September 2013 (see also Sept 2015 below).
What a find! There are times when reading over my restaurant reviews I worry that I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist, a near-perfect dining experience. No worries, this is it.
White linen tablecloth, hefty silver flatware, magnificent high-ceilinged room it isn’t. Just as much fabulous creative food and knowledgeable enthusiasm as you could ever hope for. And very very little attitude.
Our introduction to this mid-city spot was disappointing, it being closed on a holiday Monday without any warning on the website or telephone recording. But when we finally found it open at about 6 PM on a Thursday night (no reservations here) there were tempting aromas in the air all the way across on the other side of Main Street. The place was nearly empty, and we had been advised to sit at the bar if wanted to be able to hear ourselves think so we did. At that early hour on a weekday it was never noisy.
It’s a small room with only about 40 seats a lot of which are along a large bar overlooking prep work. The decor is pretty indifferent, patches of rough wood alternating with neutral-colored wall. Staff more or less all dressed in black. The general impression is down-to-business minimalism.
Server was a bearded young thirtyish man genuinely welcoming, and clearly communicating logistic information. As we let our enthusiasm show, he told us more. And everything he said was positive (“You won’t be disappointed by anything on the menu…”) which at first put us off a bit, but looked a lot better when it turned out to be true.
They menu style is tapas-share, and we chose four items, some more substantial than others. I didn’t expect much from the roasted corn, chanterelle mushroom and romano bean ragout, but it was dazzling. I was most taken with the terrific spectrum of consistency from crisp to slithery across chewy and firm. So many fresh warm vegetable flavours and a full-bodied stock base. It could have stopped there and I would have been delighted although not full. But the usual mild disappointment with second courses didn’t happen at all.
To call the heritage pork and burdock sausage with dandelion and potato salad a low point is misleading. Although it was my least favorite of the four dishes, it was still very good. The sausage packed with flavor, but (as I knew it would be) too lean. Potatoes perfectly cooked, dots of spicy mayo.
My favorite was bison ribs. Server almost scared us off by saying that they were extremely lean. Questioning him about the problem of slow-cooked lean meat always being dry, he promised we wouldn’t be disappointed and we certainly were not. This very lean meat fell loaded with beefy flavour straight off the bone, and failed to be submerged by a combination of rich dark cumin sauce with a crème fraîche or comparable. One of the best things I’ve tasted in a year or so.
Finally crisp pork belly in a mildly Asian stock, in the happy company of lightly braised vegetables and the chef’s favorite carbohydrate, a pasta-noodle called ramen. Perfectly prepared and balanced, the same wonderful attention to consistency we saw in the vegetable dish represented by the pork belly remaining crisp in the liquid. Quite a lot of food in a big bowl.
A 2007 nebiolo from Piedmont called Roagna langhe from the reserve list was a restaurant bargain at $80, although we were told there was only one case nearly all gone. If I could buy that wine retail for about $50 I would take a couple of cases. A great column of nebiolo fruit from the glass, big tannin-predominant balance.
$121 for two pre-tip counting the wine!
The chef Andrea Carlson deserves a bigger and classier venue to thrill her lucky customers. And we hope and believe she will get it. Meanwhile, we will be back shortly for the fall menu. 9.3 food/8.2 service/4.5 ambience/9.6 overall value.
What the hell has happened? I’ve been back here once since the above note 2 years ago and I remember it was still pretty impressive. But this evening the food was nowhere near the previous great quality and the menu was quite different from what is online with a few additions and several important deletions.
We showed up at 5 PM, having discovered that we could make a reservation (this was not possible two years ago), and being told we had to be out by 6:45, which was no problem at all. We had the place to ourselves for about 45 minutes, and by the time we left at about 6:20 there were only four other people there, a warm wind blowing through the empty tables.
We sat at the bar because our experience had been the rest of the room was very noisy, and our server behind the counter was clever and courteous, and as before it was interesting to watch the prep being done by junior chefs on the long side of the bar.
Little roasted peppers with grated cheese on them started us off, served on a plate with chopped and cooked almonds. The flavour of the almonds in their oily liquid was quite delicious, but the little peppers were uninteresting, simply roasted and paired with the cheese. Then there was a dumpling (not on the online menu, I can’t remember what was inside), beautifully made but again simple and one-note in flavour, meant to be dipped in a liquid which gave a sour contrast, but which was really pretty close to straight vinegar.
Elk and pork belly, two things we might have tried, were not on this evening’s menu. The “40 Day Dry Aged Beef Striploin” with its egg and vegetable accompaniment was six tranches of perfectly cooked tender beef, but just beef. The accompaniment was again simple, single-flavour mouthfuls. There was one other dish not on the online menu, unremarkable.
There appeared to be only two viable red wine choices, both French and reasonably-priced, one a cab franc/merlot, the other just cab franc. Server let me taste them both and the clearly better, lighter one really wasn’t any hell, nicely sour-fruit smelling but overly-acidic and short in the mouth.
I think we were out the door for about $160 with a 20% tip.
No idea what’s going on here. Our mouths were watering over the online menu, and we were still pretty excited with what we ordered from the more abbreviated choices actually presented, but what a disappointment! Robin is inclined to give them another chance (maybe chef sick with the flu, maybe just a bad night?). But really so many great places to eat, so few evenings out…
The jury is out on this one. New scores for this night only: food 7.1, service 8.2, ambience 7.3, value 7.4.