It all sounded so new last summer when this big barn of a restaurant opened. It all seemed a bit old hat last night, when I finally got around to eating there. It’s still big, of course. You can sit at the long, long bar on cute stools that look like giant springs or at one of the eight communal tables that each seat eight people and promote a mood that reminded me a lot of a school commissary. You can even go downstairs where live music is often played. I stayed upstairs and parked myself in a corner, the better to soak up the vibe. Here, as in so many of our new restaurants, décor is deliberately shabby. The bare brick walls have been whitewashed, as have the ducts and pipes laid bare across the ceiling. Light comes from ninety assorted metal cylinders hanging over the bar or from eight of those bundles of dead neon tubes that seemed so cool at Delux on Ossington a couple of years ago. Last night someone kept fiddling with the dimmer switches – up, down, bright, dark – a game I always find oddly annoying.
My reading about this restaurant had assured me that I would be overwhelmed by the hipster energy and dazzled by the coolness of the crowd. Tuesday was probably the wrong night to go. It was busy but aside from the birthday party at the other end of the room most people were there to have dinner rather than flaunt. Fashion-wise, it was a mixed bag. The men on the staff were all dressed like voyageurs with beards, tartan shirts and woollen hats pulled tight over their heads (I imagine they must have been itchingly uncomfortable with the heating was turned up high). The women were dressed more in the eclectic second-hand Ralph Lauren style favoured by Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. The music came from that era, too – or slightly earlier. It was vintage Bob Dylan, hour after hour. The child sitting at the bar for dinner with his father obviously didn’t think much of it. He kept his own headphones on for most of the meal. Quality time with dad.
I enjoyed the service. My server was very friendly and efficient, and quite proud of the special of the day – a 35-ounce ribeye, cooked on the bone and served with béarnaise sauce and the usual trimmings, for $90. I suppose there are other men in Toronto who would have attempted it, but 30 ounces of beef is my limit these days so I turned my attention to the menu with its lists of “entrees” and “plates.”
Even ordinary portions are generous at Parts and Labour and when dishes are heaped so high presentation ceases to be much of an issue. The “plate” I began with consisted of soft chunks of moist, lightly smoked trout mixed up with chopped hard-boiled egg, thinly sliced radishes, crunchy beetroot that had been shredded like vermicelli and tossed with a tart dressing (a little too tart for the delicate flavour of the trout) and torn bread warmed up with some oil to form delicious croutons. Fresh herbs were everywhere – coarsely torn mint, parsley, dill and chervil that brightened the dish considerably. That is their role in life, after all, to be their own fresh, unapologetic selves, like witty singletons a wise host asks to his dinner parties. In the middle of it all was a dollop of tangy horseradish crème fraîche the size of a child’s fist. It was a pretty good dish – enough food to satisfy as dinner if you were eating at home – with some interesting flavour combinations.
A couple of main courses led me deeper into the evening. The first starred a slab of roasted black cod, very slightly undercooked so that although the silky petals of fish were moist and opaque they weren’t quite as tasty as they might have been and the skin was soft rather than crispy. The fish wore a tangled toupée of scorched watercress (juicy, crunchy with a delectable pepperiness) and lay on top of a jumble of cauliflower florets, diced pork belly and foraged mushrooms like slippery little hattifatteners. Beneath it all was a primer coat of well seasoned parsnip purée and beside it on the plate two stripes of a green sauce that could have been described either as a Green Goddess or a pesto without danger of contradiction.
My other main course presented an island-continent of excellent mashed potatoes whipped up with horseradish and topped with soft leaves of purple kale. There were roasted cippolini onions on the side and a deep moat of dark, rich maple jack sauce spiked with bacon lardons. The principal protein was calf’s liver, which came crowned with shredded and crisped pig’s ear, a brilliant garnish that really stole the show. But the dish had some serious problems. The plate was cold for one thing, so by the time it reached me the sauce was also cold and had started to congeal. And the liver had been cut very thickly so that while its edges were dry and overcooked, its centre was still raw and gummy. There is a fine art to timing the cooking of liver and few chefs are as adept at it as they may think. I remember Charles Oberdorf, when he was food editor at Toronto Life, telling me he would cross the GTA to eat calf’s liver grilled by the late Freddie Lo Cicero, the meat cut into thin slices then set very briefly on a hot grill so that the surface charred a little but the inside was still juicy. Mistiming it by twenty seconds in either direction spoiled everything.
Desserts got a bad rap here when the place opened last summer but last night’s vanilla panna cotta was super – sleek and wobbly and rich under a warm compote of white wine grapes.
The wine list could do with a makeover. There are less than 30 in all and nothing on the list is Canadian, though the server told me they did have an Inniskillin Pinot Noir. “We’re changing the whole list next week,” she assured me when the glass of red I asked for proved unavailable. I’ve heard that one before, of course, but this time I hope it’s true.
Parts and Labour is located at 1566 Queen Street West (at Dowling Avenue). 416 588 7750. www.partsandlabour.ca.