Gilead Bistro 4 Gilead Place 647-288-0680 www.jamiekennedy.ca $125 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
While Jamie Kennedy - king of local, sustainable gourmet food - was building his business, he wore the toque less and less. When you're running JK Wine Bar, Jamie Kennedy Restaurant (and that space's several subsequent incarnations), Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner and Gilead Café - and putting down roots in Prince Edward County (not to mention headlining dozens of food industry events every year), you're not a chef any more. You hire chefs.
Like Mark McEwan does.
Of course, Kennedy cooked, but his primary responsibility was to run the business. In January, he turned his casual Gilead Café - the one full-service restaurant that was left to him after he lost most of the business - into Gilead Bistro in the evenings, returning to his old post behind the stoves in the process. Gilead is a small, candlelit room, decorated only with preserving jars glistening with the rainbow of fruit and veg Jamie puts up. Nothing fancy: The menu is tied together with butcher's twine.
The apps are so Kennedy: Let most cooks make a dish out of toast, onions and mushrooms and few epicures would be running it up the flagpole for a salute. But in his transformative powers over these humble ingredients, Jamie reminds us of his pedigree: House-made brioche becomes crisp buttery toast, assembled and served so fast it has no time to go soggy under its sauce soubise, an unsung hero of the classic French kitchen. Soubise is creamed onions the French way, with butterfat added. Jamie's silken soubise marries well with briefly sautéed mushrooms; the pool of deep, strong demi-glace on the side cranks up the flavour.
Other cooks put blue cheese in sauces at their peril, going over to the dark side of acrid because of too much blue, but Jamie is restrained enough to use just enough for excitement on one big al dente leek raviolo.
Are we time-travelling? Gilead is feeling like Palmerston, Kennedy's restaurant on College Street, where, from 1985 until 1990, he did just plain great cooking. It feels Palmerston-ish also in that most of the diners in the room are middle-aged. There's no bar, no sushi, it's not a tapas menu: It's rich with old-school classics such as galantine and gratin, quenelle and confit. With a modern light spin, which is how Kennedy made his name, by bringing New World lightness and local ingredients to classic French techniques.
But the execution is inconsistent. Certain items are vintage Jamie: Roast galantine of chicken is juicy chicken breast wrapped round herbed stuffing, atop perfect mashed potatoes, encircled by grill-kissed onion spears, with deep, dark demi-glace sauce. Jamie's classical training shows in blood-red tender slices of duck breast atop unsoggy potato pancake with a hint of sour cherry in the sauce.
Chicken noodle soup is golden, clear, rich with the sweetness of good chicken, alive with skinny al dente noodles. Crispy confit of pork belly is the usual extravaganza, moist and meaty, with minimal fat (for the genre) and cleverly spiked with tiny cubes of apple braised in cider. Cumbrae Farms butcher's dish is hanger steak cooked medium rare, super-tender, beef tendon a texture hit, smooth and soft yet with a little bite, velvety marrow on toast, all afloat in what Kennedy always did better than anybody else: crystalline beef consommé with big flavour. His vegetarian tajine is sweet spices in perfect balance on al dente veg cubes, his potato gratin also signature Jamie - rich, silken, moist.
But sometimes a heavy hand rules the salt shaker: Cold smoked pickerel is too salty, as is coq au vin, which is otherwise grand thanks to superbly moist chicken with wine-soaked small onions. Same problem with pork ragout. Moist tender pork chunks with goulash flavouring offer interest and heat, but it too is over-salted. Impeccable house-made broad noodles cut the salt, but not enough.
Quenelle of lake fish with shallot beurre blanc is disappointing. Quenelles are an antique that I adored - when classic French chefs used to make them; I doubt anyone under 40 even knows what a quenelle is. For the record, it's dumpling of puréed fish or meat bound with egg, sometimes lightened with cream. These quenelles are insufficiently smooth, and their beurre blanc is vinegary and heavy, not the beurre blanc of my dreams. Beurre blanc needs a touch of acid to give (temporary) stability to an essentially unstable butter emulsion. But not enough vinegar to announce its presence so loud. Did the chef let an apprentice make it?
Same question about the goat cheese tartlet, which has all the elements of divinity - buttery tender crust, impeccable warm chèvre, topping of lightly pickled boutique veg, but it is confusing - too many elements to keep track of.
Save for one concession to French cuisine (impeccable crème brûlée), Jamie's desserts are local: Gingerbread cake with brown sugar glaze and preserved cherries is moist, dense cake with perfectly judged ginger flavour and almost crunchy glazed exterior. Cider-soaked sponge cake is Canada's answer to baba au rhum, a plain but rich white cake soaked with cider for added entertainment. Dessert's only downside is dry chocolate bread pudding.
It has been a long time since Jamie has had sole personal responsibility for dinner every night. We'll look forward to the end of the shakedown cruise.