Toronto is enjoying a gastronomic explosion that makes the last great culinary boom look like pretty small beer. Sure, we were blown away in the eighties by the likes of Michael Stadtlander, Jamie Kennedy and Susur Lee, but save for a few also-rans, there were only those three marquee chefs. And dinner with them was invariably a $150-for-two affair, which meant it was hardly available to the people, as it were.
It was always a big deal.
That’s the biggest difference between then and now. The culinary explosion of Toronto today is so much more accessible, both financially and in its absence of formality. But perhaps even more expansive is its breadth. Whereas fabulous food used to be available only in a select few fine-dining restaurants, these days it can be found in literally dozens of venues, largely concentrated in one geographic area (downtown west, along Dundas and Queen from Bathurst to Parkdale, and of course along the Ossington strip).
Dinner at the old-guard haute cuisineries required a significant commitment of time as well as money. It was always soup-to-nuts, three courses from appetizers to dessert. Sometimes more. Most of these new wunderkind chefs have lowered the stakes by bridging the gap between bar and restaurant. It’s a clever hybrid that allows diners to make a smaller commitment. The small-plates craze doesn’t hurt either. If you want to spend less (time and or money), they make it easy.
Take, for example, Yours Truly, a lovely room where Wednesdays are snack days – small plates only. Thursday through Monday is prix fixe, the veg or the meat option, or the small plates. Reservations are a must.
The restaurant, which opened in mid-December, is getting a lot of attention for its tasting menu but the small plates are better – simpler and tastier. And great value. I’m not sure if Toronto has a more fun seafood item than the $14 lobster roll, a meeting of big chunks of perfectly fresh lobster with celery mayo in a warm sweet Portuguese massa roll that’s been brushed with butter and crisped. Which goes down very nicely with the devilled eggs topped with Sriracha for heat, furikake (Japanese seaweed and spices) for savour and sesame for sweet.
For $6, there’s a clever combo of the old Ossington (Portuguese salt cod) with the new (sushi): Inari sushi is fried tofu pouches stuffed with rice studded with just enough salt cod and toasted seaweed, served with spicy house-made Kewpie mayo. Add a side of Thuet bread (served warm in a brown paper bag) with a tiny Mason jar of whipped duck fat made more addictive with tiny dots of deep-fried shallots.
The small plates also visit Korea, Mexico and Jamaica: Jamaican doubles are mellow chickpea stew with tender, warm house-made flatbread topped with goat sour cream. The Mexican option is super tender sweet ‘n’ hot pork with fresh cheese, shaved radish and shredded iceberg in a fresh corn tortilla. And from Korea comes pork ssam (which means wrap in Korean). This is pan-seared and honey-glazed pork belly cooked in duck fat, and rolled up in Bibb lettuce with coriander, kimchee, pickled daikon and ssamjang (Korean chili, garlic and sesame paste).
Chef Jeff Claudio has worked at the famed Rockpool in Sydney, was chef at Scarpetta, and has done stages at Noma in Copenhagen and Alinea in Chicago. The three partners who own the restaurant, all first-time restaurateurs, are drunk on his potential. The tasting menu, which they showcase, is an intellectual construction that doesn’t quite work. When you have a chef as talented as Jeff Claudio it’s tempting (for him and his handlers) to bet the store every night.
But the tasting menu is so fiddly and precious that the taste of things gets lost in the pyrotechnics. Not one, not two, but three amuses arrive before our four-course tasting meals. First is one spinach leaf, cooked sous-vide, with a dot of buttermilk cream and honey gel. Very molecular. Then tiny Mason jars of soup: potato-garlic for the vegetarian and lobster bisque for the carnivore. Both intensely flavoured. Then thin slices of pickled yellow beet sandwiching creamed honey, with crunchy honey-sweetened spelt kernels.
The tasting menu is variations on five small themes, constructions built around the central organizing principle – a veg or meat item. The veg tasting menu starts with mushy cauliflower with garam masala, sweetened crisped rye crumbs, cauliflower cream and warmed grapefruit. Then comes a lightly pickled beet with tasteless hibiscus-dill cream topped with a lot of weird, dark green spaetzle that have been fried crisp and tough. Then come gnocchi of good texture with seaweed and grated horseradish in a vaguely Japanese broth. Dessert is rubbery yogurt cake sitting on muesli and sliced apples, topped with a big pouf of wonderfully light buttermilk cream … they say there’s parsnip puree under it all but I can’t find it.
The meat menu is tastier. It begins, as the veg does, with cauliflower. Then crispy sweetbreads with oven-dried sliced cauliflower, and currants soaked in Earl Grey tea. Is one to recall India’s colonial period? If so, the English would call this dish a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Then comes the trout, perfectly sautéed, in a sea of vaguely sweet ‘n’ sour brown butter (thanks to tamarind and sugar), with creamed carrot puree, bok choy and crunchy spelt kernels. Next is a tiny piece of perfectly cooked ruby duck breast with big slices of browned onion and topped with a flurry of popcorn which is in turn topped with powdered horseradish and sumac. There are oats in there somewhere. And green-grape-vinaigrette beurre blanc.
Dessert is the unfortunate yogurt cake. We are left wishing for a big hunk of that divine duck breast … or the deep-tasting lobster bisque. But this parade of small, complicated plates has been an exercise in intellectual cooking. Interesting ideas, but they don’t add up to sensual pleasure. It is the cooking of an over-ambitious gifted amateur. Chef Claudio does better work when he thinks nobody’s looking; hence the delights you’ll find on his small plates.