In an era of showboating chefs with megawatt personalities, Jonathan Poon works quietly. The 26-year-old partner at Chantecler, in Parkdale, leaves his open kitchen in the hands of his two cooks some evenings as he works alone in the back, behind a curtain.
My first time there, on a Saturday night in February, the most I saw of him was a glimpse as that curtain swooshed or an arm poked through with a miniature Chinese tureen of house-made silken tofu, or a plate of beets and Peking-style duck breast.
On another night more recently, he worked out front under speakers that twanged and thumped with Yo La Tengo, by the restaurant's 78-year old Moffatt electric stove, amid the two deep-fryers on the crowded countertop, and the home-version rice cooker and the hot-plate that balanced a stack of bamboo steamer baskets. He hardly spoke. As he stood an arm's length from the four patrons who had managed to secure reservations for the weekends-only tasting menu that he launched a few months ago, Mr. Poon let his personable business partner Jacob Wharton-Shukster serve the food.
Chantecler is two restaurants, effectively. The first one, which fills the 30-seat room and pays the bills – the restaurant that 95 per cent of Chantecler's patrons encounter – sells lettuce wraps: cheap, cheerful, sweet-braised cuts of meat served with fiery sauces and sheafs of juicy lettuce. It's not an original concept, but they're very good and massively popular, and Chantecler is a fun and hospitable room with uncommonly excellent cocktails. It has one of Toronto's more interesting wine lists, also: short, but stocked with the sort of bottlings that go well with Asian flavours and make wine nerds twitch.
The side dishes, especially, are excellent. A standout: the crispy fried squid rings that are tossed in electric-sour tamarind sauce.
The second Chantecler happens at the back, at the counter in front of that open kitchen. That Chantecler is extraordinary. Mr. Poon's Hong Kong Chinese-inflected tasting menu is a passion project, sold more or less at cost (the price ranges from $40 to $60 lately, depending on the ingredients and number of courses) to just 16 people each weekend. It's an audacious concept – tasting menus are a notoriously hard sell in Toronto. And in a town where most top Asian chefs still hew to Western culinary traditions, it is also a triumph of guts and creativity. It's made possible by the money that those lettuce wraps earn.
Mr. Poon single-hands that project while his other cooks spin out the lettuce meals – it's no wonder he's quiet. It takes focus to cook Mr. Poon's sort of food.
He opens with two small rolls: hand-chopped tri-tip beef mixed with egg yolk, wasabi oil, scallion and peanut chunks, wrapped tightly into sheets of toasted nori. It's beef tartare, but with green, wasabi heat, and from those peanuts, roasty-flavoured crunch and texture – it's a street snack from a forgotten French colony in Southeast Asia somewhere, sold by a Chinese chef.
A single shigoku oyster might follow, gently baked on its half-shell, brimful of intertidal-tasting oyster liquor, with a savory daub of Hong Kong-style XO sauce on top. Next, that silken tofu, with sweet soy and chili, a dish of extremes coaxed into unison: hot and cold, sweet and spicy, cloud-light, refreshing and simultaneously savoury. It is wickedly comforting, worlds apart from typical downtown restaurant fare.
Mr. Poon was born in Hong Kong. He moved with his family to Richmond Hill at the age of nine. After high school, he worked his way up through some of Toronto's best kitchens before travelling back to Hong Kong to cook. Over the next few years, he worked in Australia and then in Copenhagen, at Noma, where he spent a three-month stage on the restaurant's appetizers station.
Mr. Wharton-Shukster, who is also 26, fell into serving after dropping out of a political science degree and discovered that he loved it.
They renovated the space themselves, with the help of Mr. Wharton-Shukster's father, while pulling shifts at other places to pay the bills (Mr. Poon was a
cook at Woodlot; Mr. Wharton-Shukster worked at Origin).
As the evening unfolded, a plate of shrimp arrived – bright coral pink Side Stripe shrimp from B.C., just barely poached in buttermilk with chives, dusted with seaweed powder. Mr. Poon served it with warm semolina bread and a disc of compound butter made jet black with spirulina powder and nori so that it was fantastically weird: butter, but better, what you might get if dairy cows were ocean creatures.
The shrimp gave way to duck. Heads started turning in the lettuce-wrap part of the restaurant. The chef had patiently hot-dunked and air-dried that duck, Peking-style, over the course of four days, and then cold smoked it over applewood and sugar and rice. By the time it arrived, thickly sliced with a sweet-tart sauce made from beet juice and a plate of fresh-from-the-oven parmesan cheese puffs, it was a course of pure exhilaration, quite possibly the tastiest duck dish in town.
For dessert: vanilla ice cream with hazelnut oil and buttery croissant crumbs and hazelnut praline. It ended with a tiny dish of Chinese-style, candy-crusted pear slices. That meal, plus a clear, exquisite soup and a squid dish, cost $40, with an extra $45 for the wine.
Mr. Poon's progression of dishes is disciplined by financial necessity; his tasting menu is better, and easier on diners, because of it. (i.e., you don't feel like throwing up when you walk out.) It also has a sense of fun.
Late last month, I had it a second time. It now cost $60 and included a few more courses. One of them was a lettuce wrap filled with ground pork, dried oyster paste, seaweed and puffed wild rice. It was not your usual lettuce wrap. There was a creamy element, too.
"Is that tartar sauce?" my dinner date asked Mr. Wharton-Shukster.
"No," he said. "If I told you, you wouldn't like it."
"What is it, mayo?"
"This is Jonny's mom's recipe, so he didn't want to mess with it," he answered.
"What is it?" my friend insisted.
"It's, uh, it's the tangy zip of Miracle Whip," Mr. Wharton-Shukster said, laughing. It completely worked.
That tasting menu is a four-star experience, one of the most fantastic ones in the city. The regular offerings are good for two stars, particularly when you factor in the smart side dishes, the wine and cocktail service and the hospitality of the room.
Average it out and Chantecler's a solid three stars. And it's one of my favourite restaurants in town.