements lifting the sea bass into the light.
Chef proposed two main courses, one of them a salmon fillet Dieppoise, the juicy fish smothered in shrimp, mussels, mushrooms and a white wine sauce. I had the lamb – a gorgeous rib off a rack that Didier touched with a little goat cheese and tapenade then wrapped in a ball of crisp, glossy puff pastry. It shared the plate with a small square of carrot mousse, almost as ethereal as foam, and a single roasted and peeled cherry tomato. Such a spare presentation! Nothing added but a little reduced lamb jus to serve as a sauce beside the other pristine flavours. Domaine de la Montagnette 2012 Côtes du Rhône Villages came along for the ride.
And to finish, a juicy tart tatin with a shot of calvados or a puck of dark chocolate mousse robed in even darker chocolate and topped with a flourish of gold leaf. A shot of Crème Yvette was the charmingly retro accompaniment.
It was a beautiful meal, a reminder of how seductive classical French cooking can be. Since his own restaurant closed, Didier Leroy has been consulting with Charles Khabouth, who is opening a twin of Bloor Street’s Bistro La Societé in Montreal. I hope he comes back to do another evening at The Fifth, though, truth be told, I would follow him anywhere.
Now, as promised, two more fabulous ideas for this weekend at The Fifth.
Tonight sees the opening of its Ice Alley bar, an outdoor ice bar in the famous alley off Duncan Street. “You see this throughout the winter in Switzerland,” says Libell Geddes, “so we thought we’d try it here.” From 9 p.m. onwards there will be fire pits, Russian-themed Stoli’ cocktails and mulled wine and a giant outdoor screen for watching the Olympics. Direct access to The Fifth Pub House lets you pop in to warm up and get something delicious to eat.
Tomorrow morning, The Fifth Pub House is opening before dawn (6:30 a.m.) for the gold-medal hockey game. Promised are “Caesars, Breakfast Food, Beer, Friends, Hangover Support Groups.” What a great place to see our warriors do what they do best! The Fifth Pub House can be found at 225 Richmond Street West (the red doors). 416-979-0390.
The Bero web site describes Chef Matt Kantor’s food as “modernist re-interpretations of Spanish and Mediterranean cooking,” a promise that has misled some into expecting ElBulli-style molecular metamorphoses; and while bero means “heat” in Euskara, the language of the Basque people, this isn’t Mugaritz either. It’s really much more sensible to visit a new restaurant without any preconceptions at all, especially when the chef does not have a long local track record (I never went to any of Kantor’s Secret Pickle supper club events). And though I had a decent sandwich and soup for lunch once at Commissary (this location’s previous incarnation – two out of three of the same owners), that memory is equally irrelevant.
The little room is more attractive than it was. Yes, there are moments of open brick and barn board, but they read as urban domestic, not hipster grunge. The ambience feels more like someone’s dining room, with gentle lighting, a shelf of books and comfortable, well-padded chairs. High stools at the long wooden bar also look inviting – somewhere to sit and explore the list of interesting cocktails (a temptation we resisted this time). Service was friendly, attentive and knowledgeable and though Chef Kantor was not in the kitchen this night and therefore unable to describe his creations as they were brought to the table, our server did an admirable job. As did chef de cuisine, Chris Scott, whose cv includes L.A.B., URSA and Acadia. A succession of sophisticated, accomplished, surprising and, above all, delicious dishes emerged from the kitchen. Sometimes, when a chef decides to be unusual or avant garde, the results are pretentious or chi-chi – not when the thinking behind the food is as coherent and the execution as confident as we experienced at Bero.
There is no à la carte – just two tasting menus, one of seven dishes ($98 + $63 for wine pairings), the other of four ($68 + $36 for wine pairings). If you choose the latter option, you have a mix-and-match choice of three dishes for each course, a polite way of giving the customer a measure of control.
I began with a dish minimally described on the menu as “hen egg – lamb neck – potato – nori.” The components filled the small, deep bowl of a broad-rimmed soup plate. Two crisp, nori-dusted potato chips formed a broad cross that hid a poached hen egg, its runny yolk barely contained by the just-set pouch of albumen. Beneath the egg was the braised, pulled lamb neck meat, rich, sweet and extraordinarily moist and tender. But one had to dig to find it for the lamb and the egg were all but buried in silky whipped potato. The bursting of the egg yolk was the key that unlocked the door to the riches – gorgeous soft textures offset by the potato crisps. Imagine a marriage of oeuf en cocotte and a very high-end shepherd’s pie… Quite the appetizer. An ounce or two of Tawse Riesling cut through everything like an acidic scalpel.
