- The Commodore
- 1265 Queen St. W (at Elm Grove Avenue), Toronto, Ontario
- Smallish plates, $12 to $20.
- A bright, gorgeous room with vaulted, slat wood ceilings, set in Parkdale. Nice service, all-ages crowd, decent volume levels.
- Seafood tower, smoked trout salad, shrimp toast, confit crepes, penne, pork cheek. Don’t forget dessert.
The Commodore opened last fall on the block of Queen Street West between Dufferin Street and Brock Avenue, across from Porzia, which was about to close, and Chantecler, which at the time was on the rocks (it has since been reborn), and directly next door to Small Town Food Co., which had packed it in just a few weeks earlier. The Commodore was a seafood-focused small-plates snack bar and restaurant from a pair of first-time owners. At first glance, the menu read only slightly more exciting than a Staples flyer.
But if that sounds like certain doom, the room told a more hopeful story. The owners hired designer Marx Kruis to give the space the feel of an ageless bar on the Spanish coast: glossy white-painted slat wood vaulted up from walls, reflecting back light like the understory of an ancient cliffside carob tree. The beers and wines were inexpensive and nicely picked – the Hinterland sparkler for $50; the Kew Gamay for $45 – and the staff, led by Nota Bene and Pizzeria Libretto veteran Jason Romanoff, were as smartly trained as you might ever dare to hope.
The biggest surprise, for me at least, was the assuredness of the cooking. The crepe at the heart of The Commodore's duck confit crepe is Vietnamese instead of French. It's made from rice and tapioca flours and coconut cream, and is crisp and lacy, almost like a dosa, and golden yellow from turmeric, and savory from moist confit duck leg, and it comes buried in Anaheim chilies, crushed peanuts and mint. It's my platonic ideal of cocktail food.
The pasta dish of late is all un-simple simplicity. Its sweet tomato sauce, enriched with smoked ham hock, n'duja and veal marrow, has the sensory weight of osso bucco and its rapini greens are grilled to smoky with anchovies. The chef, Jon Vettraino, makes the penne himself on a hand-cranked, bronze-die pasta extruder. He learned to use it when he worked the pasta station for three months at a Michelin-starred spot in northern Italy. The friends at my table sat back and sighed and chuckled involuntarily as they tucked in.
The sauces on the seafood are in many cases French and classic – potted B.C. honey mussels in escabeche; hot-smoked whitefish in crème fraîche – and the charcuterie is house-made, with refreshing expertise. And consider this pork dish: tongue stuffed in butterflied cheek ("That sounds like Game of Thrones," said a friend of mine, chortling) and then braised to melting and cut into discs. Those discs have the jiggly texture of aspic, roughly, but seared to porky caramel and capped with sweet-sour maple-glazed apples.
Sure, The Commodore serves small plates/snack bar food, but at a level with precious few parallels around the city. (Bar Isabel, to which The Commodore's owners owe a debt of inspiration, is also a standout in that category.) It's a snack bar, but with great design and good service, and without the most common snack bar irritants. It's a snack bar with grown-ups at the helm.
Mr. Vettraino, 35, worked at Buca in its early days, and Starfish at its peak, and spent a year each at Splendido and 416 Snack Bar (which, it's worth noting, is excellent, if intentionally unpolished), among other spots. He wanted a place that celebrated well-sourced ingredients, treated simply.
The best way to do the place is with a group, and to order lavishly. There's an excellent seafood tower you'll want, with oysters, great grilled octopus, those mussels and that whitefish served with wonton crisps, and snow crab legs with anchovy brown butter. The salumi board is terrific (a standout, the "Korizo," which is chorizo, but made with Korean gochujang instead of smoked paprika; there's also a decadent guanciale). The cheese board is also a good idea. (The highlight, the Ontario-made Ashley, a soft goat's cheese streaked with ash.)
Neither the cheese nor the salumi comes with bread, which seems absurd given their $18 price tags. The bread, top-shelf sourdough that Mr. Vettraino buys from The Drake, costs $3.50 an order. It's smeared with good butter and grilled to a nice char on the flattop, which alleviates at least a little of the sting.
The shrimp toasts (the toast is included) are also a must. They're piled with tiny, sweet wild shrimp from Cape Breton that the restaurant sources from Fisherfolk in East York. The shrimp are sauteed in brown butter, herbs and shallots, which combine with the shrimp juices and soak into the bread, which you eat with butter and shrimp-juice-soaked fingers. Those shrimp toasts go down far too easily with The Commodore's $55 Muscadet. So does the swordfish crudo that's dressed with Trinidadian peppers (they're more flavour than heat), hard-roasted chicken skin and soy mignonette.
There are heftier dishes, a seared Brussels sprouts bowl with huge, honeyed pork cheek lardons that taste like char siu among them. But the soy-based sauce was too thin and too plentiful and the coriander on top seemed a step too far. It was still a very good dish. (While I'm at it, the zucchini parmigiana didn't have enough punch in its tomato sauce, and ate like a bit of a chore.)
Another time, on a quiet night, a friend and I had the meat and potatoes dish – bavette and potato puree – as unassuming a menu item as you could imagine. Like so much else here, it was a little bit of brilliance. That steak (perfectly pink-centred, sliced and nicely seasoned) sat on a fog of potatoes passed over and over through a chinois until they were as smooth as cream, and the steak and potatoes were ringed in a moat of sea urchin butter. They use a lot of butter at The Commodore, which is another thing that makes the place nice.
The last time I ate there we had all but begged for a Saturday table for six people at 6 p.m., and promised we'd be out by 8. We drank six cocktails and three bottles of very good wine and ate most of the menu and laughed a little too much and asked our server, who had the patience of a saint, to repeat her dish descriptions a good three times each, mostly because we were all so impressed with the food.
At 5 to 8, as we made to leave, she told us that we couldn't go anywhere until we'd had dessert. We ate coconut cream pie (fantastic) and brown butter cake with almond streusel on top (also fantastic) and then stepped outside into the early evening and did what you do when you leave a proper snack bar. We headed, flushed and happy, to another place for more drinks.