The elevator ride up feels slow for just five floors, expectant. Tight smiles look without looking. There’s a pink gold Panerai on one passenger’s wrist. He’s wearing Venetian leather Berlutti loafers. The men’s ties are artfully understated, snug; the women’s heels are high and young and tasteful.
As the door whisks open they disappear into the view – into the 270 degrees of glass looking out on the city, into the penthouse patio with its fire-breathing heaters and its lissome servers, into the bar that’s packed elbow to shoulder even now, at 7:30 on a Tuesday. The dining room beyond it, bright and elegant, might have been pulled from Architectural Digest, from the spread on that Montauk beach hideaway that was designed by the shipping heiress who was linked to that actor with the arms and the dance moves. They disappear into the perpetual-motion background beat that a bookish friend calls “the pulse of success.”
There are NHLers and dealmakers and securities lawyers in the booths, music and fashion types, society names. Richard and Rana came in on Saturday with Joe and Kim, a friend who summers in Bermuda says. “Florida. And Mimran,” he adds.
In only two months, The Chase has become moneyed Toronto’s hottest reservation. More than that, it has become an excellent restaurant. It is the first new Financial District power spot in more than a decade to nail design and tone and fine dining-calibre service – and to pair them with fine cooking that’s just familiar enough.
And improbably perhaps, given the expense of building and staffing such an ambitious place, The Chase (along with the street-level The Chase Fish & Oyster, which I’ll review here in the coming weeks) didn’t issue from one of the district’s existing multirestaurant companies. It is the work of an upstart young investor named Michael Kimel (he is also behind the clubby new Latin street food restaurant called Valdez, and the Belly Buster sandwich chain; his uncle is Ron Kimel, the real estate development heavy) and front-of-house man Steven Salm. Mr. Salm began his career at New York’s downtown Ritz-Carlton hotel, then helped run that city’s high-end BLT restaurant empire in its white hot prime.
Their executive chef, Michael Steh, has come into his own here after years spent at Reds – a restaurant that was never as good as his cooking was – cheerily enduring the title “One to watch.”
Mr. Steh’s opening menu doesn’t bear many surprises at first blush: with its grilled scallops and quinoa dish, its veal tenderloin with humpback shrimp, its chopped vegetable salad and its $46 lobster fazzoletti plate, it reads like modern high-end Americana. The details set it apart. The Chase’s mozzarella gets made by hand in the restaurant’s kitchen at 3:00 every morning. Where other restaurants – even places that boast of having mozzarella bars – buy their fresh mozz from cheese mongers, at The Chase a poor, sleepless sod of a sous chef chops then slowly heats cow’s milk curd sourced near Ingersoll, Ont., then carefully folds it and pulls and shapes it into mozzarella balls. It is the some of the freshest, softest, most toe-curling milky-creamy cheese in town these days, worth every penny of its $18 tab.
The grilled scallops come set over silky, virid pea puree, sided with an oozy poached egg, ham hock and a dusting of quinoa that’s been braised and then deep-fried so that it’s deep-golden nutty and crunches like panko crumbs. (Somewhere, a vegan weeps.)
For another appetizer, Mr. Steh pairs hunks of tender poached crab with seared Chanterelle mushrooms and a beurre blanc flavoured with pureed carrots. Alongside them: light, creamy, sexy-textured semolina gnudi – what gnocchi might taste like on the beach on Capri in Aubade underwear. The 40-oz, bone-in ribeye for two (or four, more like it) comes napped in veal jus and brandy cream.
One of my tablemates one evening, a pastry chef who trained in Copenhagen, nearly wept as she dove into a plate of The Chase’s signature whole-roasted, foie gras, pistachio and apricot-stuffed chicken. The first time we saw it, the waiter had brought it for a viewing, snug in its polished-steel roaster dish, crisp-skinned with onion and thyme flowers and rosemary sprigs jutting out of it, as darkly, richly complected as a vintage Rosewood sideboard.
Now, returned from the kitchen, the breast was sliced into thick, milky-looking, foie and orchard fruit-perfumed slabs. Mr. Steh had plated the pieces onto plinths of parsnip, peas, cream, corn and pulled leg meat. “I honestly want to cry, that’s how good it is,” my date said. “Oh God, oh God.” You can only imagine.
If I were with Oliver & Bonacini (Jump, Biff’s, the suddenly slightly less vital Canoe), The McEwan Group (Bymark, which feels as current these days as a Cosby sweater) or SIR Corp (the also-ran Far Niente, and Reds), I’d feel plenty threatened right now.
The attention to detail does veer at times toward parody. One evening, our superb young server tells us that the 2 ½ lb, $95 halibut for two, raised at an aquaculture facility on P.E.I., was “fed a high-protein diet,” which is just too much information, really. (The finished fish, served over roasted morels and creamed leeks and smothered with a buttery Parmesan brioche crumb, tastes monumentally delicious. But under all the accoutering, it is hardly a fish dish; that high-protein-fed, 2 ½ lb halibut becomes a bit player, Shia LaBeouf in a room with Gosling and Pacino.)
Mr. Steh’s “Young Vegetables” appetizer features baby corn and carrots and radishes stuck into a bowl of crushed ice, like pink and yellow diamonds in a Royal de Versailles display case. They were grown exclusively for the restaurant by a specialty farm outside Santa Monica, our waiter announces proudly. There’s a look of puzzlement around the table. Santa Monica … Ontario?
California, he clarifies. This strikes me as idiocy. They taste exactly like very good long-haul vegetables. Surely there’s a specialty farm within 1,000 kilometres of Toronto that can grow carrots that taste like that.
People will love The Chase’s $46 lobster pasta. The plate comes heaped with cream and fresh cheese, tender handkerchief pasta and lobster. But it feels too loose, too easy, a little unhinged compared to the one at Joe Beef in Montreal, say. A plate this rich needs finesse and balance as much as it needs good noodles and monster hunks of claw meat.
It is still early in the restaurant’s life, though. In a phone interview, Mr. Steh said he plans to introduce 12 new dishes when he launches his fall menu next week. Many of them will be more adventurous and more uniquely Toronto than the dishes on his opening list, Mr. Steh said. “We wanted to earn our customers’ trust before challenging them a little,” he said.
I hope that they will also rely at least somewhat less on crowd-pleasing but easy cream and cheese, and more on their marquee ingredients.
To their great credit, none of the project’s three principals are aiming for anything less than perfection. “These will be the two restaurants the city and the country will be talking about for the next decade,” Mr. Salm wrote of The Chase and its downstairs sibling in an e-mail this summer.
Overstatement? Almost certainly. But that ambition and the lengths that Mr. Salm and his partners have gone to fulfill it – from that extraordinary dining room, built from scratch on the top floor of one of Toronto’s most beautiful heritage buildings, to the top-flight service and Mr. Steh’s cut-no-corners kitchen work – are refreshing when down-market casual has become the go-to posture for downtown restaurant developers. These guys are aiming for way better than good enough.
And The Chase has a way of overcoming minor issues. For dessert, there’s angel food cake layered with coconut cream and lime curd, cloaked in marshmallow icing that’s been toasted, as if by a campfire. There’s a dwarf coconut on the plate next to it – a perfect, tender fruit the size of a doughnut hole.
You should have it. The dish is a deal at $10. And then just try to not feel superb on the elevator ride back down.