If you've been waiting for a good reason to get on Instagram, I'd like to introduce you to the account called @chefrobgentile. The mind behind that account is the executive chef at Buca, on King Street West, and Bar Buca, on Portland Street, which until this fall were by many multiples the best Italian kitchens in Toronto.
This fall, Rob Gentile and his partners opened their third and most ambitious Buca, a 100-seat, seafood-focused room on the ground floor of Yorkville's Four Seasons condos. Buca Yorkville's best work is documented on Mr. Gentile's Instagram account.
There's the showstopping, $140 crudo misto platter with its spike-clad whole B.C. sea urchin and opalescent lobster tails and slippery-buttery side-stripe shrimp, and the salt-baked, $160 halibut, which the restaurant's leather-aproned servers crack open and carve tableside and then drizzle with olive oil that's been brightened with bariole olives and cured lemon rind.
You'll see the restaurant's scallops, from the Gaspé peninsula, which come set on their half-shells and daubed with Acadian sturgeon caviar; they are so fresh – shucked just seconds before service – that if you happen to have one in real life you're liable to see it move.
You'll see the restaurant's taleggio cheese, duck yolk and black truffle pizza, one of the most intensely satisfying pies imaginable, and its bucatini carbonara, dressed with smoky, richly maritime herring roe and tossed to lustrous with quail yolks – a dish that surpasses the human bliss point on smell alone.
But the thing that sticks with me most about Mr. Gentile's photos is how ridiculously easy he makes the life of a top chef look. Not even four months after opening the most important and high-risk restaurant of his career, the 34-year-old chef was posting selfies this week from the infinity pool at a Four Seasons resort in Bali. He's on vacation with his yoga-instructor wife, and will be away for most of January. Even from an infinity pool in Bali, the guy manages to run the most extraordinary young kitchen crew in town.
The new place, with its marble and raw concrete walls and Italian-accented servers, is unmistakably a Buca restaurant, but with a sunny, seashore outlook, as if its staff just returned from a year on the Sardinian coast. The menu is enormous, the seafood selection unparalleled. There's fresh B.C. sturgeon, octopus, prawns and shellfish, live eel from New Brunswick (Mr. Gentile brought in a pair of Japanese chefs to teach the kitchen how to fillet it) and herring that's perfumed with the smell of the wood fires it's cured over in the Magdalen Islands.
There are cod tongues from Nova Scotia, which Mr. Gentile's kitchen does battered in hot oil, fritti-style, so they're mild and gorgeous – and by the way, wow, do cod ever have bigger tongues than you thought.
He does fried eel with a sweet-and-sour sauce made from maple syrup, toasty pine nuts and sour-tart sea buckthorn berries. Buca Yorkville's kitchen cures ahi tuna as though it's ham, letting salt, air and time transubstantiate the dark pink flesh into something that's still characteristically top-of-the-food-chain fish, but with the texture and concentration of top-shelf pork.
They make soppressata out of octopus and preserved lemons, sliced thin and laid out on Buca's excellent salumi di mare platter. Eating here, it's hard to believe that Toronto isn't considered a seafood town.
The pastas are fresh and determinedly al dente. Once you've had the crudi (the price adds up, but is worth it) and some fritti, have the watercress bucatini with geoduck clams, or the cavatelli, an end-of-summer-at-the-seashore dream of tomato, thick, rolled pasta, olives, zucchini and tuna sausage. (But maybe skip the lobster and parsnip ravioli, the single dish I had here – twice – that didn't work.)
The whole char, baked in a crust of salt or seared on the flat top, is an exceptionally good choice if you're with a group; don't be shy with the accompanying citrus olive oil. To eat here is to constantly recalibrate your assumptions of what's possible from a restaurant kitchen, to set new benchmarks for deliciousness, and then a couple of dishes later to set them all higher once again.
The service and especially the atmosphere don't yet reach the same level. As a restaurant, Buca Yorkville has some maddening issues to work out. While by day the room is cheery and light-filled, at night it's too dark, with grim, downcast lighting that does nobody any favours. This is easily fixed, and needs to be. The acoustics are awful – eating there one night felt like being stuck in a warehouse filled with ventriloquists: I couldn't hear anything the friend across from me was saying, but the high-pitched laughter over by the bar seemed to be coming from directly to the left of my head.
And while the service is in most cases smooth and knowing – wine director Giuseppe Marchesini deserves special mention, along with his superbly esoteric and affordable list – in some cases still it isn't. Buca Yorkville should be a four-star restaurant; its kitchen reaches that standard, easily. The front of house has some catching up to do.
The best experience I've had here was at the chef's counter in front of the kitchen. The lighting's great, the acoustics are decent and the spectacle of 12 cooks, intense but cool, battling through a mid-evening rush is better than anything you'll see on television.
All that and you get to eat, too. I had the 16-course option, for $180. You may gasp and cluck your tongue at that price; for a little perspective, $180 is roughly what it costs for a middling seat at the Air Canada Centre to watch the Maple Leafs lose. (The seven-course option costs $100.)
That evening began with a tiny dish of buffalo milk yogurt with sea urchin bottarga and spectacular olive oil, peaked at a plate of octopus and razor clams in a sauce that was glossy with bone marrow, and ended on a trio of pastry chef Giuliana Tomatis's fantastical desserts, including a sublimely clean and summery plum sorbet, wrapped in honey brittle. That meal was decadent and original, Italian in spirit but peppered with uniquely Canadian ingredients, brilliantly executed.
Perhaps just as incredible, neither Mr. Gentile nor his chef de cuisine, Ryan Campbell, were there that night. They had left the restaurant's 25-year-old sous chef Emeric Beccaris, who is just four years out of cooking school, in charge.
Mr. Beccaris nailed it, of course: he'd been learning from the master. He made it all look easy, too.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of people's minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.