My second dish (“octopus – sweet potato – piquillo – pork”) was equally successful. The grilled octopus tentacle was tender and juicy at its plumpest diameter, tapering to crispness. A salty chunk of braised pig face, its surface nicely caramelized, turned out to be as unctuously soft as a terrine. A single slice of sweet piquillo pepper refreshed the protein, its simplicity subtly pointing up the dramatic transformations imposed on the sweet potato. Here it appeared as a purée, barely spiked with something that might have been mustard. There it was turned into powdery crumble. At the north and south of the beautiful presentation it showed up disguised as a piece of roasted carrot. Sure, it was all very clever, but also meaningful on the palate and a textural tour de force. The suggested wine, Viña Cartín 2012 Albariño, was a fine choice, with refreshing acidity but enough stone-fruit fragrance to harmonize with the piquillo and the sweet potato.
At this point the kitchen sent out an extra dish to all four of us – a single, supple tortellino stuffed with a spicy farce made from lamb neck and shoulder, seasoned with paprika and a hint of garlic. Four slices of black truffle worked their way in among the flavours while an intensely lamby reduction showed off the kitchen’s mastery of a classic demi-glace. The aromatic oak and weight of Flat Rock Chardonnay was an inspired match.
Duck came next – two thick, tasty, sapid slices of red breast. My mother always served “sand” with roasted game birds – fine bread crumbs finished in the oven that picked up fat and juices on the plate in a most delectable way. Here, the kitchen adds two little mounds of rye crumbs to this dish to a similar effect. I thought I tasted caraway in the crumbs, but it may just have been the flavour of rye. There were other little gustatory ghosts on the dish – like harmonics from unplucked guitar strings: I’d swear I tasted dill on the tube of soft broccoli mousse. I only know one chef who has ever made magic from broccoli stalks – Susur Lee in his Lotus days. Here they had been cut into a brunoise and lightly pickled, a good condiment for the duck and a dazzling contrast to the dish’s final component, a soft, earthy purée of morcilla blood sausage. Malivoire’s 2012 Small Lot Gamay was a precisely judged match.
Given the kitchen’s meticulous care for detail and talent for presentation, dessert was always going to be interesting. Unexpectedly, it was the least dainty of all the dishes, centred with a thin, biscuitty tart shell filled with a dense, sticky purée of Asian pear. Chunks of sherry-soaked financier cake and a quenelle of earl grey ice cream shared the plate which was finished with a squiggly extrusion of white mascarpone.
They offer a second dessert at Bero, should one be required, or there is a cheese option (a very small amount of cheese for a $12 add-on). Instead, you would be advised to wait for the mignardises – wobbly, sugar-crusted negroni jellies, melt-in-the-mouth chocolate brownies and salted caramel squares on the night we were there.
Bero meets so many of the criteria I cherish in a small restaurant – excellent service, a relaxed ambience, basic comforts, interesting drinks and food from a chef with a personal vision and the technical skills to back it up. There’s really no need to try to categorize it much beyond saying it’s proudly contemporary and gastronomically fascinating. None of us had a dish that failed to please, though the menu changes often enough, I gather, that regular customers will be guaranteed new adventures. Next time I go, I’ll fork out the necessary pair of C-notes for the 7-course dinner with drinks and tip. That’s pricey for Leslieville, but not for the quality provided at Bero.
Open for dinner only, Wednesday through Saturday, Bero is at 889 Queen Street East (on the south east corner with Logan). 416 477 3393. www.bero-restaurant.com.
How cold was it at Langdon Hall this week? Not quite cold enough to keep my wife off the little skating rink they have flooded on the basketball court. I watched her do her elegant thing for a while until the wind chill drove us indoors to the soothing heat of the spa. Not cold enough, either, to keep the heroic construction crew from their ongoing outdoor work expanding the dining room and kitchen. Some beneficent sprite must have blessed the infant Jason Bangerter at his christening with a particularly chefly gift – that whenever he took on a new job, the owners would give him a new kitchen in which to play. It happened at Auberge du Pommier and then again at Luma. Now at Langdon Hall he will have 50 percent more space in which to perform his art than Jonathan Gushue ever did, along with the very latest generation of induction stoves. If he now seems as quietly excited as a well-mannered kid in a candy store, just wait until the summer when he gets his hands on the produce from the garden and the wild things from the woods…
But his good fortune is also ours, of course – as we tasted on Tuesday night. It was a busy evening for Chef and his brigade – the first Wine Maker Dinner was also taking place in a private dining room, organized by the hotel’s new General Manager, Christophe le Chatton. Langdon Hall has three stellar sommeliers (known as the three musketeers). Le Chatton must be their D’Artagnan, then, for he, in his day, was Toronto’s finest. Langdon’s lead sommelier, Katy moore, was kind enough to invite us to the dinner (a spectacular array of Domaine Faiveley Burgundies with five courses and no doubt innumerable intermezzi) but we were determined to see what Bangerter was up to on the à la carte, so we ate in the main dining room with its views of the nocturnal garden (fairy lights glinting from the snow) and of the new 30-seat extension, where the steps down to the lawn used to be. We ordered conservatively, but many other little sample dishes were sent out. They spoil you rotten at Langdon Hall.
