938 Dundas St. W., Toronto
$115 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
My mother used to boil up a cow's tongue in her old aluminum pot. Never for company, though. She was embarrassed to be serving such a cheap cut of meat, which betrayed her immigrant roots. I loved the tongue, just like the marrow bones she would sometimes boil up for us to scoop out onto fresh rye bread, but I knew it was not for polite company.
How ironic that the most popular restaurant in Toronto has resurrected the soul food that Mom served in the fifties. Black Hoof (named for the revered Spanish ham from pata negra - i.e. black pigs) isn't exactly upscale. The sign out front says simply: Charcuterie. Inside there is an ancient electric stove in the open kitchen. The smoker is in the backyard. The restaurant's ceiling is corrugated tin, the walls are variously black and papered in funereal brocade, which must have been on special. We sit on wooden schoolroom chairs at scarred plywood tables with paper napkins.
They don't take reservations, they don't take credit cards and most nights there is a 45-minute wait for tables. You can show up and they'll call you on your cell when a table comes up. Good luck finding a salutary bar where you can kill 45 minutes. Several times I've given up waiting, and dined at the Vietnamese veg place down the block. Better on the arteries, but less fun on the taste buds.
For Black Hoof is serving the most exciting meat Toronto has ever tasted. Chef Greg Van Gameren (ex Amuse Bouche, Lucien and Canoe) has made the smoking and curing of meats his passion. His signature dish is the long narrow wooden platter of charcuterie ($16 for eight items, $25 for 10). What's on it? From one moment to the next, nobody knows until chef composes the platter, because it changes all the time.
From a stable of several dozen cured and smoked meats (mostly porcine), chef builds the long boards like an edible symphonic statement, going from one end of the board (mild tastes) to the other (intense). There might be nose to tail pork terrine: fatty, fibrous, fabulous pork. Pancetta, which is pretty fatty but blessed with great big flavour. Bresaola, which is dry but almost spicy and so thin you can see the laminated wooden stripes of the board through it. There is often boar salami, aromatic with fennel and moist with big fat globules. Some days, chef does peppery, tender elk salami and rabbit rillettes with sweet spices such as tarragon, cinnamon and nutmeg.
The guy is a charcuterie iconoclast. As he wrote on his charcuterie blog, "People get bored, especially chefs. Most of us continually push to learn new things." Hence the cinnamon in the rillettes and the horse tartare sammy. I couldn't do it. I tried to order it but eating horse ... raw horse! I eat other four-legged animals, so it's not a moral issue, but thoughts of Flicka and National Velvet make the idea of raw horse impossible.
The charcuterie often includes silken whipped duck pâté, fab prosciutto of pig or duck, lean rabbit terrine, cured pork loin with a moat of spicy salami around it, spicy gamey salami and chorizo made from various critters. Chef cures most of the meats himself, but buys a few items from local artisans who share his obsession with matters edible from snout to tail.
With the charcuterie platters come little florets of red pickled cauliflower, tiny pickled onions, carrots and daikon and little vinegary cornichons. There is grainy Thuet bread, and seedy mustard.
One evening, two thirtysomethings sit down at a table beside us. He is toting flowers, she has on a little black dress. It looks like a big night. She, having perused the blackboard menu, says to the server (in a tone close to whining): "Do you have any vegetables?" Server says there's endive and lamb's lettuce with the lamb's tongue. Little black dress pouts. They leave. The Hoof (as it is called by the many chefs who frequent it after work) is no place for even a wannabe vegetarian.
As for the pickled lamb's tongue, it is about as sweet and piquant as eating a slice of heaven. Veal tongue in brioche is sliced super thin, exquisitely tender, mild and moist, served with drizzles of fresh tarragon mayo and a dab of deep purple mustard built on grape must. Any resemblance to my mother's boiled beef tongue is nominal.
There is minor representation from the vegetable kingdom in octopus salad with chorizo and arugula. The octopus has been cooked in white wine and is almost chewy, almost cured, but miraculously tender. It's sliced super thin and topped with a fine dice of chorizo and sweet red pepper; it sits in a bath of chorizo-spiked olive oil to dip bread in, with a moat of olive-puree mayo between the octopus and the arugula. It's neither fancy nor formal, but this is very fine, detailed cooking. Some might call the cabbage soup a vegetable dish; it's a soup made of cabbage with white wine, a lot of butter and nutmeg and is served with two erect marrow bones.
Pork belly pastrami is crisp, fat and sweet with spices, delicately smoked, crisp and tender. It sits on "happy cabbage" (happy thanks to being cooked in a lot of white wine with apple and bacon). I'd be happy too. What a mind on this chef! Testina with lentils is pig face crisped to crackling with sweet pink pig meat inside uber-crisp shell. This is the best grease I've eaten in years. Can't stop. Move over, foie gras; testina is here. With tiny French lentils perfectly cooked and artfully spiked with carrots and garlic.
The Hoof is serving the equivalent of potato chips for epicures, satisfying our addiction to salt and fat. Why the Hoof, and why now? It's almost as if in bad times the organism has an atavistic need to fatten up on salt and meat grease. Just in case.