Why does almost every new restaurant in Toronto feel the same? Rigid – as in: “We only take reservations for the first seating, at either 6 or 6:30. After that, it’s walk-ins.” A woman walks in at 6:45 and they offer to put her on a waiting list. A waiting list! Who are they, Madonna?
And the seating: It’s great that Chantecler pulled it all off on a shoestring, but c’mon, old wooden auditorium chairs, the kind that stack? How ’bout some comfort? There are only 25 seats, of which 10 are at the bar. None are twos, so if you don’t like the communal dining thing, go elsewhere. Oh, and it’s cash and debit only. No credit cards.
On our first visit, they seat the two of us at a four-top. We get lucky: Nobody shows up to share with us. Our second visit, a week later, does not go so well. They seat us at the same four-top as last time and they ask where the third person is. But we booked for two. They ask us to move to the bar. The bar? For dinner?
We say no thanks.
The guy comes back and says we have to move to the bar because there are four people waiting for that four-top. We fight back and say, “But we made a reservation.” The guy says that twosomes are only ever seated at the bar, because they have no tables for two. Geez, different from last week? Do they ever tell anybody that up front?
Clearly they’re discomfited by our pushback. Once ensconced at the bar, we’re given glasses of sparkling wine by way of apology.
It’s tricky to figure out what kind of food they’re doing. There are echoes of chef Jonathan Poon’s Chinese background, hints of retro diner, and a soupcon of snazzy. The menu is diminutive, and pays a lot of attention to what we used to call forgotten cuts of meat. One can hardly call them forgotten any more, since pork neck and beef tongue and cheek have displaced tenderloin on the most-wanted carnivores’ list. Which is great for the restaurants. Imagine the markup! We’re impressed when the waiter pours the chicken consommé onto the composed bouquet of solids in the soup bowl. What is this, Scaramouche or something? But the consommé is less than rich-tasting, despite the charm of its Asian-inflected solids: coriander, raw mushrooms (matsutake, maitake, cremini and shiitake) a raw egg yolk and smoked chicken. Also impressive in presentation are the gnocchi with cod roe, chive and seaweed. But the gnocchi, incredible as it sounds, are too light; all cloud, no savour. As is the white, lighter-than-air sauce that blankets them. It’s potato foam, nicely scented and salted with cod roe; the purple dust on top is powdered dulse seaweed: Like parsley, it looks good on the plate but doesn’t do much.
Speaking of looks, the upside of dining at the bar is watching a chef lightly torch our sweet fresh mackerel and then anoint it with clever slaw of celeriac, apple and baked rhubarb topped with thin rye crisps. He builds a pretty plate from curls of thin-shaved beef tongue and cheek with lightly fermented cabbage, carrots and radish.
There are some good ideas here but the execution is wonky. It’s interesting to build a slightly puckery sauce for chicken on dried oysters (à la chinois) and mustard with shimeji mushrooms, but the chicken is overcooked and tough. The pork neck is rubbery (hard for pork neck not to be rubbery unless braised for a lifetime) but its go-withs are grand: Perfectly (barely) cooked kushi oysters, also delightful barely wilted lettuce, baby chives, and smears of hot XO sauce (redolent of dried seafood) on the otherwise un-fun pork. Lake Huron whitefish fares better than the pork. It is properly cooked and nicely garnished with king oyster mushrooms and pumpkin and sesame seeds. The menu calls for bonito butter but to us it’s beurre blanc.
Vegetarians will be delighted by the stuffed onions, which may be the best executed main on the small menu: Long oval onions have been gentled by poaching and then stuffed variously with nicely creamed kale and sticky rice. Both stuffings have generous flavour (unusually generous for kale and rice, not exactly the flavour stars of the kitchen), and the sauce is charming, a creamy puree of celeriac.
The two desserts on offer both sound way too weird to eat, but each, in its way, works. Plain oatmeal (!!) is topped with poached pears and then a big froth of salutary buckwheat mousse and a lot of brown sugar. Breakfast deconstructed! Surprisingly yummy! Sea buckthorn parfait is tart buckthorn berries pureed and layered with pastry cream, orange blossom and rosewater and soft meringue, with some almond praline for crunch. This too, far from the known world of crème brulée and panna cotta, works better than it sounds.
But is it entertaining enough to forgive the overcooked chicken, the rubbery pork… or, indeed, sitting at the bar? It’s cute to watch cooks composing plates with the retro backdrop of the four-burner vintage electric stove and the tiny white tiles. But cute doesn’t cut it in a restaurant where dinner for two tops a hundred bucks. Professionalism and hospitality count for more. And Chantecler needs more of both.