Archive for the ‘Toronto’ Category

Nota Bene presents David Lee’s Taste of August menu

02 Aug

To Nota Bene, to preview David Lee’s Taste of August menu – a most elegant expression of some of the treats of an Ontario summer. The restaurant has a charming feeling of calm and spaciousness early in the evening and early in the week, though the bar is usually busy with patrons taking advantage of the generous Happy Hour (actually 4:00 to 7:00) when Lee’s delectable bar snacks are offered for a mere $4. The menu itself – five courses – costs a very reasonable $59 with matched cocktails and wines for another $36.

The first course stars the year’s first great tomatoes – a selection of different small red, yellow and purple heirlooms from Vicki’s Veggies in Prince Edward County, intense little flavour bombs of tangy sweetness. Lee dresses them with basil leaves and a chipotle vinaigrette thickened with roasted tomatillo pulp and chili oil, the prickle of peppery heat a lovely counterpoint to the perfume of the basil. On the other side of the plate, meanwhile, representing the pleasure of sin against the virtuous salad, is a slim crab melt sandwich of rich, runny cheese and crab meat inside golden fried brioche slices. Nota Bene’s sommelier (Nick Baldassari, lately of Bar Buca) proposes a cocktail with the dish rather than a wine, a Rio Cubano of muddled mint leaves, lime juice, pineapple juice and cachaça. It’s cold, tart, aromatic and utterly refreshing.

My wife’s unabashedly eager affection for chilled sweet English pea soup has raised eyebrows in the past, but her standards are high and based around an insistence on pea-purity (woe betide the potage that sluts itself up with alien flavours). Lee’s version passed her scrupulous tests. A thick, silky purée, it contained a few whole peas and, at the heart of the bowl, a small slice of creamy burrata Pugliese to add the richness of dairy to the head-filling, pea-green flavour. A crisp, golden, wafer-thin crostini, like Melba toast that’s died and gone to heaven, was served separately, to be crumbled onto the soup perhaps, or dipped into it, or used as a utensil to fish for the slice of burrata – there were no instructions… Matching a wine to a soup is often tricky – especially a soup with such a full body – but Baldassari  found a dazzling solution – “Sillery,” a white Pinot Noir from Frecciarossa in Lombardy with great weight and richness of its own.

A pasta course followed: a brace of big firm tortellini with taleggio cheese and black Australian “perigord” truffles grated on top. Zucchini blossoms had been chopped into morsels to add an intriguing, almost bitter vegetal note. This time the wine was chosen to contrast the unctuous textures of the dish – Norm Hardie’s 2013 “Calcaire,” a bone-dry, sharp and minerally ménage of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgogne and Riesling.

Do you pay any attention to the prophesies of experts who claim to predict the coming trends? The next big thing in gastronomy? I have it on good authority that lamb will be the darling meat for the next little while. By a complete coincience, David Lee is offering Haldimand County lamb “three ways” as one of the two main course options on this August menu. He prepares it with his customary elegance and refinement. There is a firm piece of loin, almost gamey in its lamby-lanolin identity, a smaller chunk of tenderloin with a more delicate flavour and a texture so tender you really don’t need to take a knife to it, and lastly, a tranche of the lamb belly or “breast” as it used to be called – a cut that is rarely seen but is layered with delicious fat and, in this fine version, perfumed with rosemary. A bonus “fourth way” came with the scattering of crispy little shards of lamb crackling. Then there was a friter of peaches-and-cream corn, soft on the inside, crisp on the surface; a moment of olive tapenade (classic with lamb, of course, and justifiably so); some spinach for balance and a mustardy jus. It sounds straightforward but the quality of the lamb (and the cooking) lifted it head-high. Somm Baldassari paired it with 2013 Whoa Nelly! Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette valley and a very good time was had by all.

Were we full by now? We were not. So the house slipped in an extra course of three cheeses – minute amounts of three beauties curated by afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique: buffalo milk Fuoco, Eweda Cru and Glen Garry’s renowned Lankaaster. Taylor Fladgate was an ideal accompaniment but a cinnamon-spiked apple purée was a much too powerful condiment.

