A couple of times a year if I’m lucky, I get suckerpunched with the peppery, savoury-porcine pong of good nduja. Nduja is a soft Calabrian sausage made with extra-fatty pig bits and bushels of fresh peperoncino chillies; it tastes like somebody took the best things about pork pâté, summer sausage, great butcher bacon and high-end Italian hot sauce and combined them into one.
As a finishing touch to clams or bitter greens, the stuff is devastatingly tasty, but until eating at Parcae, the new, off-radar and often frustrating restaurant in the boutique Templar Hotel, I’d almost never had nduja in any quantity. There, the up-and-coming chef Danny Hassell tucks great heaps of it into fresh ravioli, which he buries in a frothy sauce – an espuma, as the Italians might call it – made from burrata cheese and cream. The sausage’s smoky, sinus-clearing spice and savoury depth combine like a lusty kiss with the pasta’s silky starch and that sauce’s sweet cream smoothness; it’s as close as you’ll get to a Southern Italian getaway without leaving town.
It is also an excellent window into Mr. Hassell’s talents: Like most of what he serves in the 60-seat restaurant, that nduja ravioli dish is a masterwork of over-the-top deliciousness and technique. Mr. Hassell, who is 37, grew up in Montreal and Hamilton, the grandson of Pugliese immigrants. Everyone in his family cooked; by the age of 13 he decided he wanted to make a career of it, he said.
After a long run in Hamilton restaurants, he moved up through the ranks at Mark McEwan’s ONE, in Yorkville, and then through the Buca company; his last post there was an extremely impressive turn as Bar Buca’s opening chef de cuisine.
You can see that training on his plates. There’s a bit of ONE in the crowd-pleasers like his whole, butterflied branzino, or the brilliant candy-coloured radish and orange salad he’s been serving lately. The Buca influence, meantime, shows in the chef’s laser-focused flavours, his smart application of salt, char, sophisticated bitterness and acidity, and his pinpoint execution, as well as in his love of odd but luxe ingredients, like the sturgeon bone marrow Mr. Hassell finishes his risotto with.
Yet, as a restaurant, Parcae is far less polished than Mr. Hassell’s cooking. The contrast can be jarring. Named for the trio of women in Roman mythology who control the fates, the place is hidden behind an unmarked metal door at the back of the Templar Hotel’s lobby, as if the management would rather that nobody found it. (That strategy has been quite successful to date.) It’s down the candlelit stairs in a dark and windowless basement space with hard steel tables and a muddy-sounding stereo system, which booms Depeche Mode and trip hop off the textured concrete walls. Parcae’s decorating theme is best described as “high-class Berlin sex dungeon”: Note the entire wall given over to the backlit photo tableau of gartered thighs and pert, uncovered nipples, and opposite that, the trio of black-and-white boudoir shots hanging from polished steel chains. Both times I ate there I couldn’t help wondering who else had used my table before me, and how.
There are other weirdnesses. The service is friendly and professional and as well-informed as you’ll find in most expensive restaurants, but the red wines come 10 degrees too warm, as if they were stored above a furnace. If you ask for an ice bucket to chill down your syrupy, booze-forward California pinot noir, the management may be out of ice. (True story; to their credit, sort of, they managed to find some.)
And Parcae’s present wine list is as plain and charmless as a municipal parking ticket. If you order a bottle here, your only certain fate is to be royally gouged. The markups run around 300 per cent – check out the $45 premier cru Chablis they list at $180, and the $25 pinot noir they sell for $90. Parcae’s cheapest bottle costs $68.
For what it’s worth, Mr. Hassell said on the phone this week that he was aware of those problems, and he’s just hired a new manager for the restaurant, a former Buca hand. This should make an enormous difference. He said the wine list and décor will be overhauled.
Most puzzling, though, are the prices on Mr. Hassell’s food menu. It’s as though he poured so much love and energy into perfecting his dishes that he lost all sight of what they’re actually worth. Parcae is a small-plates-sharing place, which I typically have no quarrel with. Here, though, the value proposition feels absurd.
That nduja dish is one of the better deals at $15, though it contains just three ravioli, each as wide around as a silver dollar. Mr. Hassell’s (genius) duck ravioli plate, meanwhile, would be better called a raviolo plate, as it contains just one piece of pasta. Sure, the duck is braised for 24 hours with wine and tomatoes so it’s rich and voluptuous; the wide, round raviolo it’s packed into comes covered with mascarpone cheese and hazelnuts and the crumbly, unctuous crunch of roasted duck skin, all of which gets toasted with a blowtorch. But that two-bite dish costs $18.
His carbonara – picture 10 pieces of rigatoni in too much sauce, and you’ve pretty much nailed it; this was one of the kitchen’s few run-of-the-mill dishes – costs $21. As I shared that puny pasta plate with a friend one night, I couldn’t help wonder why Mr. Hassell’s kitchen didn’t triple the portion; the extra ingredients might have cost an extra 70 cents.
The pricing of the proteins is no less mystifying. Parcae’s whole-roasted, $32 branzino dish would be better named “Branzino’s baby brother”; it was the smallest branzino I’ve ever seen, about four ounces of fillet if we’re being extremely generous. But then at least the plate also bore the tiny fish’s gaping head, which as a cheery manager put it, is “edible to some cultures, enjoy.”
Parcae’s deep-fried lamb brains, by contrast, come in a decent portion, served properly soft and rich on their insides and set over a bowl of mushrooms, demi-glace and nicely bitter dandelion. Those were a comparative fire sale at $12.
And if you wanted a piece of grilled meat, the only truly substantial thing on Parcae’s menu one night recently, your only choices were a 32-ounce, $120 steak, a 20-ounce piece of veal or a 20-ounce double pork chop (both of those cost around $60; not awful), which is a whole lot of flesh for a table of two. The kitchen had also debuted a buttermilk-fried whole baby rooster earlier that week, which would have been an ideal middle ground at $32. It had already sold out.
My friend and I spent $300 on dinner, and then stopped afterward for cheeseburgers at The Burger’s Priest.
The only reason any of this matters is because Mr. Hassell is an excellent chef. If you can look beyond Parcae’s many annoyances, there’s some truly brilliant food. The chef’s clams dish combines barely cooked shellfish with a peasant ragout of broad white cicerchia beans, tomatoes, and the cured, smoked pork-cheek product called guanciale, which you scoop up with shards of grilled bread. He serves his romanesco broccoli with a cream sauce that balances the sharp kick of mustard oil with sugar and vinegar, and his pork comes with a housemade apple mostarda so good that I’d happily eat it by the jar.
I am hopeful that the changes Mr. Hassell has promised will make Parcae a far better restaurant, and quickly, because it would be a shame for the place to stay the way it is. In the meantime, consider stopping in at the pleasant bar upstairs to order a few dishes. Get some of the excellent fried artichokes and the radish salad, the lamb brains, both the raviolis, the clams, and at least one of the excellent desserts, which are made by Mr. Hassell’s sous chef, the Au Pied de Cochon vet Joseph Awad. There are raspberry jam-stuffed bombolone doughnuts, if that’s your speed, or even better still, Mr. Awad’s superlative white cake, maple-syrup caramel and smoked-vanilla-salt take on pouding chômeur.
If you’re still hungry afterward, a cheeseburger isn’t an entirely horrible idea.Report Typo/Error