In a quiet Leslieville room that dark blinds shroud from Queen Street’s eyes, the pleasures come unexpectedly. Here is a shard of Spanish goat’s milk cheese that’s veined like onyx, served with creamy orange curd and a date cut into a thin disk, like a slice of sausage, and a scattering of cracked espresso beans. Here’s a drift of icy grapefruit granita on bass sashimi, crystalline sour cold, clean oceanic sweet and radiating green heat from a swoosh of burnt scallion puree.
The cannelloni are wrapped in braised leeks here, filled with meaty duck and mushrooms and cocoa nibs. The tomatoes are whipped and sweetened and gelled into marshmallows. The corn comes as a pudding, the onions deeply caramelized in golden-fried beignets. What’s unexpected is that an untested cook ,who’s learned as much from books as from time spent in good kitchens, can accomplish this. What’s unexpected is how extraordinary so much of it tastes.
The restaurant is a partnership between front-of-house bosses Andrew Bridgman and Giulio Marconi, and Matt Kantor, its 44-year-old chef. Mr. Kantor is from Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York. He worked as a business consultant and software developer until 2003, when he enrolled at the much-respected Culinary Institute of America. He met a Canadian and moved here five years ago. Mr. Kantor did some catering around the city while also working as a software developer. He later cooked private dinners under the name “Secret Pickle Supper Club.”
He hasn’t cooked in a single Toronto restaurant before Bero. “But I’ve eaten in a lot of them,” Mr. Kantor told me, adding, “I’m a tourist. A food tourist.” His last position in a kitchen of any renown was a six-month work placement at Picholine, in New York. That was nearly 10 years ago.
Yet Mr. Kantor’s pan-European and modernist-inspired plates at Bero, served in either a four-course or seven-course tasting menu, don’t lie. Against long odds, he runs one of the most creative, most refreshingly risk-embracing kitchens in the city right now, with the skills to support its imagination. Did I mention that it’s in Leslieville? At long last the neighbourhood has a bona fide destination restaurant. That is highly unexpected ,too.
Mr. Kantor doesn’t much do what’s conventional in his kitchen. Witness the gazpacho he made late this August. In place of tomatoes and cucumber, he made the soup’s base from intense pureed peaches and a few drops of sherry vinegar. He laid a tuile that tasted like shortbread and star anise across the bowl’s rim, and dressed it with crushed pistachio, dots of yogurt, tiny orbs of fresh peach, a powder made from Spanish ham. That onion-stuffed beignet was for the mopping up. It was an odd dish; beautiful to look at, profoundly tasty.
So was his octopus: a single braised tendril tossed with coriander, cumin, Spanish sweet paprika and lemon zest. It came with miniature purple potato chips that looked a lot like sausage rounds, but tasted like the bottom of a bag of Old Dutch barcbecue-flavoured. Whether by design or accident, the likeness was brilliant. He added sea asparagus for freshness, a few drops of olive oil and coriander flowers, an artful puff of smoked potato. Sublime. The peeled heirloom tomatoes and fried capers in a salad got a foam that tasted of blue cheese. Also, that tomato-flavoured marshmallow. I liked it. My dinner date, uncertain, said, “This is daring.”
There was a corn pudding one night, with those leek-wrapped duck cannelloni. Its texture was creamy, smooth, as light as corn silk. The flavour was pure and intense.
Another night’s bone marrow-enriched gnocchi dissipated into an earthy, beefy fog when you ate them. A friend of mine who, like Mr. Kantor, is a fan of modernist cooking techniques, wanted to know how the chef had done it.
“The gnocchi are made from bone marrow?” my friend asked. “What magical chemical makes that possible?"
"Flour," Mr. Kantor answered, smiling.
Flour and an uncommonly light touch, as well as a kitchen brigade that’s come into its own in the last month. My first time at Bero, six weeks into its life, there were a few clumsy dishes: a mackerel plate with unbalanced flavours, a pork dish that tasted forgettable when so much else had been superb. Mr. Kantor has since appointed a chef de cuisine, hired from Acadia, and two line cooks from Auberge du Pommier.
By the middle of this month, the flavours were consistently clean and sharp, and as with those gnocchi, the technique was impeccable. Yet while Bero works as a kitchen, it needs brushing up as a restaurant.
In place of the charming waitress who said “bernier” for “beignet” in Bero’s early days, there was a different charming waitress the last time I ate there, who didn’t much know the menu when I last ate there, who couldn’t describe the wines. It’s not her fault. Why invest in elegant dishes and flatware and linens for every table and an ambitious kitchen, but neglect to properly train the staff?
The tables are constructed so that their legs go precisely where yours should go.
Those blinds that make Bero its own environment on the inside and mysterious for passersby aren’t entirely working. The room needs to be livelier first (walk-in traffic could help), the service smarter, more effortless and graceful. Fancy food requires service that stops time and suspends belief, or else it risks feeling precious. The soundtrack could be better, too – it skews too frequently to Harry Connick Jr. and Madeleine Peyroux, to soft, jazzy piano and sepia-toned vocals from the 1990s, to romance music, as though Grandad finally got that Cialis prescription and now he’s DJing. Maybe you like that. I didn’t quite know where my hands should go.
These are mere distractions, though, and largely neutralized by the quality and the boldness of Mr. Kantor’s work. For instance: the moist, gooey chocolate cake one night that was served with halva, and a mildy bitter, undeniably vegetal sorbet. Is that … eggplant? It took a moment’s attitude adjustment to appreciate the oddly symbiotic pairing: each taste a foil for the other one, the two of them together a head-scratching joy. (My dinner date: “It’ll never make 31 flavours.”)
Or perhaps more pedestrian, another night’s Savarin cake: dense, delicious yeast cake soaked through with Lillet and purled with pastry cream. It came with a crunchy, toasty, dehydrated squash crumb as a garnish and a scoop of Italian plum ice cream, tweaked with cracklings of black pepper.
Weird, yeah? Wild, more like it. And the last thing you’d ever expect.
No stars: Not recommended
* Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution