Some restaurateurs treat their chefs as replaceable commodities. The kitchen doors revolve, the cooking stays unimaginative, the customers remain oblivious. Who's the chef? You really wouldn't know him. And why would you bother to ask?
The memorable places have chefs with names, plates imbued with personality. Acadia, the grits-, cracklin'- and Cajun-focused kitchen off of College Street, was just this sort of place. Acadia opened a year ago with chef Matt Blondin at its stove.
Mr. Blondin, 28 at the time, brought Acadian and Lowcountry cooking – grits and shrimp, green tomato tarts, andouille sausage – to the city, and interpreted them with talent, intellect, and balls-out point-of-view. He made Acadia into one of the city's best restaurants, then left it ten months later, when the New York –based Momofuku empire hired him to help run one of its upcoming Toronto rooms.
With Mr. Blondin's departure, many restaurant-watchers predicted the end of Acadia. A talent like his is a hard thing to replace.
Scott Selland, the restaurant's co-owner and front-of-house boss, hired a 32-year-old French-trained chef named Patrick Kriss to take over. Be sure to remember that name.
Mr. Kriss had never run his own restaurant kitchen, nor had he travelled to Georgia, South Carolina or Louisiana, the heartlands of Lowcountry and Acadian cooking. It doesn't seem to matter. He uses plenty of the cuisines' staple ingredients, like hominy, paprika, green tomatoes, scuppernong grapes and pickled okra, and mixes these with Canadian ones, like sockeye salmon that he cures and sets out with daubs of brown butter aioli, slivers of purple wax bean, brown-butter-poached gooseberries, red currants, salmon roe and mustard seed. His cooking is a mix of cuisines: Acadian, Lowcountry and French, for the most part. But mostly it's his own.
Mr. Kriss's corn soup turns up a bowl of garnishes: peppery crumbled sausage, mounds of frozen smoked cream, scarlet chili threads, a lightly pickled quail's egg. There's also tart green wood sorrel, and daubs of intensely sour-sweet yellow plum puree. A server pours corn puree over all of them.The garnishes mingle and melt and sublimate into fine threads of cold steam; the soup is sweet and creamy and wincingly sour, sunny and smoky and spicy and fatty in spots, and the plum, especially, is a masterstroke. Yellow plum and corn were made for each other. The taste is exhilarating.
It's a technical dish, a modernist still life, busy but exquisitely calibrated, as though somebody handed Brueghel an apron and a set of kitchen tweezers. But there's nothing extraneous about it. If you're panting when you finish it, you got off easy. That dish is a stunner in a line of quite a few.
Mr. Kriss started his career in Toronto, then left for New York in 2007, when he was granted a two-day stage at Daniel, the flagship restaurant of the French superchef Daniel Boulud. Mr. Kriss turned his tryout into three years in Daniel's kitchen, where he worked as a chef de partie and sous chef until returning home in 2010.
When Mr. Selland came calling this spring, Mr. Kriss was the chef de cuisine at Splendido, on Harbord Street.
Mr. Kriss makes a pork terrine from whole braised pig's heads. It's ribboned with creamy fat and dark-pink jowl meat, jammed with lip-licking flavour. He plates it with dots of pureed rhubarb, grainy mustard, buttery sourdough crumbs, translucent turnip shavings.
He sends out light, crunchy super-concentrated leaves of slow-baked chicken skin, dusted with dehydrated hot sauce, settled under clouds of blue-cheese froth. They're a trompe-bouche, slyly modernist bar food. (Also: a play on chicken wings. It takes a second before the shock of recognition.) His plating is magazine plating. Gorgeous. (Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, where he staged in 2010, is an obvious influence.) And like so much of Mr. Kriss's menu, it's tasty, above everything. Mr. Selland has hired extremely well.
Early this week, there were creamy pan-roasted sweetbreads served with a ribbon of braised veal tongue, with pickled anchovy, with a single, jewel-like peeled green tomato and creamy green goddess dressing. Amazing.
Another hit: a chicken leg rolled with prawn mousse, then poached and baked. It's served with crunchy, southern fried chicken livers, velvety green watercress puree, nubs of maple syrup candy, peppery nasturtium leaf.
Mr. Kriss is superb with fish, too, with blackened albacore tuna, baby octopus. His wild blueberry sorbet: the best I've ever had. This is verging on four-star cooking. It needs a better room.
Acadia's physical space is a tragedy. The room is loud enough to kill conversations, but without the energy that can make loud restaurants fun; it's clangy, boomy many nights, with cafeteria tile floors, a low ceiling, largely barren walls. The Shaft-era soul-jazz playlist can get grating. It's hard to imagine lingering. Do get on with it, Mr. Selland, please.
Meantime, turn up early in the evening, before the crowds show, or ask to sit on the pleasant patio. And keep an eye out for the chef. He's shortish, stocky a bit, with brown hair cut close. He looks confident, but hungry, like he's going places. That, you can also taste in his food.