Chef Geoff Hopgood is poetry in motion. Well, that may not be strictly true – since his tiny kitchen is so cramped with four people frantically working in it that I can't see his grace. But it is there to taste on every plate he sends forth.
Hopgood's Foodliner is the real deal. With some of the other hot new restaurants in town, I sometimes think they're playing at it a bit or are slightly unserious about what the old-fashioned call the hospitality business. Because so many of them aren't very hospitable. Being refused a reservation and then standing in a noisy, cramped, drafty space isn't that much fun for guests.
But Chef Hopgood (ex Hoof Cafe) is being more of a grown-up about all that stuff. He takes reservations and the room is actually attractive. And not cramped. And not too noisy!
The wait staff seem to have imbibed Hopgood's Maritime sense of hospitality with their mother's milk. One brings complimentary sparkling cider from Brittany and tells us it's made from 40 different kinds of apples. Another cheerfully explains the menu in delicious detail. His enthusiasm carries the meal; after each course he asks which was our favourite and shares our delight over the flavours.
Marinated Nova Scotia halibut is raw, lightly oil- and lemon-kissed, topped with a great greaseless flurry of super-thin-cut deep-fried sweet potatoes scented with preserved lemon. Spot-prawn cocktail is an ironic but delicious shout-out to yesteryear – ultra-sweet fresh B.C. spot prawns tossed in Marie Rose sauce (mayo pinked with ketchup and Worcestershire sauce) atop shredded iceberg lettuce and under shredded radish. Old-school, but it works.
Chef has smoked mackerel just enough and set the moist fish off against fragile house-made oatcakes with bite from a dollop of crème frâiche. But his lamb heart tartare really knocks the cover off the ball. I wasn't too sure about the lamb heart concept, but since it's all chopped up, it's just another tartare – and indeed about 10 times tastier than steak tartare.
The restaurant is named after a small chain of Nova Scotia supermarkets owned by Mr. Hopgood’s family. Most of what’s maritime here is delightful – the welcome is warmer than at any other trendy Toronto resto, and we love the seafood. But the two classic Haligonian items on the menu are its weakest works: Crab dip is too creamy and not crabby enough, and Halifax donairs may be nicely executed but they taste like a blast from the past. Does the culinary world really need overcooked pork and beef on pita, even if it’s homemade? This is a case of nostalgia wearing out its welcome.
The tiny kitchen full of frenzy reminds me of Susur's early days on Niagara Street, as do some of Mr. Hopgood's grace notes. He cooks down heavy cream till it caramelizes, dries and then shaves it as a garnish. Only three days' labour. He dehydrates cauliflower to intensify the flavour and then creams the result. He smashes Rice Krispies and mixes the result with fudge for a crispy, crunchy layer in his homemade chocolate bar.
What is most surprising about the new Hopgood's Foodliner is that it isn't a Hoof re-do. Few chefs can major in cured meat and then do a complete switch. This is a versatile guy. And few chef/owners take responsibility for the service in their restaurants and make it as warm and friendly as Mr. Hopgood’s. Given that, plus the stellar food, we are hardly surprised how hard it is to get a table.
His almost-raw tuna comes with splendid jalapeno cream. His chicken is a juicy boneless roll with crispy skin, sitting pretty on super-cheesy grits with perfectly balanced maple-inflected bacon sauce and a pile of frizzled collard greens on top. Chicken ‘n’ grits was never thus. Nor was cassoulet, which chef renovates with astonishing delicacy: Tender little beans and smoked hocks, tail and house-made sausage in deep-flavoured sauce with “dusted” sweetbreads on top – barely crusted and an ungreasy, crunchy crust.
Chef also rewrites colcannon (Irish creamed greens) into kale of astonishing delicacy, served with gilded scallops. Juicy corned beef comes with turnips three ways – raw, roasted and pureed.
The aforementioned house-made chocolate bar arrives wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, its white-chocolate heart layered with the crunchy Rice Krispie fudge, its outside sprayed (!!) with 75-per-cent dark chocolate of impeccable provenance. Even the humble maple square gets a re-do: It is served warm, unctuous, with a last-minute pour of cold cream for contrast.
This is Nova Scotia roots food renovated by the hand of a master. Mr. Hopgood has vaulted to the top of Toronto’s culinary pantheon. Good luck getting a table.