There was no advance Internet hype or camera-packed launch party when Hoof Raw Bar, the new and painstakingly curated sister restaurant to The Black Hoof, opened on Dundas Street West in early May. Jen Agg, the restaurants’ pioneering owner, was all but guaranteed a full house.
It’s located next door to its ever-popular older sibling, and you don’t need to court publicity when you’ve got Ms. Agg’s sort of touch.
With The Black Hoof, the massively influential charcuterie and meat-focused restaurant she opened in 2008 with chef Grant van Gameren, and then the successful but short-lived Hoof Café, a breakfast and cocktails space across the street, Ms. Agg hit the zeitgeist jackpot not just once, but twice, in quick succession. Just when the world was turning from fine dining, she proved herself a master at creating the sort of casual and aggressively unpretentious environments that people who care about food and drink would queue up to spend money at, cash and Canadian debit only, thank you, night after night.
Hoof Raw Bar is Ms. Agg’s best space yet. Though the room is long and windowless on either side, she’s made it cheery with white-painted brick, antique industrial light fixtures, an enormous and much-weathered mirror, and comfortable French café chairs. It’s graceful and timeless, but with modern touches, a seaside bistro from Brittany updated for Dundas West.
The wine list is a year ahead of trend and beautifully chosen – Ms. Agg, as well as rising-star sommelier Zinta Steprans, are having whatever Robert Parker Jr. isn’t: fresh, bright, food-friendly Old World bottlings, with a few impossible-to-find B.C. and Ontario gems, too. Ms. Agg is a missionary about good wine in a way that more restaurateurs ought to be: she’s fun, opinionated and personable about it. Of a moulin à vent, from Beaujolais, her list says, “It has a spicy, beautiful power, but I simply can’t ignore the obvious: Cinnamon hearts! Like in a grade 4, Valentine’s exchange, cute boy kinda way.”
Wine doesn’t get less snobbish than that.
Even the patrons look curated, albeit not at all to the expected aesthetic on two recent nights. The youngish, tattooed, croquet-playing Trinity-Bellwoods types who formed the core of The Black Hoof’s early audience are outnumbered here by a much less indie-looking crowd. At the bar, well-tanned men in tailored jeans and single-button blazers – who look as though they might have played midfield for UCC in the late 1980s, before Queens and Wharton, before summer houses in Bermuda and the partnership at McKinsey – slurp $34-per-dozen oysters with their wives and dodge glances from single-looking older women. One Wednesday recently, a trio of friendly blonde society types in their 20s eulogized a lost David Yurman bangle over seafood charcuterie. They had never been to The Black Hoof proper, and no, they were not from around here, they said.
The servers are young, professional, and in at least one case dress in short shorts and tee-shirts, like junior college volleyball players. (This is a plus, many patrons will find.) The music, like the room, is up-tempo and loud.
What doesn’t work about Raw Bar is the single thing that Ms. Agg can’t exercise absolute dominion over. A lot of the food is awful, especially if you arrive hungry for raw, fresh seafood served with a minimum of intervention – the sort of fare you might hope a place called Raw Bar would serve.
The kitchen, led by Black Hoof and C5 alumnus Jonathan Pong, treats seafood for the most part as if it’s meat: It’s something to be wrestled down, transformed, forced to submit to brine, sauce and heavy seasoning. With many dishes, you wouldn’t know you were eating fish.
The cured fish board, Hoof Raw Bar’s signature offering, is a prime example. One evening it featured an impressive selection of sablefish, albacore tuna, scallop, mackerel and branzino slices. The sablefish, which got four days in miso paste and nori powder, had buttery texture but none of sablefish’s taste. The mackerel worked: it’s got enough personality to stand up to black pepper and citrus. But then the scallops were done in chorizo spice: sherry, smoked paprika, chili flakes and pepper. They tasted like chorizo sausage made from random protein. If you love scallops, it’s hard not to tally up the waste. The dish called “fish snacks” turned up a trio of prawns’ heads, deep-fried and tossed in barbecue spice (it tastes like the bottom of an Old Dutch barbecue-chip bag), as well as fried smelt that were so salty one night, it stung if they touched your lips. (On a second visit, they were oversalted still, but not as badly.)
There are a few happy exceptions: raw (and blessedly un-cured) scallops, for instance, sliced thin and ringed with an apple-cider reduction and crispy Granny Smith apple. Mr. Pong’s squid salad, built from strips of calamari cooked sous vide, plus lime, iceberg lettuce, pickled red onion and the briny pop-pop of flying fish roe, is excellent. The clam chowder, though it could stand a few squeezes of lemon, is credible, and is served with house-churned butter and a nothing-short-of-sensational milk-bread roll that’s delivered, steaming and glossy-crusted, in a dime-store paper bag. The raw oysters are raw oysters, which comes as a relief.
These dishes are enough to warrant a visit: enough to nibble on while you soak up the room and the wine and the company of happy, beautiful people. But unlike next door, where The Black Hoof is better than ever under the young and hyper-talented chef Brandon Olsen, the food at Hoof Raw Bar isn’t likely to engender a lot of return visits.
Ms. Agg still has some curating to do.
One star (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.