When they left the city in June of 2008, Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth looked, by any measure, like a culinary power couple at the peak of their game.
Mr. Caballo, who had spent the early part of the decade working in top kitchens here and in Spain, was the executive chef at Niagara Street Café, where he'd built an enviable following with his thoughtful, French- and Spanish-inflected cooking. His wife, Ms. Nemeth, was the chef de cuisine at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar. Though her name wasn’t above the door, she brought verve and personality to the restaurant’s ingredient-focused cooking, and helped to propel the room to a level that had rarely been seen around town.
They drove to Vancouver Island for a holiday, then spent a year cooking at an agriturismo in Tuscany, then on to Spain, and back to B.C.’s west coast, and a fishing resort in Panama. They wanted to try out different parts of the world to figure out where they’d like to open their own place.
Just shy of four years later, the lease on the Niagara Street Café space came up, and they found the answer for where to settle: back in Toronto, with a restaurant called Edulis – after the Latin for “edible,” and porcini mushrooms.
Mr. Caballo is in charge of the kitchen. His menu changes daily and is built around French and Spanish country food, much of it served family-style in homely earthenware cazuelas and enameled cast-iron pots. He’s spared no expense or effort to source pristine ingredients: fresh porcini from Oregon, a Beatrix Potter Treasury’s worth of fowl and rabbit, and a seafood assortment – ruby-fleshed sockeye from Alaska’s Copper River, fresh baby octopus, firm-fleshed B.C. herring – to give a fish lover an embarrassing bout of the drools.
His menus have far more than their fair share of blockbuster dishes. The East Coast flounder is done whole, meunière-style, its flesh moist and crazy-making, its skin crispy and pan-crusted, and all of it soaked with torrents of lemon and butter. The veal belly is also extraordinary, gently smoked and served over creamy flageolets that are shot through with pickled apple. These are the sorts of tastes that can drive the unprepared into disbelieving giggles – a common occurrence in Edulis's homey, 33-seat space.
Another dish, of whole heritage-breed chicken roasted slowly in a pot with spring garlic and alfalfa, carved tableside (you have to order it at least a day ahead), brought much of the restaurant to an envious hush one evening recently. As Mr. Caballo lifted the lid from the chicken, threads of steam that smelled sweet, herbal and peppery, of hay and of melting allium and super-concentrated roasted chicken, flooded out and upward, followed by a taunting fog.
The taste? Dark, succulent, gently grassy, not even on nodding terms with supermarket poultry. It might be the greatest roast chicken ever. (Keep in mind, however, that chicken roasted in a pot comes out a colour that can only be described as “chickeny.” Avoid the temptation to think of Steven Harper's thighs.)
The crowd so far is local townhouse dwellers, professionals drinking Lagrein from northeastern Italy, Nemeth-Caballo groupies. The service, which Ms. Nemeth runs, is like the cooking: unselfconscious, full-hearted, accomplished. Ms. Nemeth has a bit of the backpacker’s habit in the way she pronounces dishes: her French accent is conspicuously authentic, with the r’s properly phlegmy, while the “z” in the Spanish “chorizo” is generously lisped. She says “lovely” a lot when explaining dishes. She plays Edith Piaf (nothing in life is perfect) and flamenco music by Nina Pastori. There are oil paintings of roosters on the walls.
Edulis feels different from other restaurants, as if its owners haven’t noticed how so much of the city’s service class mastered the art of cool, casual disinterest in the time that they were away. That warmth and personal touch is entirely what makes it. The couple went away, and learned, and brought a piece of the world back with them and are eager to share it. There’s something refreshing about their lack of irony. They’ve built an absolute gem of a restaurant, too.
There are kinks to work out in the kitchen: Mr. Caballo, who has cooked solo most nights since they opened at the end of April, seemed unfocused one evening: a grilled squid dish lacked for interest and acidity, and a parcel of sweetbreads, walnut and poached veal wrapped in caul fat was too sticky and dark-flavoured, brown on brown on brown.
These are minor issues, however. Mr. Caballo said he’s hired another cook, who will be starting in about a week.
The other night, after Peruvian-style spot-prawn ceviche studded with fiery yellow chilies and crunchy pan-roasted hominy kernels, and after the whole flounder, Ms. Nemeth suggested a simple bottle for the table. Her wine list is short and affordable, with crisp Greek Assyrtiko, stony Prince Edward County Riesling and Italians that taste of wet gravel and dusty cherries. But she bypassed grapes altogether, and brought out a $27 dry cider from Brittany. It tasted like a late lunch in the country somewhere, of sunshine and rolling hills and soft, golden apples.
The people around the table sighed and laughed and loosened buttons, borderline delirious with pleasure, preparing for the next wave of food.
“It's lovely, isn’t it?” Ms. Nemeth asked us.
It absolutely was.
Three stars (out of four)
Here's how our star system works: One star and above is a good restaurant and a place we're recommending. We plan to save four stars for the very best places in the city. Stars reflect the food, service and atmosphere, with price taken into account.
No stars: Not recommended.
One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.