The Mackenzie Room exudes a well-worn casual elegance that is part trendy, part old-timey. Opened late last summer, the Railtown restaurant has been steadily evolving – and so have my feelings for it.
I wasn't hugely impressed after my first visit.
I liked the warmth of the room, with its distressed walls that have been peeled back to expose layers of brick, paint and wallpaper. But haven't we all seen those granny-style collections of tarnished silver platters and etched-crystal decanters a million times before?
I loved the cocktails, created from a vast array of local craft spirits (which aren't always the easiest to work with, given their distinctive grainy profiles) and modern techniques (citric acid to crystallize flavours or a Laphroaig spritz to make forest-flavoured Stump gin smell like a smoky wildfire).
Then again, I've long had a soft spot for head bartender Arthur Wynne, formerly of Blacktail Florist. And as I'll explain later down, personal bias is a constant weakness that objective critics have to work hard to overcome.
I hated the chalkboard menu, which requires anyone with less than 20/20 vision to stand up and walk over to read. (If they can print the drinks menu on paper, why not food?) And I mocked the food plating – all swirled into Instagram-recognizable crescents on one side of mismatched, thrift-store china.
Dinner was hit and miss.
In Cod We Trust was fantastic, with flake-tender fish and bitter greens in a Sicilian stew that was light and loose with tomatoes, yet heavily grounded with anchovy, caper and olive umami flavours.
Don't Talk Back was yak tartare (the names are cute, but maybe too cool for school) emulsified with chopped clams in place of the traditional egg yolk. I understand the chef's logic. He didn't want the egg to overwhelm or soften the yak meat's unexpectedly clean, grassy brightness. But the briny clams overwhelmed the meat with jarring fishiness.
Root Of All Evil was an okay smoked-sunchoke salad with compressed turnip, domineered by spicy Serrano aioli.
Over all, I thought it was a nice restaurant, but slightly derivative and perhaps overly engineered to appeal to the burly, bearded truck-cap-wearing hipsters working in the kitchen and huddled over the bar.
Was it them or was it me? Were my initial impressions tainted by the fact that all three major players – chef Sean Reeve and owners Andrew and Katie Jameson – are Toronto imports?
A sudden flash of self-awareness smacked me upside down on the second visit. It was the week of the Vancouver International Wine Festival and the place was slammed.
Did I mention that the Mackenzie Room is located on the north side of Oppenheimer Park? This is not a stroll-by restaurant, yet it has become a destination.
The brass chandeliers were glowing warmly. The soundtrack was flashback-seventies groovy. When I went to the washroom, I noticed the courtesy cup of Q-Tips in the ladies'. It felt like home. Even more than that, I realized that the Mackenzie Room, with its eclectic modern-antique mix, looks a lot like my own apartment. And I'm from Toronto. Is that what initially got my back up? The psychology of first impressions is a curious thing.
Although now determined to give the place a fair shake, I was still annoyed by the chalkboard menu. But this time, our server offered to take a photo on his mobile phone and bring it to the table. Nice.
The drinks – with a special focus on wine and sherry cocktails for the festival – were great, again. This time, the food was more hit than miss.
The Showstopper salad was a textural explosion of greens, lentils, chickpeas and pistachio, all tossed with lively acidity and finished with creamy house-made farmer's cheese. (As I later discovered, the leftover whey from the cheese is the secret ingredient in the pan-fried focaccia. The chef uses it in place of water, giving the sky-high fluffy bread an unusual sweetness and softness.)
Thumper for Dinner was tenderly glazed confit rabbit (one of my favourite underutilized meats), served with creamy squash puree and crunchy hemp seed streusel, all brightened and pickled on the plate with grainy mustard seed and preserved Meyer lemon.
Braised lamb neck served with soggy sweetbreads and overwhelmingly rich melted foie gras was a bit of a gummy mess. But as I learned after my third visit, the chef has now acidulated the dish with more pickled pears to balance the richness.
He also brightened Filled with Neglect, a sweet braised-carrot salad, with fistfuls of fresh dill, and has added even more dill to the buttermilk dressing. Buried in green carrot tops (so often discarded, thus the name) and bursting with charred flavour, the adjustments have elevated this whimsical dish to the top of the Mackenzie Room's list.
But the best dish on the menu is definitely Bones, Tongues and Harmony. The chef takes a huge slab of melting beef marrow, served in the bone, and piles it high with meltingly tender beef tongue braised in stout for days, then slowly caramelized with more stout, tons of onions and veal jus. Topped with sweet beets, electrified with horseradish and mopped up with that gorgeous brioche-style focaccia, this is a Flintstone-family meal that I am still craving one week later.
Great restaurants don't emerge fully formed. They evolve over time, as do our reactions. Critics have natural human impulses. We might not fully appreciate a restaurant right off the bat, but must be honest about what gives us pause.
But when I see a restaurant steadily improving, the food leaves me wanting more, the drinks make me salivate, the service is warm and the room is homey and welcoming, then I know without doubt that it is on to something great.