I love the idea of being in two places at once. It's a kind of practical magic that would allow me to get so much more done. Unfortunately, the powers that be have yet to hear my plea on that one. Maybe Scott Conant has a more direct line to the big guy in the sky, as he seems to have mastered that trick.
The American chef and restaurateur has a TV show, a cookware line and eateries in New York, Miami and now - don't all genuflect at once - Toronto! Aren't we lucky! Can we all say world-class city at once?
When Conant wrote an open letter to Toronto on the Huffington Post on July 20, he made such condescending remarks as: "Miami is really beautiful, T-Dot. You should check it out some time." He also extolled the virtues of our local charcuterie. Did we really need him to tell us?
But none of that matters. Whether the guy with the big name on the press releases is in Toronto or Timbuktu is irrelevant if the food tastes good and the place is fun to be in. And Scarpetta is - mostly.
On arrival, you are swept immediately into the expansive sweep of the hotel's bar, a tall, glamorous room with a fab abstract mural of T-Dot and clever seating arrangements carefully composed to look random. But it's very (and surprisingly) un-New York: The first impression here is spaciousness. The bar is big, with lots of space between the little living rooms.
The dining room is cut from the same cloth - the big tables are widely spaced apart, the black-trimmed glass doors are double-height and the translucent pale-blue glass louvers on the windows are just as tall. One has a sense of grand luxury, which is good, because that is hardly what they message during the foreplay.
When we call for a reservation just shy of a week before, we're told that we can come at 8:30 p.m. but not at 7 or 7:30. The next day, we try for another night: They will give us 6 or 9 p.m. but nothing in between. And they want our e-mail address or phone number so they can contact us to confirm. What if you want to keep your dinner private?
Talking to the reservation bully feels very New York, and not in a good way. It gets more so when I pull the old scam of calling (yet again) the day before the dinner to ask about changing the late res to a more civilized 7:30. Of course, of course. They were holding the prime-time tables until the last minute. That's hospitality?
Having run the reservation gauntlet, we are seated at a banquette big enough to accommodate a small sports team, which is impressive but not so hot for conversation. They are only moderately gracious about moving us to a smaller table, which is weird because their mode of service is almost too haute. Every item gets delivered by a phalanx of servers. Who does that "simultaneous removal of the silver dome" thing any more? And more to the point, why bother? The service and the grandeur of the room communicate fancy-schmancy, but the food is Italian grandma all the way. And we love it!
If I could figure out how to get my pasta to, in the words of Italian cooking maestra Marcella Hazan, "catch the sauce" the way Scarpetta's al dente spaghetti catch the basil-inflected, slightly spicy, deep sweet tomato sauce, I'd quit writing and sing a siren pasta song that would entrap every passerby. Is Conant channelling his Italian grandma? Hard to imagine that her take on polenta was even kissing cousin to the grandeur of Scarpetta's rendition: The waiter spoons truffled mushroom stew onto polenta so silken and smooth it's more cream than grain.
This is Italian food that Toronto has never seen, a combo platter of simple, robust flavours with a touch so light and textures so sensuous that they ought to be illegal.
Take the perfectly seared sablefish atop cherry tomatoes roasted just till their flavour intensifies atop fennel that has been caramelized enough to sweeten and gentle it but not morph into mush. And the braised short ribs that are neither sweet nor cloying, but like BBQ gone classy, with high-flavoured al dente veg and faro risotto.
Only rarely does Scarpetta put a wrong foot down. Casonsei, for instance, are little pasta purses stuffed with purée of beets and smoked potatoes. Now, there are a lot of things I like to do with potatoes, but anybody who smokes a potato needs his head read. Why take a sweet thing and turn it sour with smoke? To mix smoked potato and beets is to craft beet borscht gone wrong. Their only other error is heinously overcooked halibut wrapped in fancy bacon and served with more of those silly smoked potatoes.
But oh the Sicilian-spiced duck breast, which offers the seductive thrill of blood-red, fork-tender flesh sparked with flavours as deep and multilayered as a Tintoretto: lightly preserved oranges with toasted fennel and chili, the duck itself strewn with paper-thin slices of young radish, a purée of fresh fava beans spiced with pickled mustard seed in a moat around it. Equally complex and enchanting is impeccable beef tenderloin with house-made cannelloni enclosing a sexy purée of sweetbreads with a buttery red-wine reduction.
As a rule, one doesn't expect much from an Italian restaurant in the dessert department, but here, too, Conant's recipes use haute-cuisine alchemy to upgrade robust Italiana. The panna cotta is a cloud of coconut cream under a gossamer guava roof. The chocolate cake is neither molten nor traditional, but a dark, dense hybrid. But it's the amaretto flan that takes the figurative cake for its dark, strong almond flavour coupled with a lighter-than-air texture.So we end far from where we began: I resent carpet-bagging celebrity chefs who use us as a step on the road to building their brand, but Conant's recipes take Toronto to a new level of flavour thrills. If they got smart and crammed in twice as many tables, let the starch out of those stuffed shirts and got friendly about reservations, Toronto foodies would flock.