The Ceili Cottage 1301 Queen St. E., Toronto 416-406-1301 $100 for dinner for two including tax and tip
As best as I can make out, the literal translation from the Gaelic for ceili (pronounced kay-lee) is "hootenanny," a gathering of people for folk music and food and good times. At the Ceili Cottage, however, you don't get jug bands and potato chip sandwiches, but Irish jigs and, well, potato chips.
Any authentic Irish local worth its salt is going to feature potatoes prominently and this one is no exception. In addition to homemade kettle chips, which by definition must be cooked to order, they appear roasted, mashed, hashed and as champ (mashed with green onions). They are also, like so much about this restaurant, warm, comforting, familiar and delicious.
Ceili Cottage is the brainchild of Patrick McMurray, world-champion oyster shucker and proponent of all things Gaelic; he also owns Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill on Adelaide Street East. Like that restaurant, this one knows its way around a bivalve. Up to half a dozen varieties of the briny creatures are available, depending on the season. They are served straight up with sides of freshly grated horseradish, a mild mignonette and cocktail sauce or baked with compound butter.
Set back a little way from Queen Street East in Leslieville, the original cottage is fronted by a large black and white patio - white tables and chairs shaded by black Guinness umbrellas. Embedded throughout the grey concrete patio surface are hundreds of spent oyster shells.
Things are gloriously decrepit inside with paint peeling off the walls and whole sections stripped back to brick, as if the owners are just squatting in an abandoned shack by the seashore. Church pews and handmade tables add to the sensation. In the next room is a slightly more contemporary bar area with plenty of stools and the ubiquitous giant TV, but instead of Sports Centre this one is just showing the titles of the blues songs that are playing. I expect that will change, though, come hurling and shinty season.
Beer, of course, is the main event when it comes to beverages, with selections being divvied up evenly between Irish and local offerings. In an effort to cut down on waste and maximize freshness, the bar offers no bottled beer, serving only what's on tap. At present, the wine list is minuscule, but there is Veuve Clicquot and Spanish cava, so no one need go thirsty and the rest will grow with time.
A selection of classic pub snacks, including hard-boiled and pickled eggs, pickled sausage (like a vinegary Slim Jim) and roasted Ontario peanuts, is supplemented with more substantial fare found under the Staples section.
Luscious slices of organic Scottish salmon, smoked over peat fires, are draped in folds on a white platter. Fresh, homemade bread, pickled onions, lemon wedges and a dollop of sour cream are all the accompaniment the fish needs. Similarly, thick cuts - almost chunks, really - of marbled pink Ontario Berkshire country ham are served with only a tender soda scone and some spicy mustard. The quality of the ingredients alone adds up to something complex and no other adornment is required.
Juicy and delectable, dark seared bangers are imbued with the slightly funky tang of offal; mashed potatoes laden with butter and smooth as silk sit underneath and serve as the ideal vehicle for the savoury onion gravy. This is what happens when simple, rustic fare is executed with skilled precision.
Perhaps the menu's most progressive feature is also its most traditional. Based on a weekly roast dinner that begins on Sunday with, say, mutton, it continues on Monday with leftovers featured cold as a sandwich on homemade bread. On Tuesday, they're hashed with potatoes and topped with a poached egg. On Wednesday, there's a break for homemade burgers, followed by curry on Thursday, broth on Friday and cottage pie on Saturday. Then the whole thing starts all over again with another main roast the next night.
There are also plans afoot to bring a different theme and event to each night of the week. Kilt Club, for example, will happen on Monday nights, when Scottish gentlemen (and the women who love them) are encouraged to don kilts, eat, drink and revel in their traditional tartans.
Not everything, however, reaches the same level of sophistication as the cooking. The cutlery - from IKEA's Celtic collection, judging by the knotted design on the base - feels cheap and flimsy. And to be truly authentic, the coasters and pint glasses really should match the beer. (It's a little touch, but one that makes a difference.) The front-of-house staff, meanwhile, consists mainly of students from the nearby Irish-dance school, who don't yet have the polish in serving that they do in dancing but are affable enough.
Maybe it's the ramshackle nature of the building or the sturdiness of the design, but the restaurant feels, despite some minor quibbles, as if it's arrived fully formed with a distinct personality.
As we were sitting on the patio with a few glasses of black velvet (Guinness and cava) the other evening - a rain shower had left the oyster shells wet, but the skies were now clear - a seagull cried out, transporting us, just for a moment, from Leslieville to the beach at Ballycotton. A good local will do that sometimes.