It was starting to feel as though Geoff Hopgood, the young and wickedly talented chef who made his name at the stove of the now-defunct Hoof Café, on Dundas Street West, might never open his own restaurant.
In the months since the café closed last February, Mr. Hopgood got married, moved house to the city’s west end, popped up at a couple of one-day-only food festivals, made sea salt at his family’s cottage in Nova Scotia, ate around London, and dropped a couple of cryptic but tantalizing hints on Twitter that he might have a bigger project up his sleeve. It was hard to tell for sure, though. Mr. Hopgood steadfastly refused to say.
This week, he quietly opened his own room, a 50-seat Nova Scotia-themed restaurant on Roncesvalles Avenue called Hopgood’s Foodliner, after the chain of grocery stores his father’s family once ran across the Maritime province. The restaurant aims to do for the foods of Mr. Hopgood’s childhood – the boiled corned-beef suppers, late-night donairs, bubbling, broiler crab dips and fried-clam sandwiches – what his time at the Hoof Café once did for brunch: to transform a class of food that the city didn’t know it was missing into something exquisite and urgently necessary and new.
Mr. Hopgood’s latest incarnation should be good news for more than just his fans, however: It’s also a high-profile vote of confidence in Roncesvalles Avenue, the once terminally unsexy west-end strip that’s been remade in the past 12 months with a parade of new and notably fashionable restaurants, bars, clothing and design stores.
A small, cocktails-focused restaurant called The Ace opened a couple months ago in the faithfully renovated remains of a long-abandoned Canadian-Chinese restaurant, and has been lined up most nights with youngish, urban hipsters who until recently would have been seen on Ossington or on the western reaches of Queen – anywhere but Roncesvalles, that is. Barque, a Southern barbecue place that opened last summer, remains one of the west side’s toughest seats – it’s typically crammed by 6:30 p.m. The Westerly, just north of there, also opened recently, and has begun drawing neighbourhood diners, and to the south, a new wood-oven pizza joint called Pizzeria Defina – it’s run by a fashion designer – has also been pulling in crowds.
If Mr. Hopgood’s past performance is any indication, his new room will be the strip’s first real magnet for diners from across the city. He's aiming high. “I want to play with older styles of food, stuff that’s reminiscent of when I would go out to eat with my grandparents or something like that, to a golf course, you know?” he said in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail.
“Those dining memories, when you’re a kid and you’re going out to eat, and you’re excited and you don’t know what to pick, and everything’s kind of a new adventure? I’m trying to recapture that a little bit, and then do some more avant-garde things at the same time.”
It would be hard to overstate just how extraordinary Mr. Hopgood’s rise at The Hoof Café was. The chef, who is 32, spent three years cooking at the Royal York Hotel before climbing to top positions at two of Vancouver’s best restaurants, then at Loire, on Harbord Street. He didn’t need to be a brunch cook. Most serious chefs consider brunch far below them.
But Grant van Gameren and Jen Agg, who were the partners behind The Black Hoof at the time (Mr. van Gameren has since left), needed a chef for the new breakfast and bar snacks place that they were planning across the street from the main restaurant. Mr. Hopgood took it as a challenge, and opened the café in 2009.
He simmered house-cured hams with hay, so they tasted reminiscent an autumn wagon ride, turned roasted marrow bones with rhubarb jam into a must-have breakfast food, paired eggs Benedict with pulled suckling pig, and obliterated 1,000 diets with his little bowls of fresh-from-the-fryer beignets that came stuffed with blueberry jam and lovage leaves. He did nighttime “snacks,” too: crispy, decadent fried chicken (it was the easily the best in the city); handmade ravioli stuffed with offal and pastrami; a cauliflower puree that was served almost as an afterthought with pierogies, but managed to blow minds nonetheless. On weekends the resulting waits often stretched to 90 minutes.
(The café closed last winter; Mr. van Gameren and Ms. Agg planned to turn it into a high-concept dinner spot at the time.)
Rob Belcham, the chef at Refuel and Campagnolo, in Vancouver, worked with Mr. Hopgood at C, a top fish restaurant in the Pacific city, and became a mentor to him. Asked about Mr. Hopgood earlier this week, he immediately praised the chef’s willingness to test out new ideas. “I’ve been a chef for 20 years, so I know: It’s incredibly difficult to come up with an original idea in this business,” Mr. Belcham said. “I’ve seen Geoff do it time and time again.”
At Hopgood's Foodliner, he plans to offer a raw bar menu, starting with oysters and broadening out in the next few months to include scallops, crab legs, spot prawns from B.C., as well as lamb’s-heart tartare, he said. (That salt that he makes each summer in Nova Scotia will also feature. “It’s amazing stuff, like fleur-de-sel,” he said.)
The constantly changing hot menu will bring smart technique, as well as a sense of humour, to simple food, he said. The donairs, for instance, which are to Nova Scotia what poutine is to Quebec, will be made entirely in-house, from the meat blend (he’s mixing pork and beef, which will be butchered from whole animals in the butcher shop they’ve built in-house), to the pita bread and sweet sauce.
“You’ll get two of those, served on a paper bag that’s been crunched up and then opened again, so that it’s like you’ve just got back from the bar,” he said.
But he’ll also do a nod to cassoulet, with tiny, own-made pork sausages, crispy fried sweetbreads, pig’s trotter and flageolet beans, as well as a fried-chicken plate that’s deboned and cooked sous vide, then served with collard greens and bacon sauce.
Mr. Hopgood said he plans to start a brunch service on weekends in a couple of months, when dinner is running smoothly. And unlike The Hoof Café, Hopgood’s Foodliner will take reservations, he added.
Turning back to dinner, and some of the dishes he plans to debut there, Mr. Hopgood said there’s a special place in his heart for crab dip.
“My mom used to make like the best crab dip ever. I love it. It’s your standard thing, man, just bubbling hot and served with Triscuits,” he said. “We thought about making our own Triscuits, but the amount we’ll go through? Warmed up Triscuits with crab dip is awesome.”