Jonathan Gushue spent a year in search of a Toronto toehold, touring unloved oyster houses and abandoned hotel restaurants, stalking Ossington and Roncesvalles and the downtown core for an even halfway-workable building, fielding offers and figures that invariably felt absurd. Toronto restaurant real estate was only trouble, but still Mr. Gushue persisted. The city, he then assumed, was the place for a chef of his ambition. He had flamed out, and badly, a couple of years earlier – he had gone missing for nearly two weeks, after a dinner service at Cambridge, Ont.’s Langdon Hall, where Mr. Gushue had been known as one of Canada’s most important culinary stars. In Toronto, he figured, he could at long last re-emerge.
But in January last year a contact at the city of Kitchener called him. There was a great old space available in a soon-to-be prime part of the city’s downtown, near where Google, Facebook and Square were setting up. It had 20-foot ceilings and a working kitchen and room for 120 customers, as well as space for 70 more upstairs. Kitchener, as Mr. Gushue knew, was surrounded with small, innovative farms and underappreciated food producers. The price for that space was practically a song.
Mr. Gushue and his business partner, a front-of-house veteran named Ryan Lloyd-Craig, leapt at the opportunity. And with the Berlin, the market-driven, live-fire restaurant they finally opened this past December, Kitchener has scored a major coup, as has Mr. Gushue. Though imperfect still, the restaurant is one of the most ambitious, faith-restoring – and at its best, exhilarating – restaurants to open lately, whether in Kitchener, Toronto or anywhere in between.
The menu is built around whatever Mr. Gushue’s suppliers bring him: quails one week and a whole pig the next; fresh cream they use to make butter and buttermilk; pickerel, long winter leeks and always cabbages, as a nod to the area’s German-Mennonite past. One day not long ago they got 180 geese, which the Berlin’s kitchen turned into country terrines and confit legs. They roasted the breasts over the wood-burning fire, then served them over smoked beets and orange slices, balanced over spiced-honey broth.
Mr. Gushue’s cooking here is German, roughly, but lighter and more vegetable-forward than you might expect. It is executed a lot of the time with skill and judgment that are impossible to fake. And nearly every dish is in some way touched by his kitchen’s roaring grill, a two-grate number with crank-wheels for raising and lowering – almost every bite twigs campfire memories.
The Berlin’s quail, for instance, are grilled hard and fast over the hottest part of the fire, and then left to rest on an upper rack, bathing in the woodsmoke. They come out sublimely fire-charred and gamey-flavoured, just flecked with salt and rosemary. Mr. Gushue serves the birds with fresh apple chutney and impossibly creamy celeriac purée that’s tart and cool and finished with house-made paprika.
The chef roasts onions, leeks and buttermilk-marinated cabbage quarters directly in the coals until they’re soft and sweet – the humblest of vegetables, smelted into revelation. His menu makes for hunger-taunting reading.
“Long Winter Leeks with Bacon and Frisée Salad, Pont-l’Evêque on Toast, Belgian Endive and Sherry Vinaigrette, $14.”
“Grilled Pickerel, Apricot Purée, Charred Cabbage, Buttermilk and Potato Sauce, $27.”
“Wild Striped Bass, Creamed Salsify, Coal Roasted Onion, Crushed Herb Sauce, $28.”
And all of it is made the hard way. While many chefs preach fresh and local and the importance of small-scale agriculture, Mr. Gushue and his nine-person kitchen team live it, daily. They make their own butter and the restaurant’s sublime, whole-grain breads; they butcher and cure the meats and prowl the Kitchener-Waterloo region for great suppliers; they even make their own root beer, tonic, lemon soda and cola here.
And while many high-end places, such as Blue Hill, in New York, and Eigensinn Farm, in Ontario cottage country, do this sort of thing for the precious few, almost anyone can afford to eat at the Berlin. The restaurant’s tables are ringed with extended families and young, rosy-cheeked couples, with tech workers, shopkeepers and farmers in their winter boots.
Which some might see as a come-down for a chef who has only ever worked in four-star kitchens, Mr. Gushue sees it differently. “The biggest thing is the people really want us to be here,” he said on the phone this week. A moment later: “No one cares if they’re sitting on a $900 chair or eating off a $300 plate.” The restaurant often fills up by 6 p.m. on weeknights. The scene here is at once cool and refreshingly uncool.
Mr. Gushue, who is 45, has one of the best résumés in the business. He trained at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, and then at a high-end resort outside Tokyo, before moving on to the two-star Michelin dining room at London’s Berkeley Hotel. Back in Canada, he was the chef at Truffles at the Four Seasons, at a time when it was one of the most important restaurants in Toronto. He stayed for three years before decamping to Langdon Hall, where his kitchen nudged itself onto the all-important World’s Best Restaurants list.
The chef’s blow-up, in December, 2012, seemed to come out of nowhere, but for the circle around him, it wasn’t entirely a surprise. He’d been struggling with alcoholism. The year before, he had done some time in rehab. That night in December, Mr. Gushue was charged with driving under the influence. It was his second time. He disappeared, and drank himself oblivious, as his name and picture appeared in newspapers and screens across the country. He had left a wife and three young kids at home. He was found nearly two weeks later. He has been sober ever since, he said.
The Berlin’s leek salad one night recently was a taste of the chef at his best: The alliums buttery-soft and smoky-sweet, served with bracingly bitter greens and a fat slice of Pont-l’Evêque cheese on toast. The seasoning, from pork fat and salt and good sherry vinegar, was applied with a master’s touch. That fire-roasted cabbage, too, was a thing of beauty. It had mellowed in the coals and then been glazed in a pan with butter and vegetable stock. The perfect piece of pickerel it came with, seared on that same fire so its skin was cracker-crisp and its centre translucent-medium, would have been the standout at any other restaurant. Here, beside that exquisite cabbage and a summery daub of apricot purée, it almost struggled to compete.
The Berlin’s beef is grass-fed, from a young, local farmer who also does their ducks and geese. He delivers a cow to the restaurant every six weeks, give or take. The ribeye I had was beautiful one night – all in-your-face beefy flavour, subtle fat and the taste of fire – but a little less nice the next time. That is the nature of local, grass-fed, cut-from-the-whole-animal beef steaks.
The fish, whether that pickerel or the striped bass, or the fat, dense fillets of monkfish on the menu a few weeks ago, were uniformly perfect. The potted duck and rabbit were excellent, too.
What the Berlin now needs to nail down is the hardest thing in professional cooking: consistency. Where one night it verged on a four-star showing, another night’s meal, and particularly its appetizers, was less impressive. The leeks this time were served much too cold, and the seasoning on nearly everything had been applied too meekly. The desserts, apart from the superb burnt lemon curd, could use some polish. (Also, enough with the root-vegetable ice creams, please. Only pastry chefs like root-vegetable ice cream.) The room, too, is so enormous that its front end, near Kitchener’s King Street, can feel forlorn sometimes; its servers, though always friendly, are too often stretched too thin.
All of these issues are fixable, though, and given Mr. Gushue’s training, I expect he’ll do that in time. In the meantime, it is nearly enough that the chef is back, and that Kitchener has notched the win.Report Typo/Error