Dandylion, a new, "vegetable-forward" spot on Queen Street West from the veteran city chef Jay Carter, feels as though it was conceived as an antidote to the modern restaurant. The room is calm, comfortable and casually hospitable instead of loud and frenetic. People talk to each other here, rather than stare into their smartphones. (At least a lot of people do.) The long, narrow space, outfitted with south-facing factory windows and reclaimed lumber shelving, is decorated with rows of potted succulents and Echeveria that Mr. Carter's wife and business partner Penny buys from Poppies, just up the street.
The servers welcome guests with boules of hot, house-baked bread and soft, tangy fromage blanc that the kitchen makes. Resist the urge to eye your server suspiciously; those come free of charge at Dandylion. There is nothing cynical about this place.
Mr. Carter uses words such as "nourish" when he describes his cooking. The first time I ate there, in December, one of the entrées was titled, "Persimmon, Sprouted Black Lentil, Spinach," and the bavette steak came buried under watercress stems. Mr. Carter wants to turn the old, Anglo-Saxon notion of dinner – "gigantic piece of protein and some rinky-dink vegetables and a starch," as he puts it – upside down, and to make vegetables the centre of the plate. This has become a fairly mainstream notion in the past 10 years in much of Western and Northern Europe and parts of the United States. It is still rare in better Toronto restaurants, and long overdue.
And Dandylion is refreshingly inexpensive. You have to work at it here to spend more than $50 a person on food.
Mr. Carter, 41, is a chef's chef, one of the most respected names in the industry. For 10 years, beginning in 2000, he ran Susur Lee's kitchens, first through the glory days at Susur, then at Lee and Madeline's. From there he became executive chef at Centro, where by all accounts he spun out admirable work. He has opened what is effectively a mom-and-pop, working 14 hours daily. He could have gone high-end and built a place where the average cheque is $400 for two.
Yet even at the top of the charts, Mr. Carter was never about flash or attention-seeking. He was the restaurant-world equivalent to the reserved but irreplaceable bassist in a multiplatinum-selling stadium band. Dandylion, which opened two-and-a-half months ago, is his first solo project. And wouldn't you know it, Mr. Carter has found his heart in acoustic folk – albeit with a few pulse-quickening power chords thrown in.
On a Thursday a few weeks ago, the kitchen added pork rilettes as a special. The pork was smooth-textured, nearly as fine and creamy as whipped butter, and came with sliced Jamaican pumpkin pieces that had been pickled in a peppery brine. Mr. Carter had also added grilled whiting that were butterflied open and came two to an order, clean-tasting and delicate, zipped with sherry vinegar and Meyer lemon zest.
The room began filling at 7 p.m.; within an hour, the restaurant's five staff – three in the kitchen and two on the floor – were slammed. Dandylion shares a block with the Gladstone Hotel, and is 30 steps down Queen Street from The Drake. The crowd was a mix of young, up-and-up locals and dining pilgrims from around the city. A lot of the diners seemed to know each other, talking between tables, enthusing about the food.
The kitchen did a simple dish with blood oranges, yellow beets and yogurt. It was sharp, tangy, earthy from the beets and creamy from yogurt, with crunch from roasted walnuts, and seemingly out of nowhere, sunny punch from super-ripe persimmon chunks.
There were excellent seared scallops with crumbled chorizo, but the heart of the dish was in the snap of fennel and bitter puntarella leaves; the proteins complemented the vegetables instead of the other way around.
There were lamb rib appetizers: fat and meaty, glazed with a sauce made from smoked onions and burnt agave syrup. You don't expect this sort of complexity in a meat dish, the kaleidoscopic sweets and smoky, caramel bitters, sourness and astringency against red, grassy-tasting flesh. The chef had set the ribs over strips of fatty lamb loin that had been roasted and glazed, so its texture was reminiscent of bacon.
The entrée called "Egg, Mushroom, Savoury Granola," layered extravagantly woodsy broth with puffed, toasty-tasting wild rice, kelp powder, several kinds of seeds and a mix of umami-laden shiitake and enoki mushrooms. But then we ate pork with apples and cider-braised red cabbage, and the fish dish of my dreams, a sublime, translucent-centred fillet of trout over cooked-to-melting salsify and beurre blanc sauce. Mr. Carter finished the dish with tiny shucked snap peas. They were firm, sweet and starchless; you'd never know this was midwinter unless you looked outside.
My first visit to Dandylion was less impressive. Too much of the cooking felt earnest, as though Mr. Carter was trying too hard. There weren't enough of those power chords. That sprouted lentil, spinach and persimmon dish tasted straight out of Moosewood; it was the sort of thing you might eat with reusable bamboo cutlery at the salad bar of a struggling co-operative cafeteria while debating the merits of cap-and-trade carbon transfers and the insidiousness of daily bathing.
The bavette steak wasn't juicy or tender enough, and a carrot sauce, though beautiful, overwhelmed another dish's fillet of fish. When your menu totals just nine items (the kitchen has begun adding specials only recently), you'd better be able to nail every single one.
That's the ideal, at least; anybody who eats out with any regularity knows it's often far from the reality. And if the vast improvement between visits No. 1 and 2 are any indication, Dandylion still has plenty of room to grow.
In the meantime, it's well worth a visit. And desserts have been consistently excellent from the start. The first time there, we had a walnut tea cake that was soft and warm, like a straight-from-the-oven cookie, stacked with lemon zest and crème fraîche. We had excellent chocolate cake with bitter cocoa nibs and a cheese plate that came under a "seeded brown rice cracker," which, sure, sounds like a punchline, but tasted delicious, and would probably earn Mr. Carter millions if he ever learned how to package them. The next time, there was pear cake with ginger ice cream (incredible) and a dish of pure summer: vanilla and white chocolate cookie crumb with raspberry reduction and bracing passion fruit curd.
By the time we left, the room was filled with happy people – a sellout crowd. Mr. Carter was rocking again, at long last to his own tune.
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.