There were hints in both their histories – threads that you could follow backward so that now, in retrospect, of course this is what Tobey Nemeth and Michael Caballo were destined for.
Ms. Nemeth’s maternal grandparents had met on the prairies in the Dust Bowl years, her grandmother a farm girl from Saskatchewan and her grandfather a Chinese migrant turned restaurant supply salesman, his suitcase bursting open with the goods he carried from town to town. Her grandmother, who had never heard of ginger or soy beans, learned to make tofu from scratch to please him. They opened a Chinese restaurant in Saskatoon in the 1930s. “It was called ‘The Golden something or other,’” Ms. Nemeth said. The Golden Somethingorother thrived.
Ms. Nemeth’s father had hospitality in his blood also: Halfway around the world, his parents had endured the communist takeover of Hungary by running a restaurant in their home.
As for Mr. Caballo, his father’s side ran a churro stand and a jamón sandwich stall in Madrid, building their lives around food and love and constant daily labour.
So yes, maybe some people are born to be in the restaurant business. But a place like Edulis does not come about by birthright. You need those other bits: the commitment and the striving, the skill, the refusal to give in to satisfaction – the constant daily labour and the love.
Edulis opened two years ago this spring with a menu of French and Spanish dishes that plied the gulf between refined and rusticated. The couple had already established themselves as two of the city’s best chefs: Ms. Nemeth at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Mr. Caballo at Niagara Street Café, where Edulis now stands.
At their new spot, he worked the stoves alone many nights as Ms. Nemeth charmed the guests out front. The service was warm and comfortable. The food – fresh B.C. herring poached in oil with carrots; tender-crunchy octopus paella; hay-roasted chicken; baba au rhum – was superb in general, mind-blowing every now and then.
Unlike so many North American chefs who farm out their kitchens and service to underlings, who dream of infinite expansion plans, the couple pledged that on nights when they couldn’t be at Edulis, then Edulis would not open. That was the tradition they came from. “If we could talk to every single person who walked through the door we would,” Ms. Nemeth said. “That’s what we strive to do.”
I visited twice in the early days and loved it, although the place had room still for improvement. My review ran exactly two years ago this weekend, with three stars on it. “Pleasure bordering on delirium,” the headline read.
Yet, where a review typically marks the end of a critic’s relationship with a restaurant, I couldn’t help returning to Edulis. Ms. Nemeth and Mr. Caballo’s 32-seat spot kept getting better and better, the cooking more precise and distinctive and consistently thrilling, the ingredients more out of the ordinary, the wine and service and mood of the room more of a celebration each time I went back.
On Sundays at lunch, in the foie, porcini, suckling pig and booze-fuelled hours that sometimes stretched nearly into darkness, it didn’t matter that there was a perennial wait for reservations, or that, at $40 for the set menu, this was already by many multiples the single greatest restaurant deal in town. Ms. Nemeth wanted Edulis’s customers to know that here they did lunch in the southern European style, and not brunch à la always-in-a-hurry Hogtown. Relajarse, people.
As an inducement, they began selling all their wines at half-off. Now, the room felt more like a convivial cider house in San Sebastián than a hot spot at the edge of Condoland.
And where the cooking on those Sunday afternoons was simple, the ingredients relatively unmanipulated, at dinner it grew more complex and astonishing. The couple abandoned their à la carte service for set menus only, $50 or $70, or more if you wanted white truffles ($140) or canard à la presse ($150). Ms. Nemeth traded her server’s dress for chef’s whites, working both the floor and the kitchen as time allowed.
One night last fall, they served creamy, soft-scrambled egg revueltos with Nova Scotia snow crab, warm butter and a squall of Italian white truffles, a dish so profligate and so gorgeous that you wanted to cheer when they set it down. They brought out a salad made from radishes and pears dressed with yuzu, with raw wild striped bass on top, in a pool of ajo blanco, the singularly tasty almond and garlic soup.
There was milk-fed lamb roasted with black trumpet mushrooms and hazelnuts, and giant squid stewed in its ink. There were little plates of lobster blanquette – that’s lobster in a cream and egg and butter and white truffle sauce, roughly – so excessively delicious that I spent most of the next day on the telephone, raving about it to my friends.
Over time those three stars began feeling like a travesty. So consider this column a much-deserved update. Ms. Nemeth and Mr. Caballo’s little room has become a bona fide four-star joint.
One evening last March, they served a slab of foie gras that had been poached in Gewürztraminer and rolled in black truffles and then laid over a pool of freshly-tapped maple sap. Not maple syrup, but sap, its cool, clean-tasting, just-sweet precursor: spring forest ephemeral. There was fresh mackerel, crab, squid, a dish with Mr. Caballo’s ajo blanco and the soft morcilla sausage they stuff with crunchy toasted rice.
And there was baba au rhum to end it: white cake, sweet Chantilly cream and brown, neurotransmitter-tickling liquor. Ms. Nemeth then brought around a bottle of cherry pit grappa they had made the summer before.
At lunch a couple of weekends ago: chilled asparagus soup with lemony wild sorrel, shaved new onions and softly grassy sheep’s ricotta, and then thick stalks of white asparagus – “Thick enough to make a maiden blush,” Ms. Nemeth said with a laugh. The asparagus was dressed with pecans from Niagara and a vinaigrette the couple goosed with tiny cubes of milk-fed ham.
After that, we had Chinook salmon glazed with vinegar and maple syrup and broiled so that it tasted almost like candy. We had a salad of the year’s first greens, just barely dressed because that is all they needed to be.
We ate roasted quails that were flavoured with smouldering apple wood. They were properly pink at their joints still and juicy and expertly seasoned. We spooned up the light, sweet-sour-savory sauce – rhubarb juice and herbs whisked with quail stock – from a copper pan and drizzled it over the birds.
I repeat this next bit only because of its absurdity: that lunch cost $40.
It says something about Mr. Caballo and Ms. Nemeth’s integrity that they have no plans to use the restaurant’s licensed front patio for dinner service. It says something when a pair of restaurateurs are so focused on getting things right that they’ll forgo volume and income if that is what it takes. (The space will likely be used for aperitifs and after-dinner coffee, Ms. Nemeth said.)
They aren’t likely to grow rich with Edulis.
I know of few chefs who seem happier.
“Right now, we don’t want it any other way,” Ms. Nemeth said. “We love it. Our touch is on everything because this is what we do.”