I miss the days of flowery menu writing. I miss knowing, after ordering a “velouté of white asparagus with a medley of morels and porcinis and pine-scented crème fraîche,” that I’m going to be getting asparagus and mushroom soup, and that the chef intends to get a little freaky on the garnish front.
These days you’re as likely at many places to find only the words “spring soup,” or “asparagus, mushroom,” and to have to ask or to wonder or worse. At The Saint Tavern, an otherwise inviting, year-old bar-slash-bistro on Ossington Avenue, you endure a Castro-at-the-UN-length disquisition from the waiter, describing in exhaustive detail everything that a proper menu would have said.
Just at the point when you’re dying to get in that all-important first drink order, to settle back into a booth and turn to say hello and how are you to your friend, whom you haven’t seen in months, you make the mistake of wondering aloud what beers they have, whereupon the waiters at The Saint begin, over the din of the room, to rattle off the unwritten tap list – the names of obscure hefeweizens and French and German pilsners and the Austrian Stiegl Radler that’s delicious, that’s pilsner mixed with grapefruit soda, but you have no way of knowing that unless you interrupt him, and the Spearhead pale ale and the St-Ambroise stout (or was it an American Ale?) and another brew that sounds like “Sturm und Taxis.”
He then tells you about the daily savoury pie and the daily soup and the daily sandwich, which nobody thought to commit to, oh, say, a daily chalkboard. He makes clear that the “fish & chips” doesn’t come with “chips,” exactly, but with tempura green beans, and that the “chips” are actually potato chips – like, crisps instead of chippys – that have been crushed into the batter (How clever!, you don’t remark); that the steaks & chops come grilled and sliced for sharing, but à la carte, so you’ve got to order sides with them, but not with the dishes in the “Main Course” section of the menu, and then what the sides include and how they’re done and what they taste like.
He tells you that the “Bangers & Mash” and “Mixed Grill” feed four people; that “Blackened Catch” is trout tonight, that it comes with fingerling potatoes, Brussels sprouts, charred Brussels sprouts leaves, quick-pickled cauliflower florets and cauliflower puree.
Also: the “pig popcorn” isn’t actually popcorn, which you probably needed to know.
After all that you don’t want to order so much as you want a Vicodin and a darkened room and a transcript from which to make your choices. This is too bad, because The Saint Tavern can be a very good place to eat.
The restaurant is a project of King Street Food Co., the firm behind both Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse and Buca, the city’s fancy-Italian standard-bearer. The room is done up in glossy white subway tiles and stark black trim, with bistro tables toward the front, where the sunset pours in off Ossington Avenue. There are comfortable booths farther along, and a bar with stools and a pair of sports-tuned televisions above it. The feel at The Saint is neither overtly young nor aggressively stylish, which can come as a relief on Ossington. They play Eurythmics and Sting. It’s friendly and welcoming, an all-ages room populated by business-casual working stiffs, local homeowners and young couples who like beer and pub food but not lineups or Run D.M.C.
This spring, about a year after The Saint opened to middling reviews, its owners installed the chef Jesse Vallins (formerly of Trevor Kitchen and Bar on Wellington Street East) as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine.
Two months later, he is still for the most part cooking the menu he inherited. He plans to introduce his own menu in July, he said when I called to fact check; it will be lighter and fresher, he said – attributes, I’d argue, that will play to his strengths.
Amid the current, meat-heavy menu, the lighter dishes stand out. His beet salad, for instance, combined soft, roasted red and golden beets with shaved, raw candy cane beet slices, as well as verjus, which is the sour, pleasantly aromatic juice of unripe grapes, and peppery, mustardy watercress. If you expect phoned-in salads when you eat at pubs, this one comes as a pleasant surprise.
One of his simplest dishes was also perhaps Mr. Vallins’s most remarkable: faultless asparagus, ripped from the soil in the prime of its youth, primped, trimmed and limbered up with a steam bath, doused with a thick, lemony, yolky béarnaise so utterly perfect that it could have made Jacques Pépin weep.
The “pig popcorn” is excellent, as it happens. It’s little, fryer-puffed pig rinds, dusted with a barbecue salt that tastes of paprika and chipotle pepper, served with tangy, lime and pepper-kicked Greek yogurt. The skillet cheddar loaf with bone marrow is also superb, even if it does sound like a tailgate party platter. The loaf is hot, cheesy, and fluffy, sliced and baked almost like garlic bread, but with reams of marrow on top and enough rendered marrow fat in the bottom of its dish that it becomes progressively richer, meatier and delicious as it sits.
The steak tartare is the classic: hand-chopped, perfectly seasoned, silky-textured and decadent.
And for fans of the Big Mac – which is otherwise widely known to cheffy types and their doughy followers as The Most Beautifully Engineered Food Product of All Time, Ever – Mr. Vallins’ cheeseburger is a delicious stunt double. It’s made with house ground, medium-rare beef, creamy bone marrow aioli (not quite the Golden Arches’ Russian dressing-style special sauce, but terrific nonetheless), a house-baked sesame bun and house-processed cheddar slices. Even the fries are good.
I was less excited about the fried chicken with grits and collards. The fried chicken wasn’t particularly juicy or succulent or calorie-worthy. The grits were okay, the collards humdrum.
The vegetables with the “blackened catch” – that’s trout, remember? – were very good; the fish was embalmed in Cajun spice and cooked as if by the pyrotechnics team from Fast & Furious 6.
The fish in The Saint Tavern’s “fish and chips” came with sprouts on top of it. The chips, as mentioned, were not chips, but beans. This is not what I want from my fish and chips.
The fish pie was excellent: peas and fennel and good fish and sauce under creamy piped potatoes. (Hardly summer food, however. Mr. Vallins’s new menu can’t come soon enough.) The striploin was everything you could ever want from a striploin: beefy, salty, rare inside and indecently savoury.
Do not eat the homemade steak sauce. It tasted like a curry powder spill.
Though I haven’t tried it, a friend I trust says the $25 roast beef and fixings Sunday Supper is a) excellent, and b) a ridiculously good value.
There is no dessert menu – only a dessert speech.
I have no recollection of what it said.