When Farmhouse Tavern first set out its tractor wheel patio tables near the western end of Dupont Street a couple of summers ago, it was an okay restaurant – good for the neighbourhood, which wasn’t saying much.
The service was welcoming and confident. The chalkboard wine menu was reasonably priced and 100-per-cent Ontario, stocked with micro-lot bottlings from Hillier and Beamsville Bench. They chilled the wines in repurposed dairy pails.
The “farm-driven” cooking, as the management called it, missed the mark as often as not, but unlike at so many other local-focused restaurants of the time, it was cheap and unpretentious. And in a neighbourhood without a single other noteworthy restaurant, a person could only be so picky. Where else were you supposed to eat?
I wrote as much in a one-star review in June, 2012, and then forgot all about Farmhouse Tavern. But something happened in the ensuing 20 months. Instead of coasting along as it could have done until the local goodwill expired, its owner, a former Oliver & Bonacini floor boss named Darcy MacDonell, hired a new chef, who quickly set to improving things.
At its core the place is still that welcoming west-side local with the tractor wheel patio tables and rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, even if the neighbourhood has quite suddenly become the scene of Leslieville-style bidding wars. (That semi in the news this week for going $200,000 over asking is just three blocks away.)
The dining room still feels like a rural Ontario mess hall, though now it’s filled with middle-aged couples who drove in from Oakville, and on-the-make women in Moncler puffies – in addition to the house-poor young parents who need you to know that they came here before it was cool.
The cooking is what’s most different. Where other city spots have tried and failed to freshen and democratize what was once called “fresh and local” cooking (Café Belong; the ridiculous Globe Earth chain), Farmhouse Tavern’s new chef, named Alex Molitz, has actually done it. Mr. Molitz, 33, has brought real technique and ambition to lumpen hunks of local fish and meat and vegetables, even now in the bleakness of winter, when just about all you can find locally is Jerusalem artichokes and wizened winter radishes.
Mr. Molitz, who graduated from the elite Culinary Institute of America, spent a year as a chef de partie at Daniel, in New York, before working around Manhattan.
The man’s got skills.
The platter that Mr. Molitz calls “veg harvest” is a fine example: it includes squash, celeriac, kale, Jerusalem artichokes – an assortment of cold-weather vegetables so dun and joyless that they could drive even the stoutest-hearted vegetarians to suicide watch. But the chef roasts them outside on the restaurant’s oil drum smoker, gently flavouring them with applewood smoke. He roasts them so far past the usual point of doneness that they melt inside as if into candy.
There’s charred radish (soft, pink, extraordinarily delicious) done that way, a handful of jiggly-tender Jerusalem artichokes, and half of a butternut squash at the platter’s centre, so richly brown and soft and smoky that it nearly collapses into itself. Mr. Molitz has filled that squash with a celeriac puree as smooth and decadent as pastry cream; it is so good that the four bloody-minded carnivores around my table one night had to be told to stop plunging in their spoons.
“This guy is completely reinventing vegetables!” one of my friends, a former chef, said. She wasn’t so far off the mark.
On another night, late last fall, Mr. Molitz built a fine mushroom broth from wild maitakes, chanterelles and smoked rapini, and then used that broth as a base for Georgian Bay lake trout that had been caught that morning. (This was part of the restaurant’s “Hunt Camp” series of $150 per person, multicourse dinners.)
The fish’s head, with eyes as gleamy as a Justin Bieber mug shot, had been set on the bottom of the bowl so that it peered up and out almost inquisitively; the chef had set beside it another piece of the trout, which was rolled with herbs and sea salt and smoked just to the point of ruby-hued doneness. It was one of the most exquisite things I ate last year. (It’s not yet a part of the à la carte menu. It ought to be.)
The dish called “a threesome” (the menu names are annoyingly enigmatic), is simply duck breast prosciutto, seared foie and foie gras torchon, but all three of them as impeccably balanced and textured and smartly judged as any in this city. Another appetizer, called “beets & lamb,” drops a big, deep-fried croquette of pulled, minted lamb and pickled vegetables on a wooden board beside roasted beets and dill-spiked yogurt sauce. It is Greek lamb, sort of (the tzatziki) and British lamb sort of (the mint, the beets). It is to my mind far greater than either one.
Or consider Farmhouse Tavern’s burger: a fat, beefy patty smothered with homemade Russian dressing and chunks of fresh goat cheese and a slab of house-smoked bacon, and a whole fried duck egg so deliciously oozy that it ought to be accompanied with a firehose, for when you’re done. If you’re willing to spare $13 for a hunk of seared foie gras, which you really ought to, there’s a hunk of seared foie gras on it too.
Does that sound good? It’s disgustingly wonderful; I can’t write about it even a month later without craving the thing.
Yet after three visits to Farmhouse Tavern in as many months – twice for à la carte dinners, once for a Hunt Camp night, I’m convinced that the place still has work to do. Alongside those soaring highs, you can still find yourself with a plate of grilled beef that’s weirdly under-seasoned (though the cheery staff will happily bring a dish of Maldon), or a bland hunk of pork, or a piece of farmed trout like the one I had a couple of weeks ago that’s pitifully small and muddy-tasting.
And that Hunt Camp dinner, while fun and intimate (it’s served in the private dining room, on enormous, trough-like platters, at a table of eight people, with beautifully-aged wines), was so over-the-top meaty that my dinner mate and I didn’t want to see a piece of flesh for a good week afterwards. Better balance and pacing – signs, both, of a chef’s maturity – would make it a much better meal.
All of this matters, but it hardly overwhelms the high points. A restaurant this good would find an ecstatic reception in any neighbourhood. The northern Junction Triangle now has a terrific local – great news, unless you’re shopping for a house.