Toronto chefs have been playing a big game of musical chairs in the last year: Matthew Sullivan went to Malena to replace chef Doug Neigel who went to Mercatto to replace chef Rob Rossi. Matthew Sullivan then left Malena. Rob Rossi had left Mercatto to open Bestellen (that’s German for “to order”). We figured from Bestellen’s location (west College Street) and from Mr. Rossi’s connection with a lot of the chefs in the musical chairs game that we could expect another dazzler – in the lineage of Hopgood’s, Acadia, Yours Truly, Grand Electric, Ursa, et al.
Guess again. Bestellen is a steak house.
It looks as hip as all those others, the crowd is as aggressively trendy, the music as hot and the ambience as cool (grey brick walls, thick wood tables, Edison lights) but it is a very well disguised steak house. They do other stuff, but not very well.
Devils on horseback? C’mon, what is this, the 1950s? These are a play on angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon) – dates marinated in brandy and wrapped in bacon. Too sweet, too dense and just plain too weird. Fried Quebec cheese curds are about equally entertaining: Cheese curds, already on the hard side, have only one place to go when you deep-fry them and then let them sit a bit: Hard. Adding smoked ketchup to the mix is not helpful. (More on smoked ketchup later.)
Bestellen was formerly a convenience store, and what was once its walk-in fridge is now a glass cooler for dry-aging meat. Look closely and you’ll likely see a piglet or two (parties of 8 or more can order in advance a whole roasted suckling pig for $59 per person). The cooler is filled with steaks aging (not that much fun to watch) and also with meats that Chef cures in house.
His large charcuterie board ($25) includes mediocre mortadella, foie gras parfait that tastes mostly of chicken liver, very good dry salami and piquant trout rillettes, and a pleasant kielbasa that seems to have as much beef as pork, which is not very Polish.
They do a very good hand-chopped steak tartare with espelette aioli, topped with a quail’s egg that has been first perfectly poached and then deep fried for a mouthburst of liquid gold. House-made grilled brioche slices make this fun food, much like the Betsellen burger. It’s served on a wondrously crunchy house-made brioche bun, with decent fries. This is served with the smoked ketchup, however, which does not turn my crank, especially not on fries. I ask for normal ketchup; they don’t have any. Not for the fries and not for the burger. But the burger is deeply pleasurable, superlative beef cooked rare as ordered. It’s a form of steak, and steak is what they do well here.
The only difference between Bestellen and a traditional steak house is that it doesn’t present itself the way steak houses traditionally do. There is no creamed spinach and no iceberg wedge with blue-cheese dressing. And there are hipsters.
Why else would the fish (seared halibut with tough little gnocchi) be overcooked and the spaghetti with ramps and pecorino be bland? Because steak is the priority here.
The 10-ounce beef tenderloin ($31) has been cooked sous-vide. It is butter with teeth, a perfect pink dream steak. Absent the hard crust (thanks to ultra-high-temperature fast grilling or searing) that often means steak in this town, this steak is incredibly delicate, with no spiced char to obfuscate its essence. Hardcore carnivores will be very happy here.
Among sides, crushed fingerlings with crème fraîche are soggy, and dandelion greens are overwhelmed by fennel sausage, but celeriac slaw is the perfect accompaniment to that supernal steak. Dressed in light buttermilk vinaigrette, the bittersweetness of the celeriac sets off the steak like mink set off Marilyn Monroe.
The desserts change all the time, and tend to get all of chef’s attention since there are usually only two of them. One evening there’s a quite fabulous warm, pudding-like carrot cake topped with cream-cheese mousse. Another evening there’s chocolate pot de crème, a cliché that is only worth doing if done with the best chocolate and lots of it. They do. It all kind of fits together, as long as you remember that Bestellen is not one of the new hyper-interesting artisanal restos. It’s a post-modern steak house.