And then it was time for dessert… Years ago, I remember Michael Stadtländer’s default pud was a loose compote of wild blueberries with lemon foam – and indeed the two flavours (and the two colours) are divine together. This time, Nota Bene’s pastry chef had topped an impeccable blueberry compote with a spoonful of lemon gelato and a spoonful of lemon curd – delectable, but a bit too much for the blueberries who had to shout to make themselves heard. A fin of apricot meringue was a brilliant garnish.

There are other, heartier treats at Nota Bene this season for those with the foresight to order them 48 hours in advance. How about a roast suckling pig spread across two courses, one traditional, the other taco-style? Or a lobster boil that also involves shrimp, corn, Linzer potatoes and pork and Mexican oregano sausages? Both are offered for two or four persons.

But I urge you to drop in for the Taste of August menu. Chef’s tasting menus have been out of style for a while, which is a shame because they offer an artist like David Lee a fine opportunity to show his mind and his palate at work over a whole evening, with careful progressions and resonances all in place.


J-P Challet returns to The Fifth for summer

17 May

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.



Pearl Diver

12 Dec
Pearl Diver's fabulous chowdah

Pearl Diver’s fabulous chowdah

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.

Chicken liver and oyster pate. So good!

Chicken liver and oyster pate. So good!

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.

Pickled mackerel to dive for

Pickled mackerel to dive for

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.


Bar Senator

22 Mar

senator bar

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

senator coca small





J-P Challet is moving on

25 Feb


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.




Didier Leroy and The Fifth

22 Feb

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.




21 Feb
Octopus at Bero

Octopus at Bero

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.

hen egg - lamb neck - potato - nori

hen egg – lamb neck – potato – nori

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.



The Carbon Bar

22 Dec
The Carbon Bar - image taken from the place's web site

The Carbon Bar – image taken from the place’s web site



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.  



The Senator reformed

24 Oct
Juicy pickerel fillets with succotash on The Senator's new dinner menu

Juicy pickerel fillets with succotash on The Senator’s new dinner menu

When I think of many of the new restaurants that have opened up on Ossington, Roncesvalles and Dundas Street West in the last few years, places that proudly announce their unpretentious, egalitarian hipness with every dish of comfort Canadiana they plonk onto the menu, I can’t help but think of the Senator Diner. The Senator was there first (I think it really is the oldest restaurant in Toronto) and it will still be there when the new spots are gone, the coolest old daddy of them all. Now owner Bob Sniderman, with the tireless help of dinner manager Peter Moscone, has quietly and carefully set about rebuilding an evening clientele for his beloved property and I think he’s onto something really promising.

I once asked Sniderman how he came to buy the Diner and he started talking about the 1970s, a time when he was working for his father, Sam Sniderman, opening up Sam The Record Man stores across Canada. “Almost every day for ten years I would go round the corner from the record store to The Senator Diner and eat my lunch,” he told me. “The place was totally unknown to anyone except myself, a guy who ran a newsstand and half a dozen other characters. Each of us sat at his own table, like people living out a Graham Greene novel. It hadn’t changed since a spectacular renovation in 1948, and it appealed to that sense of the older cosmopolitan restaurants that every American city had but that otherwise didn’t exist in Toronto. Nick Nicolau owned it (that’s his smiling face on the side of the building), his egg salad sandwiches were great, but in 1984 I heard it was scheduled for demolition. So I bought it.

“That first year, I did just about everything myself. Down to the Food Terminal at five a.m., buy all the produce, prepare it, cook it, serve it, wash the floors, go to bed at midnight, get back to the Terminal by five a.m…. I’ve been working 80-hour weeks ever since.”

The Diner was a tremendous success. By the end of the 1980s, people who shared Sniderman’s enthusiasm for the graceful lines of ’40s populist decor, for terrific burgers, crab cakes and cioppino with plump scallops and saffron, for Dufflet’s cakes and Gay Couillard’s pies and great Californian wines, had adopted the place as their own. Everything changed when the Pantages theatre reopened across the road. The pre-theatre crowd squeezed out the regular Toronto clientele.

“That other-worldly ambience, that feeling of being off the beaten track had been displaced,” recalled Sniderman. “Everyone used to think it was their restaurant, and all of a sudden it was everyone’s restaurant, and not a place where you could peacefully talk, and it was empty by eight.”

