It’s a funny thing about restaurants. You would think the formula for success would be fairly simple: a combo platter of good food and service with an attractive physical environment should sow the seeds that reap financial success.
Not so. It’s all about buzz. Witness the two new restaurants in the financial district. Bannock, by Oliver & Bonacini, hit paydirt within a nanosecond of opening in September. Modus Ristorante, on the other hand, has been pretty much buzz-free. Bannock is at Queen and Bay, Modus is at King and York. Both have street-side signage. Bannock is mid-priced ho-hum Canadiana. Modus is more expensive Italian.
Three other crucial differences between the two restaurants: Bannock’s food is not something I would choose to revisit, while Modus is dashing delightful Italian. Bannock is low-ceilinged, cozy and cramped. It feels hipster. Modus is a grand and spacious room with big tables, high ceilings and huge slate floor tiles. There are fabulous, huge lampshade chandeliers and tall white orchids outside the open kitchen. Bannock is full, Modus not so much.
Perhaps the lesson here – one not yet learned by the owners of Modus – is that spin doctors matter. Building online buzz puts the bums in the chairs. Which is a fact that confounds my taste buds.
The Modus chef is Bruce Woods, who cooked at Il Posto in the late nineties when it was really good, and at then at Centro from 2002 till 2009. Toronto gourmands will remember that before Chef Woods got tired (or bored? or unhappy?), his early work at Centro was terrific.
It seems that Mr. Woods has been re-energized. Maybe he didn’t relish cooling his heels in the kitchen at Brassaii, or maybe it was irksome being overtaken by the young champions of rustic Italian cooking. Either way, the dude is on fire again. It’s a midlife culinary renaissance. Everything we love about traditional Italian cooking is here. The deep rich sauces on pasta, the long-cooked unctuous meat dishes, the olive oil, the Parmigiano-Reggiano, the big flavours, the exuberance on the tongue.
Great lashings of truffle oil and shavings of black truffles turn squash agnolotti into dream food. Add goodly chunks of braised duck and you’re at the pearly gates, gastronomically speaking. Chef’s risotto is of impeccable texture – al dente rice with creamy sauce – and the cream and lobster flavouring is both generous (lobster chunks) and beautifully balanced (saffron for sweet, pecorino for salt and speck for bite).
The gnocchi are like clouds and their charming tomato sauce has a smoky undertone. Even commonplace pasta packs a bigger punch than usual: Ethereal ravioli filled with sweet buffalo-milk ricotta are sauced with a delightful duo of tomato sauce and basil foam. Truffle oil appears again in silky potato puree, a moat around an architectural construction of diced, roasted mushrooms under smooth foie-gras terrine with pretty pink veal carpaccio. Bruce Woods’s kitchen retails robust flavours, and his technique is both strong and reliable.
The appetizer gnocchi reappears, morphed into meaty richness in deep duck ragu with plump pink Moulard duck breast and a side of nicely crisped duck confit. Aside from excess salt in the confit, the duck is divine. Lamb osso bucco is of perfect juicy texture. Its accompaniments are marvellous: The roof is gremolata (finely minced parsley, garlic and lemon zest) and under the lamb is polenta as smooth as expensive cashmere zinged with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Root vegetables roasted slowly to soft perfection sweeten the lamb.
There is a superb celery-root puree under the barely seared thick hunk of tuna. The menu says it’s leek but it’s not. Who cares, it’s celeriac sin, a high-fat thrill ride. Add small chunks of potato and pancetta and it’s the glory food of The Boot. And the scallops! Six big, sweet golden sea critters on carrot puree inflected with sage and brown butter. A cute little slaw of shaved fennel and micro greens is a bouquet of fun atop the scallops. There is perfectly cooked halibut with diced tomato, yellow and green zucchini and sauce that resembles lobster bisque – with silken potato puree.
All of which makes the desserts so confusing. They’re horribly blah. The gianduja pudding has no hazelnut taste, and its texture is stodgy. Panino gelato is a great idea – who would turn down a dulce de leche brioche slider? But the gelato isn’t the greatest and the brioche is heavy like the pudding. Even à la minute cannoli flunks out: It’s great that they avoided sogginess by putting the lemon cream in the cannoli at the last minute. But the cannoli’s rolled biscuit itself is too sturdy – rather hard to bite – and the lemon cream is too citric. One misses the smoothness of ricotta under all that lemon.
Sad sweets aside, Modus, while apparently not modish enough to attract the fashionistas who determine a restaurant’s success or failure, has some of the most beguiling Italian food to hit Toronto this year. Or perhaps not yet modish enough. Buzz is great for driving traffic to newly opened restaurants, but Toronto taste buds are too good to be fooled for long. Look for Modus to catch on.