- Peter Pan Bistro
- 373 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario
- Appetizers, $10 to $14; mains $18 to $29.
- Vegetarian Friendly?
- The cocktails are some of the city’s best. Superb wine list with good by-the-glass picks and a few affordable bottles, though most of it starts at around $70.
- A bright, high-ceilinged, historic Toronto restaurant space, scrubbed and polished into beautiful shape. Smart, all-pro service.
- Appetizers and snacks are on the whole much better than mains here. Save room for cheese and madeleines.
- Additional Info
- Menu changes frequently.
The restaurant at the southeast corner of Queen and Peter streets opened 120-odd years ago as the Savoy, and it's been a restaurant ever since. It was renamed Peter Pan Lunch at the end of the 1920s. The Peter Pan part stuck.
"Didn't Susur used to cook there?" you still hear every so often. (He did, in the 1980s, before opening Lotus.) Otherwise, until recently, you didn't hear much about the place.
The chef Noah Goldberg and his father, Marty, took over the building's lease last year to house Noah's dream restaurant, his first. They kept the good parts – the tinned, 14-foot ceilings, the polished oak booths, the marble bar top, the gorgeous glass entryway that floods with reflected evening sunshine. And of course they kept the name. But otherwise they gave the place a new everything.
With design direction from Noah's girlfriend Jessica Ingwersen, an architecture grad who is also a partner in the business, they gave it grace and polish and an airy, mid-century feel, and brass art-deco wall sconces. They flew in a multimedia artist from London to install a trio of wall hangings that are shaped like taxidermy and made from Persian rugs.
They hired smooth, confident servers, and one of the city's better sommeliers, and built one of the best restaurant cocktail programs in Toronto. Peter Pan's gin and tonic is dangerously complex and tasty; they make their own tonic here. They bought a trundling old cheese cart – it sounds like a mine trolley as it rolls through the restaurant, laden with its cargo; it is perfect. They even fitted the building's second storey with an events and private-dining space.
Money can buy nearly everything, and at Peter Pan Bistro, it has. But the "nearly" part is the sticking point. I sincerely hope the cooking improves to meet the level of the service and the atmosphere. For now at least, it just isn't close.
Mr. Goldberg's cooking here, as at the Feasting Room, a six-month pop-up he ran on College Street in 2012, is too often unpolished and ill-judged, night-sweat heavy and meaty without deftness or balance or properly calibrated seasoning. A lot of it veers far too close to cookbook cooking, lifted from other, better places. It all feels a good five years out of date.
Mr. Goldberg spent a year-and-a-half at St. John Bar and Restaurant, the trailblazing London institution that almost single-handedly rekindled the nose-to-tail cooking movement. Rather than use that experience as a jumping-off point to develop his own point of view, he's largely aped the St. John formula.
Peter Pan's bone marrow and parsley salad pizza? That's a copy, more or less, of St. John's signature dish. (It would have been nice if he'd credited it.) The Bath chaps – braised, rolled, pan-fried pig cheeks – are also a St. John standard, as are the devils on horseback, the blood cake with fried egg, the Welsh rarebit, the Scotch eggs and the mushrooms on toast. To be fair, many of these are part of the British canon; they're open-source at this point. And Mr. Goldberg says he's used many of St. John's recipes as inspiration only; he's "elevated" the blood cakes, for instance, by adding fiddleheads, asparagus and a pan sauce, he said. But he also has plans to add St. John's ox heart and pig spleen dishes to Peter Pan's menu shortly. I wish he wouldn't. At 32, he's got room to grow still. I am hopeful. But he needs to find his own food.
Even the ideas that seem like they might be a little bit original – the cheeky, delicious Worcestershire "caviar" Mr. Goldberg serves with that rarebit, for instance – turn up elsewhere, like on Google, for instance, if you look.
None of this in itself is terminal: Real originality is one of the rarest qualities in professional cooking. But at the level that Mr. Goldberg presumes to cook, in a restaurant with this history and polish, it clangs, and loudly. He's not merely copying ideas. He's copying ideas that have already been copied far and wide.
That bone marrow and parsley dish is one of the most widely reproduced dishes in professional cooking. Putting it on a pizza crust doesn't change that. And the meat- and offal-loving public have all had devils on horseback and Scotch eggs, sweetbreads and pig's face: The nose-to-tail movement peaked here around 2010.
Worse still, there are far better versions around than Mr. Goldberg's. (The Grove, on Dundas Street West, brought real thought and verve and top-shelf execution to many of these same British classics. It had the opposite problem of Peter Pan: The room was dreadful. It closed earlier this year.) At Peter Pan, execution is the kitchen's greatest failure. This theme runs through a good 50 per cent of what it does.
While that marrow and parsley pizza was nice enough, the lamb sweetbreads were too under-seasoned to taste like much. The pommes dauphine – fried orbs of whipped potato, roughly – were crisp, creamy, salty, faultless. The shrimp salad, made with top-quality shrimp from Quebec, didn't taste as though it had been salted or hit with any sort of acid. That's what a chef's palate is supposed to be for.
The fried duck tongues were good; you bite around the cartilaginous centre bone; they come tossed in a chili-sauce slurry, like Buffalo wings. It's dainty work (pinkies out!) but satisfying enough. The Welsh rarebit – sharp farmhouse cheddar broiled onto bread slices – was excellent. I am relieved that Peter Pan's kitchen didn't botch the broiled cheese on toast.
A chicken liver and sweetbread terrine one night was similarly excellent, served with crisp pickled vegetables. I could eat that often, happily. If you're into roasted pigs' heads, they do them occasionally. I had half a head one night. They'd sawed it down the middle from chin to crown, so there was half a jaw (look, molars!) and half a tongue, and a cheek and an eyeball and the uppermost part of a neck. They'd confited it and roasted it to dark chestnut brown and served it on lentils. That pig's head desperately needed an assertive, high-acid sauce to cut the fat.
(I might recommend the green sauce found on page 164 of The Whole Beast cookbook, by St. John founder Fergus Henderson.)
Another night there was a large, duck-filled raviolo on a mushroom terrine, both of them nicely made and brimming with taste. The waiter poured sweet onion broth over them. This might have been Peter Pan's best dish by far, but that broth was tepid instead of hot, so the broth dulled the dish's flavours and muted its smells. The whole thing juddered when it should have sung. This was more than two months into the restaurant's life.
We had excellent roast chicken on starchy, flavourless favas, and we had a plate of mushy, torpid risotto. A better kitchen would have refused to send it out.
Will the cooking improve? I hope it does. First restaurants are never easy. Mr. Goldberg is putting in the work.
For dessert there were madeleines and these were good. They came with a pot of silky-textured lemon curd, which is my new favourite way to eat madeleines and everything else.
We also had cheese from that trundling cheese cart. The cheeses were exquisite; the kitchen paired them with so-so sourdough, cut five times too thick, like Texas toast.
We skipped the bread but ate the cheese and loved it. There was nothing at all wrong with the cheese.
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.