So we shared a lobster salad – perfectly timed pieces of tail and claw, juicy and quivering but poached long enough to taste of lobster without losing any of their natural tenderness. There were cubes of firm lobster-court-bouillon jelly and a streak of pink lobster roe across the plate. Chef had chosen leek as the crustacean’s date for the night – leek turned into crisp tempura wands, into moistly poached, crunchy little drums, into drops of silky purée, even into a dusting of pleasantly bitter leek ash. Garnished with fennel fronds, the whole plate looked like a Joan Miro painting and was gone in a trice.
Wendy started with slices of marinated albacore tuna (see above) that came close to the textural place where fish becomes meaty but kept their discreet marine flavour. Carrots were the supporting cast this time – bias-cut coins, shaved ribbons, some lightly pickled, others roasted to tenderness, still others minced into a brunoise and turned into a sweet-tart relish. As a sort of dressing, a ginger and perilla purée brought in a fresh spectrum of flavours. The presentation reminded me of a display cabinet at the Pitt-Rivers museum – comprehensive, dramatic, surreal… Charles Baker’s 2011 Ivan vineyard riesling was brilliant with it.
My appetizer was billed as a toasted barley and sweet onion pudding – a rich, rustic Canadian cousin to a risotto with moist strands of duck confit stirred in. It was topped with generous hunks of melt-in-the-mouth pan-seared foie gras and startled by moments of tart preserved wild strawberry around the plate. Softly fried sage leaves brought a vegetal note and the Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2009 Gewurztraminer caressed the dish like a louche and loving courtesan.
“You must try this,” said Chef, as a dish of Humboldt squid appeared. One can only imagine the size of the creature in life! He had cut its body into cubes fully an inch and a half across, some poached, others battered and fried. How do you flatter a Humboldt squid? With a hank of the crunchy green lichen they’re calling “caribou moss” and a tangerine aïoli and some dabs of sea buckthorn for acidity, and a sauce of squid ink that was as black as the squid itself was white.
Are you getting the picture? I was strongly reminded of the way Bangerter used to cook at Auberge, where his European, Mosimann-trained roots were always showing. He’s Canadian, lives in Milton, started out with John Higgins at the King Edward hotel in Toronto, but spent three or four very formative years on the other side of the water. His food these days is so refined – not as ethereal as Jonathan Gushue’s, but discreetly substantial and with all sorts of subtle surprises.
Wendy had ling cod as a main course, the fish bronzed and parting into moist petals. A bed of lentils provided bottom (as we English say), and salsify appeared three ways, as crisp ribbons, as a soft purée and as oiled and roasted chips. A parsnip-vanilla jus linked all the flavours together and an unexpectedly firm, crunchy white cippolino onion, masquerading as a baby turnip, also made a contribution. Our sommelier chose Vasse Felix 2011 chardonnay from Margaret River as a complement.
Me, I had the venison – two cylinders of tenderloin that showed all the gradations from seared surface to a rare ruby-coloured heart. There was a spicy confit of red cabbage turned into a purée, big blocks of butternut squash scented with pine from the property, some delicate Brussels sprout leaves and a peppercorn-game jus by way of a sauce. La Spinetta’s 2009 “Pin,” a blend of sangiovese and montepulciano, hit just the right note.
Langdon’s ace pastry chef, Sarah Villamere, departed with Jonathan Gushue, leaving big shoes to fill. Rachel Nicholson seems up to the task. She made a stiff custard of citrus and coconut milk and encased it in a square of saffron-coriander gelée, topped with a gossamer ricepaper tuille.
It only remained to polish off a confection of picobello cheese that had been transformed into custard, then torched and served over crumbled chicken skin and huckleberry compote, and we were ready for bed.
I’ve seen many chefs come and go at Langdon Hall in the 25 years since it has been open. Jason Bangerter certainly belongs in their (mostly) mighty company. He is having enormous fun, working wickedly hard and is filled with excitement at the possibilities that await him in the months to come.
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.