55 Mill St., Toronto. 416-364-1397. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $225.
So much ink has been spilled about Toronto's new Distillery District that it hardly requires introduction. Not so Perigee, the only serious restaurant that has opened in the restored historical district. Perigee's mission is brave and bold: to expose a kitchen to its diners and to change the menu every night, making every dinner a work in progress, a high-wire act without a net.
Perigee's dining room is built around the kitchen, which is sunk down a foot below it, the better for diners to watch chefs. Owner Victor Brown, who previously cooked at the estimable Romagna Mia and owned an inn in Haliburton, says: "The kitchen is in the middle of the dining room so there can be interaction between guests and chefs, which is really fun. It's a theatre kitchen. The whole menu changes daily, and through discussion with the chef, we'll design you a meal."
Minus the open kitchen and diner input, the idea harks back to the early days of Scaramouche. Its co-chefs were two young food ideologues, Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander, who insisted on changing the entire menu daily in order to respond to foods in the market and stay fresh and creative.
It was a noble and doomed mission. Timing, flow and division of labour, the mechanics that make a restaurant kitchen work efficiently, were a nightmare. Cost effectiveness was a chimera, thanks to the impossibility of planning the rotation of ingredients through the fridges. The food tasted great because the guys were talented cooks, but you never knew how long dinner would take, the restaurant was unprofitable, and cooks burned out from exhaustion.
Maybe Victor Brown knows something that Kennedy and Stadtlander didn't know. One hopes so, because we are terribly smitten with Perigee; were it to fail, we'd be disappointed. The second-floor space is everything the Distillery District promises, elegantly restored and fraught with history. The old brick walls and huge pine beams sitting on original black iron pillars require no adornment, save the theatre of the kitchen. Four cooks in immaculate whites and small black caps move constantly. With only three tables occupied, their ballet is smooth.
Upon arrival, we're told that the restaurant is set up like a sushi bar, and that the chef would like to cook for us, omikase style (meaning he offers a progression of small courses), or we can order our dinner. We opt to trust him, and are then offered a choice of Pineau des Charentes (Cognac with fresh unfermented grape juice), Pernod or a Spanish sparkling cava wine.
Along with this divine treat comes a breadbasket explained by chef Pat Riley (ex sous at Avalon, North 44 and Canoe): "I've baked matzoh (!), country loaf, and molasses bread, with our house churned butter that we culture slightly for flavour, a spread of Jerusalem artichokes with chanterelles, and Carli olive oil."
Homemade matzoh! Cultured butter! Sweet sunchoke spread! Swoon! Then come oysters topped with Canadian Abitibi caviar, spicy tartare of John Dory fish, and a scoop of sweet bison tartare with tiny pickled beets. After that, for two of us, chef has barely sautéed scallops with a slice of crispy pork belly and two sauces: splendid pale green sauce of fennel and preserved lemon, and walnut and apple sauce with sautéed peeled grapes. Our two companions are given perfectly cooked sesame-crusted black bass.
Then come two different crystalline consommés in tiny cups: carrot with chervil, and radish, both full of flavour. Then a trio of offal: Moist terrine of wild hare, duck and venison, foie gras perfectly poached in a torchon, and unbearably moist Cornish hen with herbed bread stuffing.
For the offal-phobic at table, chef offers wild mushroom pithiviers, a multilayered confection of crisp buttery puff pastry. After which, of course, one must cleanse the palate, in this case with tiny aqua porcelain bowls of "snow cone" made from vodka syrup with preserved lime and lime zest. Aaah!
French food has fallen from favour, but Perigee's superlative chefs are the rescue team: Bavarois (a.k.a. moulded custard) comes in every flavour imaginable, and can be terminally boring. Not here. Two of us get tasty fennel bavarois with roasted red pepper sauce and black olives. The other two inhale a clever play on Waldorf salad: The top half of this bavarois is celery root, the bottom apple. Sweet fragile walnut sauce completes the gastro-pun. We are not interacting with the chefs in the way their boss imagined, for they are working far too hard to talk; but whenever conversation flags, the cooking show fills in the blanks.
They give us four different main courses, each more wondrous than the last: rib steak with dinosaur chard; unbearably tender venison with frisée; equally tender squab with truffled romano beans; and duck three ways -- foie gras, pink breast and Romano beans topped with a perfectly poached duck egg.
And four desserts: The sine qua non of chocolate cakes, with thick mocha icing; gossamer apple mousse topped with a tiny layer of Calvados brûlée; crispy pumpkin dumpling with brown sugar sauce; and zuccotto, a Florentine dessert made from lemon pound cake with a heart of fragile lemon cream.
Five courses plus grace notes: $80 each. A steal of a deal for fabulous food. Can they maintain it when the place is full? Hard to picture, but the message of the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci applies here. He suggested: "pessimism of intellect, optimism of spirit."