Toronto doesn’t need another British restaurant. The city has spent the last 70 years trying to escape its Britishness. And British food is whatever the opposite of sexy is – it’s leaden, gassy, the Duchess of Cornwall in houndstooth flannels. That’s the prevailing idea, at least.
A British-inspired restaurant called The Grove opened on Dundas Street West between Ossington Avenue and Dovercourt Road two months ago, across from a Kentucky Fried Chicken. It doesn’t look British. There’s nothing stodgy or twee about it. With its 15-foot ceilings, glass front and blond wood bar (it’s made from the remains of a Humber College squash court), the design is clean and airy. The staff have excellent teeth.
And while The Grove serves English food, it’s not ye olde English pub food, or high-WASP English. The restaurant’s chef, Ben Heaton, does modern British with a light touch and seasonal groceries, the way much of Britain has eaten for more than a decade now. It’s intelligent, stylish, sexy even – think Carey Mulligan wearing Stella McCartney. The Grove has some of the freshest cooking in town right now.
You’ll want to begin with the parsley-root soup. It’s all vegetable upfront, no cream, a purée of quiet pleasure. There are snails at the bottom for saline punch, and nubs of crunchy pan-fried sourdough, plus bacon reduced with sherry vinegar. The soup is sweet, sour, gently salty, savoury – the total package.
The mushrooms on toast with the duck egg are a must if they’ve still got it (the menu changes often), as is the potato salad with mackerel that’s cured with citrus and smoked, kippers style, over applewood out back.
The Arctic char is brilliant: It’s cooked with confidence with creamy green fava halves and fat, freshly shucked peas that taste seconds out of the garden, like you’d eat on an idle Sunday in a better life. There’s technique and inspiration and labour behind this cooking. You may never eat grey roast beef again.
Mr. Heaton, who turns 36 next week, spent his early childhood in Yorkshire. His family moved to Whitby when he was five. He trained in London and Manchester in kitchens that mattered, head down, the sort of hard slogging you’ve probably heard that youngsters don’t do any longer. After three years, he came home again, and worked his way up from Far Niente and Reds to the original Globe Bistro, which he led (it was good then). From there, he went to Colborne Lane, and then to One, Mark McEwan’s money tree of a room in the Hazelton Hotel, where he was chef de cuisine.
At The Grove, he’s partnered with Richard Reyes, a former server from One who runs the front of house. (Fritz Wahl, a third partner, left shortly after the restaurant’s opening.) It’s the first place of their own. The vibe balances west-side cool with understated polish. The chairs, though they’re mismatched, are comfortable. The servers are friendly and competent, and wear sneakers, which isn’t impossible, as it happens. They fold your napkin when you get up. They play Radiohead, Broken Social Scene, Echo and the Bunnymen, Tommy. They take reservations.
There isn’t much of a crowd yet, however. The room’s been no more than one-third full the three nights I’ve visited. Such is the city this summer: There’s competition for diners, finally, an exceedingly good thing. After three quiet years, Toronto’s bursting with a bumper crop of promising new rooms, and nowhere more than in the Grove’s neighbourhood, along Dundas West and the Ossington strip.
The place will catch on, though. A room with cooking this good can’t help it. Dinner here is cheap, too: short of ordering the entire menu (Mr. Heaton will do a 10-course tasting for $65), it’s hard to spend more than about $45 per person on food, though you’ll be tempted to try.
One night there are gnocchi under a cloud of frothy Leicester white cheddar sauce. The women across the table become lost to the world in it, swooning: beware. The kitchen garnishes beef with refreshingly bitter celery leaves, and black walnuts that Mr. Heaton pickled in a fit of canning last summer. (He did 50 pounds worth – the entire contents of one tree.) Order the beef here, always. And the deviled lamb’s kidneys, if you’re into steaming guts. (They’re better than the kidneys I had at St. John, in London.) And you cannot neglect to order the fish.
The drinks list, by contrast, is a downer. The cocktails are merely adequate – even the Pimm’s Cup lacks conviction. The wine list is mostly generic and expensive. Markups run to 200 per cent in some cases. The staff don’t always know how to serve it, either: One night’s $60 pinot came about 10 degrees too warm. (Mr. Heaton said last week that they’re revamping the drinks program.)
The beer list is good, though, and pudding, as the menu calls it, exquisite. The lemon curd is tart but sweet with a clod of clotted cream, and rhubarb, and the snap of a meringue chip. It’s the sort of dessert you crave afterwards for weeks.
So this is British food, you may find yourself marvelling. Welcome to the present. It’s good.
2 1/2 stars (out of four)