Local Kitchen & Wine Bar
1710 Queen St. W., Toronto
$150 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
Local Kitchen & Wine Bar, which is located on the farthest stretches of Queen Street West in Parkdale, is a 29-seat resto that doesn't take reservations for parties of fewer than six. Unless the food is bloody good, that is asking too much.
We get why a restaurant wouldn't take reservations: People triple-book for Saturday night, they don't show, they don't call. In a small place like Local, three no-shows and there goes the night's profit. The headaches and stress of tracking reservations, dealing with latecomers and placating impatient customers when their table isn't ready all make it sorely tempting to eschew reservations.
But frequent restaurant-goers tend to avoid no-reservation places because, when we're paying money for it, we figure they ought to provide the service of committing to serving us. Could this be part of what contributed to the demise of Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar? Knowing that you might wait an hour or more for a table did not make me want to go there.
As for Local, the small room is guaranteed to become unpleasant the second it gets crowded. You can wait at the bar if there's no table, but the bar area is so small that's going to feel okay for about four minutes. So they need to start taking reservations ASAP, in order to prevent the nasty overcrowding that turned Pizzeria Libretto into hyperactive chaos.
I say this because Local offers good eating and is good-looking. It's funky and warm, thanks to crystal chandeliers, ironic T-shirts hanging on wooden clothes pegs, old Cynar crates holding wine bottles and shelves of multicoloured preserves in Mason jars.
The elfin enthusiast who mans the front of the house is co-owner Michael Sangregorio. After we're seated, he brings over a cello package, unwraps it with enthusiasm and then ceremoniously removes the second layer of wrapping (paper towel) to reveal a fresh white truffle! Almost 600 bucks' worth, it is the size of a golf ball. He gives each of us a sniff and says he'll shave it over fettuccine with butter sauce for $10 a shave.
"How many shaves does it take?" we ask. Two, he recommends. It turns out that two shaves of truffle, however klutzy (the elf is clearly a neophyte with truffles), send fettuccine with butter sauce to the moon. It is impossible not to lick the plate. Fresh white truffles from Italy are cheaper than France's black truffles, but I prefer the white truffle (a misnomer since it's brown) for its sweeter taste and fresher aroma.
As for the butter sauce and fettuccine, both are homemade and impeccable. The chef (co-owner Fabio Bondi) must be in the kitchen by 7 every morning, rolling out pasta dough and fabricating ziti tubes. Yes, he makes ziti from scratch! A heretofore homemade ziti virgin, I see a long seam in each pasta tube and wonder aloud if they're house-made. The server, who is both knowledgeable and super-warm, says yes, they are.
Homemade ziti! These fragile al dente tubes are to boxed ziti what canned chicken stock is to homemade. Chef sauces them with barely cooked fresh tomatoes, basil and peperoncini, sweet peppers with a hint of heat. He makes big, green pappardelle, slightly irregular to maximize bite, with Swiss chard, and sauces them with mellow pheasant ragu and Parmigiano Reggiano. He stuffs his half-moon pasta with silken purée of butternut squash and goat cheese and sauces the sweet little packets with fresh sage leaves fried crisp in butter and a sprinkle of pulverized amaretti (Italian almond cookies). Chef smokes potatoes (!!!) and uses them to make pillow-light gnocchi sauced with taleggio cheese and shreds of braised rapini. The sweetness of the cheese sings three-part harmony with the smoke of the potatoes and the bitter of the rapini.
These are pasta dishes to reinvigorate a love affair with noodles. Their technical and aesthetic wow factor make is easy to forgive minor miscalculations like green olives stuffed with rabbit puree, breaded in panko crumbs and deep-fried. The olives taste weird breaded and fried, and an olive doesn't hold enough rabbit to taste. But it's good that chef takes risks and tries new stuff. The bottled-tasting hot cherry peppers stuffed with bocconcini cheese can be put back in the fridge, cuz that's old news.
As is salume. Everybody with a backyard smoker and a carnivorous gene is smoking and curing meat these days. Chef Bondi's claim to salume fame is his own maple-cured Ontario Berkshire pork pancetta. Given that I've seen pork loin deep discounted in supermarkets this fall, go figure that Local is charging $25 for about a dozen strips of pancetta. It's sweet and juicy and tender (too sweet, in fact, thanks to a drizzle of maple syrup) but not $25 sweet.
Much better value is wild Ontario whitefish with al dente Brussels sprouts enlivened by chewy dense guanciale (cured pork cheek). The fish is impeccably fresh and perfectly cooked - almost crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. And we love the localness of Local: Choosing Ontario whitefish over Adriatic sea bass and local beef, pork and veg puts a lot of yummy food on the side of the angels.