- M’Eat Resto Butcher
- Location: 806 Queen St. E., Toronto
- Atmosphere: A casual, unpretentious room with old country music in the background; it doubles as a butcher shop.
- Price: Steaks and braised meat ($26-$36); tartare, tataki and carpaccio ($20); vegetable side dishes ($7-$15)
- Drinks: Wine by the glass ($1.50-$3 per oz.); wine bottles ($40-$120); beer ($9 pints); many whiskies
Sometimes as a restaurant critic, you get suckered. A clever premise intrigues, photos on social media pique interest and voilà – you find yourself seated at a place, ready to be its cheerleader before the menu even arrives.
This was the case with M’Eat Resto Butcher, a place that doubles as both a butcher shop and a restaurant. M’Eat takes a single whole cow at a time, sourced from a small farm two hours away from the city, and breaks it down into steaks, roasts, stewing cuts, ground beef and the like for home cooks to buy or eat on the premises. The menu is short – there are steaks and a braised beef dish as well as vegan and vegetarian-friendly side dishes. Wine is reasonably priced; there are no cocktails. On paper, I’m loving this place.
But unfortunately, my enthusiasm has waned after two unsuccessful visits. M’Eat is doing some things right – and many things that aren’t so right. It made me pine for the butcher that I loved to frequent during my time in Paris: Les Provinces, located in Marché d’Aligre in the 12th arrondissement, is the sort of place that I’d hoped M’Eat might turn out to be. It doubled as a restaurant with around 30 seats. The butcher staff were knowledgeable guides, steering you to the perfect chicken for your coq au vin, which is, I’m reminded, different than the species you’d want if you’re doing a roast. At Les Provinces, the range of products was impressive, the quality was outstanding and the advice never led me astray.
Just behind the butcher area was Les Provinces’s dining room, where a customer could choose any chop in the shop to have it cooked and served with roasted potatoes, a small salad and a bottle of Beaujolais. The dining room was casual, friendly, warm and great value, and a favourite spot for families on Sunday lunches. To me, Les Provinces was primarily an excellent butcher; for many outside the neighbourhood, it was an excellent bistro.
My fantasy: The butcher-restaurant concept transforms our food-retail and dining scene in Toronto and revives the independent neighbourhood butcher with butcher-restos across the city. The local independent butcher, with all his/her sage counsel on how to turn shank into ossobuco, returns and beats back the soulless grocers and their pallid cuts on Styrofoam trays.
In reality, it’s extremely difficult for the independent to compete today, especially those who source top-quality animals that aren’t bred in factory-farm settings. Supermarkets have a huge advantage in price, and the difference between them and an independent is so large that it’s hard to convince carnivorous clients to regularly spend at smaller retailers. Case in point: Earlier this month, Paramount Butcher Shop, the high-end retail arm of the Middle Eastern chain eatery, shuttered its shop on Yonge Street (just north of Eglinton Avenue) after less than six months of operation.
That’s why the butcher-restaurant concept could be the crucial key to the resurrection of neighbourhood meat sellers. A busy restaurant creates intrinsic demand for the butcher. And there’s no better way to showcase a raw product than by cooking and turning it into something sublime.
The butcher-restaurant isn’t popular in Toronto, although there are two to mention: Côte de Boeuf on Ossington, which serves good meat with natural wines in an earnest attempt to recreate Frenchiness; and Speducci Mercatto, a quality Italian butcher that serves up good food, but its unfortunate location in an industrial park in the northwest part of the city makes it difficult to consider as a true neighborhood joint.
M’Eat gets the neighbourhood-bistro vibe right. The back patio, where most diners congregate these days, is charming and a perfect place for a group of four or six to share a bottle and eat. Inside, the dark wood decor matches with the Willie Nelson on the stereo and the rumble of the streetcars outside. The room is refreshingly unpretentious and simple compared with the pricey steakhouses of downtown or the trendy spots of the west end.
Dinner – both for those who intend to buy cuts to cook at home and for diners who want to eat in – is based on what’s left from the last carcass. That’s typically three steak cuts (tenderloin, striploin and ribeye on my last visit, ranging from $30-$36 in price), a braised dish ($26) and three choices from the “raw bar” – tartare, tataki and carpaccio.
Chef/owner Cam Nelson checked out 96 farms as possible suppliers – when I visited, the beef was from Southwestern Ontario’s Arrowhead Meats, where the cows roam free, eat mostly grass and are fed very little corn because the farm does not want genetically modified feed to enter the cow’s diet. The result is a flavourful but ultra-lean meat since, with such little corn in their diets, there isn’t much marbling fat.
This is a critical detail, because for a place that praises the benefits of ethically sourced cows, M’eat’s kitchen hasn’t adjusted its cooking to showcase its star product. Both times, the braised meat dish – a brisket on my first visit, a hip on my second – was stringy and tough, needing at least another two hours (with more wine added) of simmering. The steaks are grilled and cooked to medium-rare, full of flavour but also quite a chew. This is what beef was like a century ago, I imagine.
The French solve this leanness problem with beaucoup de butter. French beef is similarly lacking in fat, so cooks sear steaks in a hot pan then baste constantly with an amount of butter that would make most doctors faint.
M’Eat’s execution problems don’t stop at the steaks, though. The raw dishes require revision. The tartare, unusually shaped like a raw meatball on the plate, was far too dry (missing the egg yolk to make it velvety) and came with slices of sad, soggy toast. Nelson skips the traditional raw egg yolk, relying only on olive oil to soften the meat. He could use a lot more of it. The carpaccio is slightly better, but there’s so much truffle paste and parmesan cheese the beef was drowned out. A place like this has got to let the beef flavour sing above the rest.
Fortunately, M’Eat gets its wine list right with very friendly prices. Take, for example, the 2010 L’ancien manoir de la Vallete, an ordinary Bordeaux from a stellar vintage that’s drinking well at the moment. This bottle goes for $55 at M’Eat, while others in the city are selling it for $75. The whole list has similar bargains.
M’Eat has neither cheese nor desserts on offer. There is no coda to the meal after all this meat, except for a dessert wine or a whiskey for a digestif.
M’Eat is a work in progress, which is a bit surprising because there’s enough expertise here to get it right. Nelson is a veteran of Toronto kitchens, most recently of Le Notre bistro, but he has also worked at Canoe and Nyood in the past.
I’m still pulling for it: If M’Eat does get it right, it’ll prove the butcher-restaurant concept. Then others would replicate across the city and they’d put a dent in the supermarket oligopoly on the retail meat trade. Otherwise, my fantasy will be just that – an elusive dream.