Some chefs' résumés are so impressive that you'd be crazy to ignore them. Ivana Raca is one of those chefs: While still in high school, she took a work placement in the kitchen at Mark McEwan's North 44; at 20, she made saucier, the first woman ever to hold that job there and one of the first to work on the uptown institution's hot line. Ms. Raca was a sous chef on the opening crew at ONE, Mr. McEwan's refined-casual perpetual money machine on Yorkville Avenue, with its $32 hamburger and whole Dover sole platters. At 24, Mr. McEwan named her executive chef at his eponymous upmarket grocery store in the Shops at Don Mills, with dozens of cooks in her command.
Yet until this past spring, Ms. Raca had never run her own restaurant. Raca Café and Bar, a 22-seat speck of a spot that the chef appears to have opened on half of a shoestring, occasionally shows her talent and pedigree. The cooking, when it's good, is out-of-date but elegant; pan-seared scallops abound here, as does homemade balsamic vinegar, the scent of truffle oil and the likes of "Asian-spiced roasted duck breast." It reminds me a lot of Frank's Kitchen, on College Street, but without the consistent execution or finesse. But mostly, the place just baffles me: Why would a talent like Ms. Raca set herself up so readily to fail?
Her kitchen here is tiny and dimly lit – most illegal basement apartments are better set-up. The chef didn't want to invest the $20,000 it would take to put in a fire-suppression system, which would have allowed her a proper stove, she said. Ms. Raca's only heat sources are two induction hotplates and a pair of baker's ovens. She does her own dishes and employs just one other cook, but only on Fridays and Saturdays. That cook has virtually zero savoury-side restaurant experience. "She's a baker," Ms. Raca told me. "She does all the breads and desserts and I'm teaching her the rest."
As for service, there was a food runner who doubled as bartender both nights I ate there, as well as a solitary server, who was kind and likeable and enthusiastic, but had no idea how to run a room.
Waits for such trivialities as drinks, appetizers, main courses and the bill can nearly be measured in geologic time. It took 30 minutes to place a food order the first night I ate there. If you ask for a drink as your main course comes, you should expect that it will arrive several minutes after you are done.
Plates and dirty glasses stack up on all available surfaces around the kitchen. Tables go unwiped, pooled with sauce and sticky crumbs. Dinner one evening, but without dessert because there was just no way, took two-and-a-half hours, and this as Raca's main dining room sat empty; only the 22-seat patio out back had any occupants. But it could have been worse: The people next to us waited 45 minutes before they got even a plate of bread. "I'm in the shit most nights," Ms. Raca said, "but I want to make everything fresh. I don't want to sacrifice my cooking. It's worth the risk."
If the chef couldn't cook, none of this would matter: The place would be gone by now, another short-lived, under-capitalized and atrociously managed restaurant. There is an epidemic of these in the city. But I can't help thinking Ms. Raca and her first restaurant deserve better than to fade away.
The bread, when it eventually turned up one night, was made from scratch and served hot from the oven. Its crust had a buttery, high-gloss sheen, as though it had been basted as it baked, and the crumb was steamy-soft and white and milky-tasting, served with a dish of good olive oil. Ms. Raca's idea of a simple tomato and cheese appetizer combined warm, peeled cherry tomatoes that she'd confited to quivery softness, as well as tufts of pulled burrata, pink-blushed watermelon radish rounds and pine nuts that had been roasted to the colour of very good bourbon. It was a simple salad the way an Alfa Romeo is a simple car.
Even a kale salad here is a lovely thing, because nobody has told the chef that dried fruit and balsamic vinaigrettes are long out of fashion. Blueberries, balsamic, Manchego cheese and chopped smoked almonds go superbly well with kale, it turns out.
Ms. Raca's seafood spaghettini is the best of her main courses, the scallops sweet and tender, the squid preposterously buttery, the tiger prawns tiger prawn-like, all on properly al dente noodles in a red sauce that tastes summer-fresh.
Her pork meatballs and gnocchi were also excellent, and spiked with sweet pickled Peruvian peppers. At $21, the wild mushroom risotto was good if not exceptional: tasty but mushy.
Too much else was mediocre: the overcooked, out-of-season asparagus; the epically over-spiced steak tartare; the conference hall-worthy beef medallion; the appallingly underwhelming $38 rib-eye, which our server had promised medium-rare, but came livery grey on its outside and pallid nearly all the way through.
When I called Ms. Raca this week she immediately asked me if I'd been in last weekend, when she'd been at the Toronto Food & Wine festival. (I had not.) She was worried, I guess, because she had left her trainee chef in charge. She added that she's planning to leave for India this coming Wednesday for a two-week visit. The restaurant will stay open, she promised. They'll close the patio so her trainee cook will only have to take care of the 22 indoor seats. "I have faith in her," she told me. I tried not to sound too shocked.
You don't leave your first restaurant to a beginner for two weeks when you've only just opened it. This is the point when Ms. Raca should be tripling her efforts, and improving the restaurant that's got her name on the door.
That first night I ate there, my two dinner mates and I walked past that little kitchen on our way out, and the chef looked up from the mess she was in, from the dirty stacked dishes and the backlog of orders, to apologize for how long the waits had been. "Don't blame my staff," she told us.
We weren't about to.
"This is on me," she said.
Yes, I think it probably was.
But also, it wasn't.
It was on me, in fact – to the tune of $270.