It can’t be easy loving restaurants and living in Leslieville. West of the Don River, the city’s restaurant scene has blown up in the last 12 months with bold new openings, smart ideas and a rapid (though not at all across-the-board) rise in both ambition and execution; to the north and the east, Markham and Scarborough are being transformed into can’t-miss culinary haunts.
But – excepting Queen Margherita Pizza, and Table 17 on a good night – to eat out in Leslieville is to tumble back into the mid-2000s, to give into cheap little rooms, recidivist ideas and cramped expectations. Once-great chefs come to coast on celebrity and reputation here (to wit: Lynn Crawford’s Ruby Watchco; she looks like a star, but only on camera). There’s decent brunch in Leslieville, friends from the area tell me. Enjoy your eggs Benny, then.
Glas Wine Bar, which opened in July in a storefront on Queen Street East, looked like it might be the antidote. The space is tiny, with just 20 seats. Its open galley kitchen has three induction burners and a convection oven – the area’s starter condominiums have better kitchens. But Glas’s chef, 38-year-old Danny Pantano, comes with international experience.
Mr. Pantano, who trained at George Brown chef’s school, spent the last 10 years cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, as well as in the U.K. and Montreal.
There are olives marinated with fennel on the Italian-influenced menu; a dense but well-made frittata with mint and fresh-tasting pesto.
“We strongly support local farmers and suppliers when possible,” Mr. Pantano’s 12-item, small-plates menu announces, “and seek to work with sustainable, organic farming methods, and only fresh product.”
Sea bream, halibut and calamari (but no whitefish, or smelt, or trout or pickerel from Lake Ontario) feels odd on a menu that makes such a virtue of local ingredients. There is also San Benedetto bottled water, shipped in from the Ayolo hills, near Venice, Italy, if you don’t fancy tap. Nothing about that is even remotely sustainable, much less local.
The 12-bottle wine list is 100-per-cent Ontario. It is well-chosen and built for sampling; three-ounce pours cost $5.50 or $6.50, while bottles top out at $46. The music leans heavily to ensemble jazz and throaty Italian power ballads (I love them; can’t help myself). The service is friendly; the room’s vibe intimate. One night, when the smoke alarm above the kitchen goes off (having no ventilation system will do that), Mr. Pantano, who works alone in his kitchen, reaches up with the tip of his chef’s knife to silence it. The customers smile. Later on, the cork explodes from a bottle of Hinterland Riesling. The server yelps, the patrons chuckle, the feel of it all is charming.
Mr. Pantano’s dishes aren’t bad. Though the menu changes constantly, one night there are fresh slices of Pacific halibut broiled lightly with a blow-torch and drizzled with hazelnut oil, and a simple gazpacho made from red tomatoes and bread, dressed with hunks of crumbly goat’s cheese and black sesame seeds. The gazpacho is good but devoid of acidity; the cheese does little except to echo the bread-dulled tomato base. The black sesame seeds look pretty and taste like nothing. It’s gazpacho soup in pleated Gap khakis. Crazy, considering this is the peak of the best Ontario tomato season in years.
The calamari is pleasant: four whitish rounds stuffed with potato drenched in olive oil, erect on a long, rectangular plate that’s been brushed with blackened eggplant puree. The puree is decorative more than anything, limp tasting. The potatoes and squid are nice but begging for lift: lemon, favas, onion, anything.
The meat dish that night is heritage chicken: one or two ounces of dark, intense, delicious meat, chopped olive, batons of boar bacon, a much-too-mild garlic-and-almond sauce.
Another time, there’s rabbit, and it is glorious: The rabbit is moist, gently gamy, richly flavoured in a superb tomato gravy. There are black olives, more of that bacon. It is also one of the smallest portions I’ve seen in a small-plates restaurant: $17 for exactly four-and-a-half bites. I’d gladly pay $27 for a dish that good, but there would have to be five times as much rabbit on it, at minimum.
For dessert, there’s “Tuscan red wine cake.” Both times I order it, much is made of how Chef had to coax the recipe from a reluctant Italian grandmother. The cake is dry. You wouldn’t know there’s wine in it. There are far better chocolate-cake recipes in The Gourmet Cookbook.
At the height of the province’s soft-fruit season, when farm stands are bursting over with exquisite peaches, plums, Concord grapes, wine grapes, wild blueberries, currants, summer strawberries and tart early apples, Glas also offers a “Fresh Ontario marinated berries” plate. Exciting. It includes only watery highbush blueberries, and blackberries that could have come in a plastic Driscoll’s pack.
And even getting them is a struggle. The other night, for fifteen minutes after we’d finished that chocolate cake, we waited, and waited. The chef was outside, chatting with a customer. After a while, we asked the server if the fruit was coming. She fetched the chef, and a few minutes later the berries turned up at our table.
It was excellent for Leslieville. But for the rest of the city, just good, and only by a thread.