- 90 Yorkville Avenue, Toronto, Ontario
- Appetizers, $13 to $19; mains $27 to $29.
- Vegetarian Friendly?
- Nice, simple aperitifs and cocktails (try the Lillet on ice) and a short list of food-friendly French wines that are fairly priced, though not cheap.
- A minuscule and friendly space set back from Yorkville Avenue, with a frenetic open kitchen, all-pro service and a crowd of well-dressed people you could swear you almost recognize from magazines and TV.
- Foie gras, chestnut soup, trout and rabbit tartines, lentils, squash, the lamb, the mushroom and artichoke ragout, all the desserts.
The whisking seemed a little much. Doug Penfold, the chef and co-owner at Chabrol, a new, 19-seat French spot in Yorkville, was alone in the little bistro's closet-sized open kitchen, cooking a Thursday-night dinner rush all on his own. The room was packed, the Burgundy flowing. He was firing out first-rate Puy lentil salads and tartines of rabbit, shimmering chestnut soups and ballotines of chicken that came on plates of deep-green watercress sauce – somehow he was even keeping up with it all. But then another order for the tarte aux pommes would come in. You'd see him pause. And then the whisking. It felt like a daredevil juggling act, and the juggler's assistant wouldn't stop tossing in knives.
Chabrol's tarte aux pommes is built on rounds of fine puff pastry that Mr. Penfold rolls out by hand each morning, from flour and effort and wagonloads of French-style butter. He stacks each round with apple, dusts it with sugar, tops it with a knob of Stirling Creamery's extra-high-fat butter and bakes it to order until the puff pastry's ultralight layers turn glossy and buttery-golden and the apple slices darken to tart, caramel bliss. That would be enough for anyone, I'd imagine, but Chabrol's tarte aux pommes also comes with a jug of Calvados sabayon, and sabayon is always best made to order. And so the whisking, of egg yolks, sugar and apple brandy over gentle heat to a drunken froth, several times a night in the middle of service. I don't know how Mr. Penfold does it. Anyone who tries that tarte aux pommes will be forever grateful that he does.
Chabrol is a spinoff of Cava, the midtown Spanish standard-bearer that Mr. Penfold and his affable front-of-house partner, Niall McCotter, also own. They had been asked only to consult on the new space; it's fronted by a sizable patio, which they've yet to use, and tucked way back off of Yorkville Avenue, in the pint-sized spot that for the past four decades was known as Le Trou Normand. The space's owners had hoped to convert it into a café. But Mr. Penfold had had the name Chabrol in his head for at least 20 years since reading it in a Paul Bocuse book. "You get names stuck in your head that you want to build around," he said on the phone this week.
The term roughly means to empty one's wineglass into the dregs of a soup bowl and then to pick up the bowl and drink it. More literally, faire chabrol means to act like a little goat. Mr. Penfold, an undersung and immensely talented chef who was on the opening kitchen teams at Canoe and Pastis, worked at Avalon and had his first taste of restaurant ownership with Cava, had always wanted to own a place inspired by the foods of Southern France.
This kitchen doesn't make it easy, though. There is no gas line and no stove. The partners installed a commercial oven, a portable sous vide machine for reheating meats and a pair of induction burners for little bits of cooking. Their kitchen's ventilation system was rigged from blowers that are more typically used in marijuana grow ops. The tables are tight. (Is that your foot?) If you need to find the restrooms, they're out the dining room's side door, through a neighbouring dress shop and down a flight of stairs.
Chabrol's menu is made for the space, for make-ahead economy, for quick, low-fuss service (give or take a dessert or two), as proper French bistro menus traditionally are. There's superb pork liver mousse that Mr. Penfold serves with refreshing pickled turnips, that you spread on good toasts in great, buttery-textured wodges. There's silky foie gras torchon that Mr. Penfold poaches in riesling and sides with the soft-fruit punch of black currant sauce. There's a tartine of gently cured trout, with a gorgeous salad of radishes and herbs under lemony vinaigrette. His chestnut soup is excellent, but the quiche merely fine – its sides are too low, so its filling cooks too far beyond a great quiche's custardy jiggle. It's the same humdrum quiche you get at every other place around town.
But Chabrol's lentils are faultless: creamy, tossed with chunks of roasted beet, on clouds of smoked parsnip that Mr. Penfold whips into a puree. It's all then doused with good vinaigrette. And the mains are better still.
Among the standouts: the delicate whitefish that is steamed in parchment packets and sauced with vermouth beurre blanc, and the ballotine of chicken with that verdant sauce, and the stew of artichokes and chanterelle mushrooms, and the exquisite braised lamb with pearl onions and Savoy cabbage. You'd best also order a gratin or two to go with. The potato version, with melted Cantal cheese and thyme, is good if not entirely memorable. The escarole and celery root gratin, bedded down under butter-kissed bread crumbs, is extremely great.
There's also a ttoro, a Basque fish stew spiced with espelette pepper. It was tasty enough the night I had it, but not quite outstanding. It needed more fish, more spice, more seasoning, more heart. I'd love for Mr. Penfold to price it at $35 or even $40 instead of the current $29, so that he could turn it into a bowl of celebration. (Prices can sometimes be too reasonable.) I'd love for him to make a fish stew that his customers might never forget.
What I love almost as much as Chabrol's cooking, though, is the spirit of the enterprise. I love the we're-all-in-this-together warmth of the room and the mania in that open kitchen (Mr. Penfold even paused to teach a preteen boy how to torch crème brûlée the last time I ate there), and the short, smart list of excellent wines from small French producers. And I love the can-do way that the partners are making that space sing. "These tiny kitchens are the future of restaurants in this city," the chef said on the phone. He's right, too, with commercial rents in the state they're in. To his great credit, he has turned the place into a superb little bistro, when better business sense might have made it into yet another snack bar or coffee shop.
And I love that he's pushing still, at the age of 42, rolling out his own puff pastry when nearly any other chef would buy it frozen or put it through a laminating machine. "It can be done!" he said. He was almost yelling, out of conviction. "Why aren't we doing stuff like this any more? The best tools that you have as a chef are your two hands!"
Come springtime, Mr. Penfold and Mr. McCotter plan to build a satellite kitchen out on that front patio. The expanded space will make Chabrol somewhat viable, financially, and add 30 or so seats. Can they keep the quality up? I hope so.
In the meantime, they're hoping that dinner service doesn't get much busier, because with seats for just 19 (and space, realistically, for not quite that many), they can't handle too much more of a crush.
So you might consider going for lunch, or for cinq à sept drinks and oysters and maybe some lentils and some of that foie gras on toasts, or a bit of the brilliant roast squash and tarragon salad. And, of course, you will hear the sound of Mr. Penfold's whisk. It wouldn't be right to go to Chabrol without ordering its tarte aux pommes.