One of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a restaurant unfolded the other week in the front window of The Harbord Room’s elegant two-month-old spinoff, called THR & Co.
There, at one of the prime, marble-topped round tables, a tattooed twentysomething sat with what looked to be his grandmother and his parents.
The kid was Hollywood handsome, with dark hair, a confident smile and smooth, tanned skin. He wore a basketball jersey with “Shuttlesworth” on it, after the fictional hard-luck hero of Spike Lee’s 1998 courtside drama He Got Game.
The parents seemed nice enough – I could catch only the occasional snippet of friendly conversation. The grandmother, Chinese-Canadian and in her early ’80s by my guess, had black and grey hair, a quiet constitution and crepe-like skin that appeared almost translucent in the early-evening sunlight. They turned around periodically to glance toward the restaurant’s front door.
The family was meeting the son’s new girlfriend. They had been there for a good 30 minutes by the time she finally turned up.
The five of them ate and talked and laughed throughout the evening. They seemed charmed, by all appearances. As the young couple left, she kissed the boyfriend’s father. Then the boyfriend hugged him. “Thanks, Dad,” I could hear him say.
Yet what was most inspiring about that scene wasn’t the romance of it. What got me was that three generations spanning a good 50 or 60 years could all enjoy a single fashionable downtown restaurant.
This wasn’t the case at just that family’s table, either: As the night progressed, the room filled with moneyed Annegonians, superannuated Massey College types, Gen Y craft cocktail aficionados in tight pants and tasteful facial hair, North Toronto party girls and middle-aged marrieds on long-scheduled date nights, here for a drink and a couple of plates of handmade pasta before the 9:30 screening of Frances Ha.
THR & Co. is the rare Toronto restaurant for nearly everyone. The space is clean-lined, comfortable, Elle Decor-appropriate, designed by Bradley Denton.
The service is graceful. The prices are affordable.
The menu of South European farmhouse standards by way of North Africa is on-trend but accessible. Among some of its go-to ingredients: banyuls vinegar, green olive relish, piment d’espelette, bottarga, beef tendon and “poblano ash.”
There’s a convivial cocktails scene around the bar at the back. The soundtrack is 1980s pop and yacht rock.
And this next attribute is the clincher. The ceiling is overlaid with sound-absorbing panels, so you can talk here in a normal voice.
When THR & Co.’s kitchen has got its game – which, you should be warned, is not as often as you might hope it would – the cooking is just as compelling a reason to visit. It is fresh, modern, big-flavoured and beautiful to look at, executed by executive chef and partner Curt Martin with an impressive level of intuition and care.
One night’s fish special, a $23 plate of hard-seared sea bream, centred two fat fillets, timed so that their skin was crisp and their insides warm and moist, over a pool of cucumber and tomatillo gazpacho. They were garnished with smoked red grape slices and candy-red radish shavings.
The balance of the fatty, savoury, gently saline fish against the soup and the toppings was an exquisite accomplishment. (Also, it is settled: Toronto, at long last, has a solid roster of excellent fish cooks.)
Meats were just as impressive, among the best of them the beef heart tartare, which THR & Co.’s kitchen makes just familiar enough. The heart – deep red, pleasantly iodiney and ably seasoned – was formed into a round the way most French bistros do it.
In place of the standard egg, though, was a salt-cured duck yolk, which had been rasped into a pile of snowy shavings. In place of bread were two wondrously puffy flash-fried beef tendon chips that looked for all the world like plus-sized shrimp chips and tasted like essence of beef.
The 14-ounce bone-in pork chop special, if the kitchen’s still got it, is also superb, a pork-lover’s fever dream. It is caramelized, salty and gorgeously crusted on its outside, juicy and light pink within.
Another hit: The braised lamb’s neck (it is called “osso bucco,” in quotation marks; it is not osso bucco) done North African-style so that the meat is dark and crazy succulent and the jus on the plate – spiked as it is with soft lentils, tomato, dried currants and mild, cumin-spiked harissa – tastes like a night spent strolling through a friendly souk.
A couple of the pastas, made in-house and served aggressively (perfectly) al dente, were also excellent, none more than the cavatelli noodles peppered with florets of soft rapini, roast tomatoes, salty, milky cheese and long-braised oxtail. There are a few good vegetable dishes – roasted cauliflower with sumac, plump raisins and pistachio nuts, as well as good baby carrots spiked with Medjool date hunks.
The burrata and watermelon salad special, plated with rounds of melon that had been vacuum-compressed and trimmed to resemble tomato slices, would have been much better with Italian burrata instead of the cottage cheese-like local stuff.
I was less fond of a few other of the THR & Co. kitchen’s efforts, many of which my table ordered on a separate and much less successful night. Whereas on an earlier visit the cooking had been almost across-the-board genius, now the green salad, garnished with pretty rounds of watermelon radish, looked limp and borderline wilted and didn’t have the expected snap and crunch of boutique lettuces.
The squid-ink spaghetti with bottarga was overseasoned; a dish with so many inherently salty elements is a trial of judgment, and here the kitchen failed.
A side of rainbow chard, too, which should be a gimme for any professional kitchen, was severely oversalted yet also underflavoured.
Desserts, though, devised by Mr. Martin and chef Cory Vitiello, who is a partner in the restaurant and runs the kitchen at The Harbord Room, two doors down, were stellar. The strawberry ice cream and grapefruit gelato were smooth, concentrated and altogether magnificent. The lemon poppyseed cake with buttermilk gelato was hottie-next-door delicious.
The “slow-cooked chocolate cheesecake” brought a quenelle of thick and wildly decadent chocolate ganache that had been gently soured and enriched with cream cheese. It was a perfect finish – safe enough for the molten chocolate cake set, original enough for Instagramming foodists, balanced enough, even, for the I-don’t-particularly-love-dessert types.
It was a dessert for everybody.
Everybody was charmed.
The rating system
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