I've often thought that Toronto's oyster houses have such strong personalities because of the simplicity of their signature foodstuff. A Kumamoto oyster is a Kumamoto and a Northern Nova is a Northern Nova. Presuming they're well-sourced and fresh, well shucked and un-futzed with, an oyster is an oyster, a commodity, just like iced whole chickens and western red spring wheat.
And every third restaurant in Toronto serves oysters now, often for far less than the oyster places charge. (To wit: The $1 oysters at the bar at Biff's Bistro after 5 pm. They're good there, too.) To make it as an oyster house, you've got to have a competitive advantage.
Rodney's, on King Street West, has brusque (in a fun way) servers, a convivial atmosphere, a superb shellfish selection (the company is one of Canada's biggest oyster distributors) and 25 years of history as a standard-bearer in the city.
Starfish, on Adelaide Street East, feels clubby and intimate; when Patrick McMurray, its garrulous proprietor, starts talking about bivalves, you're likely to feel you've been transported to a salt-stained shanty bar on the Atlantic Coast. (This fall, Mr. McMurray installed a yurt on the patio of his second restaurant, the quirky, Celtic-themed Ceili Cottage.)
The Black Hoof's Raw Bar, on Dundas Street West, has a young, Westside vibe, a college rock soundtrack and a dream of a wine list.
At Catch, on St. Clair West, you come for the oysters – manager John Bil is one of the best oystermen on the continent – but stay for the excellent cooked fish.
But what about John & Sons, the new place on Balmoral Avenue at Yonge Street, in Summerhill? John & Sons is the sister restaurant to a place of the same name on Temperance Street, downtown. (It was known until this fall as Rodney's By Bay. Owner John Belknap had used the Rodney's name under license, but rebranded before opening his uptown spot.)
The oysters at the uptown John & Sons are good enough. There were 10 different kinds at last count. They're expertly shucked, served on ice over metal oyster platters. They're oysters, in other words. If oysters are all you want from an oyster house, this is a good place for you.
I liked the room, too, with its old, sandblasted outboard motors, vintage one-gallon New England oyster tins and long, ropy light fixtures made from anchor lines.
Yet apart from those two attributes – pleasant design, and oysters that are served well and taste like oysters – I don't get John & Sons. The wine list is overpriced (the Prosecco is marked up 254 per cent; other bottles more than 170) and limited, the beer list is generic, the service is adequate and often impersonal and not much more than that. (Both times I ate there, the servers struggled to remember which oysters on our mixed platters were which.)
The cooked food is also disappointing much of the time, none more than John & Sons' $21 lobster poutine. The menu describes the poutine as "claws and tails, lobster béchamel, Bromont white cheddar curd, Yukon gold frites." If you're like me, when you read those words you imagine a mess of crisp, golden fries fresh out of the oil so that those Quebec cheese curds melt into every bite. It should have big hunks of meaty, tender lobster, and pools of creamy, silky béchamel that tastes like butter and concentrated lobster, and is worth every bite and slurp and lick of a finger, in spite of its obvious detriment to health.
At John & Sons, the lobster poutine had perhaps three tablespoons of weak-flavoured sauce when I tried it, plus a few bits of lobster knuckle meat and about an ounce of cheese curds. It was dry and sad, a study in unfulfilled potential. And this was poutine, one of the easiest dishes a professional kitchen can make.
The clam fritters: chewy clams in damp breading. (I had them twice.) Red Lobster does fried seafood better. Shouldn't an independent seafood place at the heart of one of Canada's wealthiest neighbourhoods be able to get this right?
The chowder was full of good fish, but flat and under-seasoned; the seafood ravioli were doughy, more pierogi than pasta (still, though, not awful, and the sauce was nice); the oysters Rockefeller were skimpy and unsatisfying, as though they'd been prepared not by chefs but by angry dieticians. The batter on the fish and chips was thick and heavy and sweated grease.
I liked the grilled squid one night that got the Italian treatment with heat-softened cherry tomatoes and whole olives. The cioppino wasn't bad, particularly with smoky grilled toasts and boldly garlicky rouille on top. (Not bad is a long way from "good," mind.)
The smoked salmon and cream cheese plate was as good as you'd expect from a smoked salmon and cream cheese plate. And the house ice creams – lemon meringue, tiramisu, raspberry cheesecake – also lived up to billing, set in dainty homemade sugar cones.
But then the jelly doughnuts tasted dry and crusty, as though they'd come from the day-olds pile, and the s'mores, a dessert so simple that kids usually make it, were embalmed into sawdusty crusts. Those s'mores marked a low point in the commodification of taste memory: They didn't remind me of camp so much as make me wish I could rewind my life five minutes, and never mess with sacred tastes again.
We didn't eat them, we didn't complain, the servers didn't say anything when they cleared them. We didn't get the sense that anybody cared.
It struck me then that John & Sons' competitive advantage is geography: There aren't any other notable oyster houses at Yonge and Balmoral.
If it were my business, I'd want to aim higher than that.
- No stars: Not recommended.
- One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
- Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
- Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
- Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.