Maryland crab cake

Maryland crab cake

Cut to today. As ever, the Diner is packed for breakfast, brunch and lunch but now Sniderman is trying once more to make it a dinner destination – without sacrificing the mood or the appeal of the place. He and Moscone have hired a new chef, Andrew Taylor, with a remarkable resumé that includes Allen’s, Jump, Sequoia Grove, Houston’s, Mövenpick and Langdon Hall, and who now proposes a three-course dinner for the remarkable price of $32, a menu “inspired by traditional Canadian classics and the youthful spirit of Downtown Toronto.”

It’s still the Diner, with bar stools and booths, whimsical antique breakfast cereal displays, vintage Coke advertisements and free peppermints, dishes bussed into bins not carried into the kitchen, and I’m glad of it. Gentrification would mess up the vibe. ’70s plays from a tiny iPhone above the bar but so quietly it’s barely audible; conversation is the background soundscape. The cheerful waitress asks how we’re doing, hands us menus and drinks lists, and sets down a bottle of water. It’s an old milk bottle from Sheldon Creek organic dairy, the place where the Senator gets its milk. Quality ingredients are paramount here – freshly squeezed orange juice, Cumbrae’s beef… I like the drinks list though it needs to expand and upgrade the choice of wines (or bring your own bottle – corkage is $10). They serve Beau’s or Highlander ale on tap, a range of classic cocktails and others they call Chocoholics – basically elaborate milkshakes spiked with booze.

Many years ago, Joanne Kates and Bob Sniderman indulged in a fairly passionate debate about crab cakes – I forget the details but it was big news in those innocent times. I’m glad to see Maryland crab cakes are still on the menu – soft and tasty, full of real crab meat and with a good tan crust from the frying pan. Taylor sets them beside a dainty little salad of seedlings and julienned carrot and radish with a gentle sesame seed dressing. A shallow pool of citrus remoulade is rich and subtly tangy, a nicely judged accompaniment to the crab cake.

Crispy duck breast with super shoestring fries

Crispy duck breast with super shoestring fries

Senator Caesar salad is a more forthright affair, fresh, honest romaine torn up and strewn with crunchy croutons, grated parmesan and chewy berkshire bacon lardons. Any Caesar lives or dies by its dressing and this one is deftly done, deeply flavourful but well balanced.

Is there any need to order the burger or the fish and chips? Both are Senatorial classics, famously excellent. I’d rather try some of the new evening dishes. Pan-fried pickerel is impeccably cooked, a pair of plump fillets that part into juicy flakes at the touch of a fork, its skin golden and crisp. The sauce for the dish is a thick corn chowder, a most harmonious flavour; vegetables are a kind of succotash, jumbling corn kernels with diced carrot, red pepper and green beans – not quite in the same league as the protein.

And I’d like to see a bit more imagination with the medley of broccoli, zucchini, carrots and green beans that accompany a terrific breast of duck, the meat beguilingly tender and crisp-skinned. Taylor garnishes it with a chunky compote of quince and cranberries – another thoughtfully delicious idea.

Boneless short rib of beef is the star of the mains – a meltingly tender piece of meat that has properly reabsorbed its braising juices with a fine flavour that Taylor allows to speak for itself. It sits over first-class Yukon gold mash (handy for mopping up the yummy jus) and is draped with soft ribbons of honey-mustard-glazed carrot and parsnip. Good, honest comfort food to match the room’s warm and friendly mood.

Sticky toffee pudding indeed

Sticky toffee pudding indeed

A range of bought-in cakes and pies fill the dessert menu. The kitchen makes its own sticky toffee pudding, however, and serves a big hot wedge of it, its dark crust glistening with toffee sauce.

In its heyday, the Senator Diner was, as Sniderman explained, a sort of open secret, off the beaten track but beloved by those who enjoyed sitting in a classic blue-collar environment while eating white-collar food. I’d love to see it regain that old reputation and late-evening clientele.

249 Victoria Street, (416) 364-7517





The Huntsman Tavern

06 Oct
Yummy smoked trout and pea pancake small plate

Yummy smoked trout and pea pancake small plate

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.

Great fried chicken hidden under sauce

Great fried chicken hidden under sauce

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.