72 Ossington Ave., Toronto
$150 for dinner for two including tax and tip.
The middle of the longest, most contentious labour dispute in Toronto's history may not have been the most auspicious time to open a restaurant named Union, but chef Teo Paul had waited long enough.
It was originally slated to open in September of 2008, but uncooperative tradesmen, permit delays and, perhaps, an overly optimistic schedule resulted in a lengthy postponement. The late opening did have one beneficial aspect, however; it created some serious buzz that, since it started up at the beginning of July, has seen the Ossington Avenue resto jammed with diners.
There are 12 items on Union's condensed, almost terse menu and nearly half of them change according to what's on offer at the markets that day, the restaurant's ethically minded motto being Farm to Chef to Table.
This can make things interesting as there are always new surprises to be found, but it can also mean that there's an awful lot of Swiss chard in the mix. One week it appeared in a soup, with the roast chicken, with the halibut and on the plat du jour. That it is fresh, flavourful and simply prepared does not alter the fact that it is, after all, Swiss chard.
Elk sliders are also available every day and they get my vote for the dish of the summer, the culinary equivalent to the song of the summer, Black Eyed Peas' Boom Boom Pow (only you don't feel guilty for liking them).
Sliders, of course, are those tiny square hamburgers that first appeared at the burger chain White Castle and have recently become something of a phenomenon on high-end menus. Chef Paul's sliders, which are comprised of coarsely ground elk meat basted with a mirin glaze, topped with a vinegary turmeric-infused pickle and served on little mayonnaise-wiped challah toast points, are definitely haute. Meaty with an almost foie gras fatty richness, they are boldly seasoned, complex and a lot of fun to eat.
They also contain another ingredient that, like the chard, makes numerous appearances: challah - and from Harbord Bakery specifically. It can be found supporting the amuse bouche (chicken salad with grainy mustard one day), sliced alongside the house-made charcuterie plate (corned beef, a slick pork rillette and a bold, boozy country pâté) and as soldiers (toasted rectangles) with the mild truffle and egg fonduto.
Personally, I think it's an odd choice of bread - it reminds me of hamburger buns - but the kitchen seems obsessed with it.
Union likes to confound expectations. One evening's soup, a cold combination of watermelon, cucumber and peach topped with a grilled prawn, is lifted by the unexpected appearance of heat from a dose of house-made chili oil. That same chili oil also serves as a counterpoint to the otherwise unrelenting richness of the luscious, fatty pillow of pork belly that subs in for the sticky ribs on occasion.
Vegetarians are humoured - there's rich sweet-pea lasagne layered with roasted eggplant and crushed tomatoes in a creamy cauliflower-studded béchamel as well as a daily fish - but carnivores have the last laugh.
Meat is treated simply and served on the bone - whole, half or quarter roast chickens, oven braised pork ribs, rabbit Dijonaise and, best of all, a colossal Scotch Mountain Meats cote de boeuf for two. A good two inches thick with a gnarly bone sticking out of it, the steak is aggressively seasoned, giving it a spicy crust that serves as a delicious counterpoint to the pink meat and soft, rich fat. It is a primal feast and ranks among the best steaks in the city.
All of the main dishes could be better served by their accompaniments, though. Seasonal greens are hit and miss, sometimes undercooked and underseasoned; the frites are good, but not outstanding - they lack snap. The crushed new potatoes with yogurt, radish and chives feel like a missed opportunity, as the flavours are muted; while the dish looks pretty, it doesn't really add up to much.
Sommelier Christopher Sealy has assembled a thoughtful wine list focusing on smaller producers and alternative varietals (passerina, bourboulenc, mourvedre, schioppettino) and his unflustered, professional demeanour sets the tone for the service.
Anyone who has been following the Ossington restaurant renaissance will be familiar with the space: a long, narrow room with exposed brick and industrial lighting. Artist Barbara Klunder's large Arcadian mural covers most of one wall and has a sweet, naive appeal. Its majestic chickens and spirited horses could be the characters in an illustrated children's book.
Despite its delayed appearance, Union and its celebration of seasonality, unfussy preparations and emphasis on ingredients is the kind of restaurant that could have a timeless appeal.