Trevor Kitchen and Bar
38 Wellington St. E., Toronto, 416-941-9410. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip. $150.
I don't like basements. Low ceilings are not exactly cheerful, and I can easily become irritable if required to descend into subterranean space for a significant stretch of time. There are, of course, exceptions. An expansive basement with an unusually high ceiling can be okay, e.g. Bymark, or Centro downstairs. That these are expensive basements helps to explain their status as exceptions. The new and ultrahot Trevor Kitchen and Bar is not an exception. The cramped space with the pathetically low ceilings almost screams "cheap rent." In its last incarnation as Bouchon, I almost had to leave one evening. After a glass of wine, the place started to feel claustrophobic.
Trevor Wilkinson, ex-chef of Lobby, is clearly not backed by moneybags with deep pockets. The new place represents his first independent outing after 17 years grinding it out in other people's kitchens. Despite the low ceilings, we're happy for Trevor, because the guy has put heart, soul and everything else he has into this place. And he has the big three: the guts, the grit and the good taste to make it.
The guts because he has restricted himself to a small menu, and followed his own star by including both the unfashionable (brick-flattened Cornish hen) and the undiscovered (beef cheeks). As for the small-menu factor, Trevor offers five appetizers, one of which is green salad. By comparison, Quince (reviewed in this space last week) has 12 appetizers.
The grit because the guy is everywhere in his restaurant, and has been since Day 1: He hefted tools to help with the reno, he pops by every table to check (really check) on everyone's dinner. Trevor is no Sunday-driver restaurateur.
And the good taste because, although he sure didn't betray this while cooking at Lobby, his food is loaded with flavour.
Of his four not-salad appetizers, three hit the brass ring. Dunno how he does it, but the batter on the shrimp tempura is so delicate it only covers parts of the shrimp. It's also superbly crisp. The shrimps are big, sweet and so happy on their bed of crunchy julienne of apple and jicama jazzed (for jicama is nothing without some jazz) with coriander and chilies. He riffs on beef carpaccio with tiny bits of crisp smoky bacon in delicate dressing with a hint of sambuca. He reinvents hash by making it with chestnut cubes and roasted root veg, served with sweet juicy quail. And how clever to gild that lily by topping the quail with a fried quail egg with feathery browned edges.
But it's clear we're still in a basement -- even though the space is as charming as it could be, thanks to pillar candles and gorgeous colours on the walls -- and as the evening goes on and the bar fills up and voices bounce off the walls and ceiling it becomes increasingly cramped and noisy. We hope Wilkinson was smart enough not to sign a long lease, because he deserves to go places. Above stairs. But please lose the tuna tartare on crispy rice cake ASAP. It belongs in a basement. Semantics aside, it's a bad sushi pizza with mushy rice.
When a chef who has worked a long time for other people goes out on his own, you finally find out what he believes in, and if he has the moves to bring that kitchen philosophy -- whatever it is -- to fruition. Wilkinson is an inventor. Read his list of main courses and notice how far he strays from the tried 'n' true, how carefully he avoids the culinary clichés of the moment. Beef cheeks! Yes, these are the actual cheeks of the cow, and they cook up into a magnificently tender stew with wild mushrooms and nicely flavoured squash risotto whose shortcoming is undercooked rice.
Everybody does duck two ways (confit leg and rare roasted breast), but Wilkinson rolls the confit into a "cigar" wrapped in the crisp duck skin and builds a fine brown sauce well balanced with Ontario blueberries. The accompanying stack of thinly sliced white potatoes is properly cooked but not moist enough. Add butterfat!
Gotta do steak, but he cleverly crusts it with bacon and horseradish. Similarly the necessity to offer lamb to the carnivores, but Wilkinson keeps himself awake by garnishing the lamb with truffled navy beans and chorizo. He masters the predictable seafood pasta thanks to a significant amount of perfectly cooked lobster and shrimp in light cream sauce with a lot of baby chives. I've had one bad dish at Trevor: Berkshire pork (the new, new meat in town) is heinously overcooked, tough and dry, and its accompanying pear-and-almond tart is a mushy misstep.
Chef redeems himself at dessert: Who but a guy pushing the envelope would put burnt marshmallow sauce on dark chocolate espresso cake, do quince turnover with five-spice, and a banana split . . . for two? He bravely offers a short dessert card, really only the three aforementioned choices, plus sorbet and cheeses, which he serves at room temperature (old cheddar from the Ottawa Valley, French camembert and French Papillon Roquefort, the best blue in the business).
The quince turnover is what happened when Harvey's apple turnover went haute: It is marvellously crisp, oozing warm quince, charmingly scented with five-spice, and just enough caramel for divine decadence.
Wilkinson's next challenge will require him to say no. Now that he's proved how good he is, there will be investors with deep pockets sniffing around. Fans will tell him to open a bigger place, and then he will be tempted to expand the menu too. Which would require a bigger staff, and who knows if he has the ability to manage staff, to get other people to do what he knows how to do?
Few have it, and that's how most small successful restaurateurs mess up. Let him move out of the basement, but not take on airs. Small is beautiful.