Food Television, like King Lear and Lindsay Lohan's script reader, hasn't always been great at picking winners – not, at least, if culinary cred is a consideration.
The star television chef David Adjey, for instance, has piercing blue eyes, bounteous blond hair, a penchant for distressed leather outerwear and, thanks to his Food Network Canada persona as a tough-love consultant to budding restaurateurs, the sort of name recognition that most chefs would kill for. You'd be hard-pressed, however, to find anybody who can remember the last time he ran his own successful restaurant.
In the meantime, hyper-talented, hard-trained young chefs such as Patrick Kriss of Acadia, or The Grove's Ben Heaton – the sort of chefs who are steadily, rapidly and radically raising the level of mid-priced dining in this city – are nobodies to television. They're not "talent," as people in the business might say.
But Carl Heinrich is talented talent. The telegenic 27-year-old chef, who won the most recent season of Top Chef Canada, used his $100,000 prize to open his first restaurant early this fall. It's a bustling, 80-seat, split-level space near the Eaton Centre, called Richmond Station. It's a place that, just this once, makes me grateful for the power of food TV.
The space itself is split into two: a long, high-ceilinged room at the front that's dominated by the bar along its western wall, and a more convivial, more tightly spaced room up a level at the back, with the open kitchen as its focus. The vibe is easy, casual and friendly. Mr. Heinrich, who cooked at Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne in New York for four years after graduating Stratford Chefs School, has pushed his floor staff to give every table the sort of experience they want to have, he said, instead of one-size-fits-all.
So if you've just popped in after shopping, they'll hand you the basic menu, with its short-rib stuffed burger, radish salad and rosemary fries (at $20, it's one of the best burgers, and best burger deals, in the city), its tempura lobster poppers, its excellent, gut-warming coq au vin, and maybe some house s'mores to finish.
If, by contrast, you're the pretentious foodie type (hands up!), they'll point you to the chalkboard specials, and offer flexible, surprisingly affordable chef's menus built on oysters, fish, charcuterie and variety meats. (Mr. Heinrich's partner in Richmond Station, the chef and butcher Ryan Donovan, breaks down whole animals and sides of beef in-house.)
Or if, as seems to be the case with many of the patrons here, you like food at least as much as the next person, but what you really like is Mr. Heinrich (such is his stardom that there were more young, single, adoring women here one recent evening than at your average bachelorette party – Mr. Heinrich is not so hard on the eyes, apparently), they can probably find space for you at the counter in front of the open kitchen, too.
The constant behind all this is the quality of the cooking. Mr. Heinrich is an excellent chef, and he's brought on an excellent crew.
Those lobster poppers are hot, light, crispy, stuffed with tender-firm lobster hunks and set with vivid, scratch-made cocktail sauce on perfect iceberg lettuce rounds. His lobster bisque is the sort of soup you can only make with time, skill and great ingredients, its flavour round and intense, sharpened with a blast of anise oil. The setting may be casual, but this is a chef who trained with the best.
Mr. Donovan's charcuterie, though straight-ahead in places (the hot pepperoni), also aims to do more than your average sliced-meat board. My tablemates and I could have eaten the Presskopf Fritters by the 50-pound bulk, especially after we asked our server what Presskopf means. "Um, it's German for headcheese," he said, smiling.
A note for headcheese lovers: The only thing better than headcheese is headcheese that comes cubed and fried. A note for Mr. Heinrich: fried headcheese hot dogs!
Mr. Heinrich was raised on Vancouver Island. I don't think it's coincidence that he's an excellent fish cook. The whole East Coast sea bream on the tasting menu one night came boned out on a platter, with the flesh grilled to perfectly medium, sweet and clean-tasting, and its head and vertebra fried to a salty if slightly challenging crisp.
And lest anyone fear that a restaurant with its own butcher doesn't care about vegetables, the chef has stacked his menus with flora, well-prepared: sunchokes, Du Puy lentils, caponata, good (if not exactly world-beating) beet salad.
The most memorable by far is his Pommes Kennedy, as they're called: scalloped potato cubes, of a sort, burnished in bubbling beef fat to deep gold, crunchy and delicious. They're served with what might just be a lock for best potato condiment ever: a dish of nutty, smoky brown-butter hollandaise.
What I'd like to see more of is Mr. Heinrich's point of view. That coq au vin and the bisque are more or less the same as you'll find in many (great) restaurants, and the short-rib stuffed burger, while excellent, is modelled on Daniel Boulud's. What can Mr. Heinrich create that's unique to him, that other chefs won't be able to resist copying? He's capable. I hope all it takes is time.
I'd love to see a New School sommelier and a deeper, more interesting wine and beer list; the drinks selection isn't bad now. It should be better, though.
Meantime, the desserts, from pastry chef Farzam Fallah, are fantastic, none more than a pound cake that was made with cultured butter churned in-house from crème fraîche.
And to his great credit, Mr. Heinrich said he's had enough TV for now. He plans to be in his kitchen working to make his restaurant as good as he can make it. That, I'm going to watch.
- 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.