- City Betty
- Location: 1352 Danforth Ave. (at Linsmore Crescent)
- Price: Appetizers, salads, smaller plates, $5-$16; larger plates, $17-$32
- Atmosphere: A casual light-filled neighbourhood bistro with a focus on local produce
- Drinks: Fourteen wines by the glass ($11-13); 13 classic and original cocktails ($11-14); 4 beers on tap ($8-9)
City Betty, a new bistro in the east end, almost lost me before I even set foot inside.
On its website, it describes itself as a “seven-season kitchen and bar celebrating American bicoastal influences from California and New York using Ontario farm-to-table principles.”
It’s difficult to define a restaurant with a handful of words, but few one-liners match this level of geographic confusion and pretension. Three place names and a rewrite of nature’s rhythms? What does this tell me about what I’m about to eat? Showy affectation with a side of pomposity?
But City Betty’s Instagram had me intrigued. Pretty plates aside – most restaurants do pretty today – it was the vegetables that caught my eye: Interesting young greens – not your run-of-the-mill mesclun, but watercress, young kale, baby spinach, frisée from Meadowsweet Farms in Stouffville, Ont. At least this place seemed to take the farm-to-table part seriously, I thought.
After two visits to the restaurant, it’s clear they take it very seriously. Chef Alex Molitz is cooking such inspired food I can excuse the description on the website. All chefs these days reflexively proclaim love for local produce. But few are as dedicated to this mission as Mr. Molitz.
Driven by vegetables sourced from nearby farms, this restaurant is a rarity in Toronto – a true market-driven neighbourhood bistro with a fluctuating menu dictated by the seasons. Mr. Molitz has the technique, imagination and discipline to cook this way, and the Danforth East neighbourhood that he has opened in is blessed for it.
Mr. Molitz extracts the maximum he can get from his products and is flexible enough to rewrite the menu almost daily. At present, he’s featuring heirloom tomatoes, beets and peas; a few weeks ago, it was wild salad greens, watercress and fennel. (The seven seasons that drive his cuisine, he says, are the seasons that determine availability of various products. Strawberries, for instance, are a late-spring offering, as opposed to in early spring.)
His approach reminds me of the exciting restaurants in Paris – not in the food he produces, but in the spirit of the place. In Paris, a handful of small, ambitious restaurants helmed by chefs schooled in fine-dining are cooking on a whim, based on what is found at markets. The food is precise and innovative and served at an affordable price. Parisians call it la bistronomie or neo-bistro – City Betty fits in this mould.
This is hardly a new trend in France (and many North American restaurants, particularly on the U.S. West Coast, employ this approach), but this type of market-inspired bistronomie cooking is largely missing in Toronto. Partly to blame is our poor climate. Our growing season is so short that access to exceptional quality ingredients is limited. We’re not blessed with the bounty of Europe’s farmers markets. And it also takes a truly dedicated cook to source the best ingredients from small farmers. It takes enormous time and effort – something not all cooks are willing to invest.
That’s why it’s worth taking notice of Mr. Molitz, who has a solid résumé, having cooked at Farmhouse Tavern, Geraldine and, more recently, Waupoos Winery in Prince Edward County, Ont. (His fine-dining pedigree includes training at the Culinary Institute of America and a stint at Daniel in New York.) His ability to source interesting products and highlight them with such elegance is admirable. He shops at farmers markets three times a week and visits his preferred farms once a week.
City Betty is the rookie project of Amanda Gatien, daughter of nightclub impresario Peter Gatien. The “bicoastal” inspiration, she explains, is an homage to her youth spent in New York and California. After spending more than two years finding the right location, she took over what used to be the Borough pub and turned it into a light-filled space with celery-green hues. The intention is to give a sunny seaside feel, and if you can momentarily ignore the loud din of cars on this stretch of four-lane-wide Danforth when the windows are open, you might even imagine the sea breeze.
The menu leans toward vegetables and can easily accommodate vegans. It’s a lighter cuisine, too, although I hesitate to use that adjective, as many diners will dismiss this as a place that doesn’t fulfill. On the contrary – it’s very good and satisfying and full of flavour, without reliance on things such as butter, cream or deep-frying. A lot of vegetables are slightly pickled, raw or lightly cooked. Vinaigrettes are acidic and bright. Among the desserts I tried: a chocolate chip cookie with almond chai on the first visit; citrus slices and vanilla cream on the second. Mr. Molitz cooks with restraint to let the products sing.
Mr. Molitz sources exquisite seafood from Fogo Island, the Newfoundland arty outpost that is also a proud sustainable fishery. Shrimp and cod are constants on the menu, although how they’re prepared and their vegetable accompaniments often change.
On my visit, the shrimp was served cold as a salad with avocado and watercress and a handful of house-made potato chips for crunch. (At the time of writing this, the shrimp comes with avocado, celery and salt and vinegar chips.) The shrimps are bursting with sweetness and sea flavour and are a reminder that wild shrimp are infinitely better than the typical farmed type we eat at most restaurants.
The cod I had was perfectly cooked, with crispy skin and a moist interior, and served with charred endive that stole the show. It’s one of my favourite preparations of endive, but it requires a light touch. Cook it too long and all you get is bitterness. Not here. Mr. Molitz is careful and it tastes wonderful. (This week, the cod was being served with succotash and corn pudding.)
There is a burger, which looks out of place on this menu but guarantees someone who is scared by funny-looking vegetables can eat here. This is the Danforth, after all – a neighbourhood with few adventurous restaurants. The burger is fine, although I implore diners to try everything else. Let’s encourage talented chefs to innovate rather than require them to make us safe sandwiches.
The cocktail list is a mix of original and classics, with two cocktails inspired by current symbols of the zodiac. The wine list is a mix of imports and domestics – Keint-He and By Chadsey’s Cairns, both wineries from Prince Edward County, appear on the list next to Californian and Spanish ones.
After eating at City Betty, I still can’t really explain bicoastal seven-season cuisine. But perhaps the message is simpler. This place wants the world to know it dances to the rhythms of nature. Diners who follow this beat will be duly rewarded.
Our star system
No stars: Not recommended
One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.