Full Throttle: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Parts and Labour

Full Throttle: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Parts and Labour

The Parkdale it spot is a raucous hybrid of fine dining and indie cheek. It’s loud, stylish and double-dares you to eat fried pig face

(Image: Ryan Szulc) 

They started jacking the stereo around 8 p.m., just as we were eating the chopped raw lamb with herbed, salted lard. By the time the horse tenderloin arrived, it felt as if a maniacal toddler had been handed control of the dial. Groups of young, aggressively stylish women tottered in, past the velvet rope, past the bouncer with the neck tattoo and under the decorative, gold-leafed satellite dish that its designer (one of the restaurant’s owners) described as a “Hegelian dialectic between high and low.” The music, thumping from the five JBL speakers arrayed above the bar, kept rising, as if in salutation. We had to press our ribs into the edge of our long, too-wide communal table and shout to hear each other when we bothered trying to talk at all.

The playlist soon skidded from punk to ’80s pop. As Janet Jackson sang “Send it in a letter baby, tell you on the phone, I’m not the kinda girl who likes to be alone,” someone cranked the stereo one more time, and those speakers, with their eight-inch polypropylene-coated woofers and one-inch, horn-loaded tweeters, started at last to crackle and pop. We were nearly the only people sitting now, lost in a forest of heels and skinny jeans. A friendly man-waif in suede zipper boots leaned over and shouted, “I hope we’re not disturbing your dinner, eh?” and smiled. Far from it. Though I desperately wanted to hate the place, I was having an excellent time.

Parts and Labour, the new bar and restaurant hybrid from club magnates Jesse Girard and Richard Lambert (they also own The Social) and Castor Design (the hoser-chic Toronto studio that also runs Odd­fellows), became the west end’s it spot this summer, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The long, stylish room is rich with bespoke, ur-Parkdalian detailing: the bar is ringed with a constellation of pendant lights made from vintage fire extinguishers, the cutlery is stored in a red, rolling mechanic’s tool chest (a nod to the building’s former life as a hardware store), and the staircase to the basement, where there’s a gritty live music space, is glassed in with shattered windshields. And then there’s the menu, which is long on the gory realism that’s in fashion these days (fried pig face, anyone?). Chef Matty Matheson, a large, bushy-bearded tangle of body art—the man is no Food Network preener—calls it “fucking food for people who like to eat.” One of the bartenders even sports the requisite John Walker Lindh beard—a sure sign that they take their drinks seriously here. (He does make an excellent Pimm’s.)

This is what happens when the ethos behind the recent wave of indie-feeling, food-focused and, in some cases, brazenly inhospitable restaurants meets money and fashion. At the first-wave places that pioneered the trend—the Black Hoof, Guu, Local Kitchen and Wine Bar spring immediately to mind—the chefs cook exactly what they want to cook: relatively cheap, sometimes challenging, huge-flavoured foods, as opposed to, say, deconstructed caesar salad and molten chocolate cake. They play the music they like at the volume they choose, and often forgo such cash-sucking blandishments as reservations (it costs money to keep a reservations person), credit cards (the banks typically take three per cent off every cheque) and fresh-cut flowers. At Local, they won’t let you sit at a table until your entire party’s arrived—they’re not always gracious about it, either. At Guu, the raucous izakaya on Church Street, the servers announce once you’re seated (invariably after a long wait) that you can stay for only two hours. But a lot of people love it anyway. Rejecting the orthodoxies of fine dining enables young, talented chefs like Grant van Gameren, just 27 when the Black Hoof opened, to launch their own restaurants. It has also brought us places that are fresher, more democratic and more affordable than under the traditional model. You don’t need Riedel stemware or celebrity chefs to signify a good restaurant any longer. Great food has become the best sell of all.

Parts and Labour is an experiment, a composite of those two traditions, and the first in what will no doubt be a long line of successors. You can use your credit card here and make a reservation (though in the restaurant’s first few weeks, it took three days of calling to get somebody on the phone). They play the Slits and Janet Jackson, mix high design with junkyard scraps, serve wine in good stemware, and plate the food on dollar store Corelle.

Matheson’s cooking is the glue that holds it together. That horse tenderloin was thick, tender, beautifully cooked to medium-rare, and served on a wooden cutting board with a light, brilliant chive and horseradish crème fraîche, a slash of mashed potatoes and a marrow bone served with parsley, fennel and a little dish of salt. I’d take that plate over the usual piece of commodity beef any day. We had the pig’s face, too, and it was far more delicious than it sounds. It was braised, then pulled and fried as croquettes, and served with pickled cauliflower, house cornichons, greens from the restaurant’s rooftop garden, and a hillbilly gribiche sauce that tasted like a fantasy version of farmhouse chow-chow. The cast iron Cornish hen was juicy, delicious on a cardamom-kicked honey cream sauce and topped with scorched, bitter, bracing treviso.

Not everything worked as well: the buffalo quail, a play on buffalo wings, was overcooked, and its oily, funky fennel and gorgonzola salad tasted a lot like a Hegelian dialectic between fancy coleslaw and hockey bag. The sea bass carpaccio was too bland and just a whisker past indisputably fresh (a note to chefs: crudo is almost never as good as you think it is), and Matheson’s summer vegetable terrine was an insipid, sopping mess (neither are summer vegetable terrines).

The desserts were far better. The “candy plate” played confected orange peel off toasted, house-made marshmallows, and the burnt honey ice cream was as sultry and creamy as it sounds. My dinner date aptly described the peanut butter–banana bread dessert, topped with melted chocolate, vanilla ice cream and cloying blackberry jam, as “something you’d make when you get home late at night and you’re drunk—only better.” The cooking, though it never reached Black Hoofian heights, was well conceived, deceptively simple and disconcertingly fun, a little like the Buzzcocks played at full blast.

The crowd, too, both times I ate there, was a broader, smarter, younger slice of the city than at most restaurants; this should continue as the owners plan a series of interactive art exhibits in the space. Behind the punk rock aesthetic, there’s a team that, even if it doesn’t want you to know this, actually cares.

That isn’t to say you’d want to come here every night, and a lot of people will hate the place (a few critics have already savaged it). And as much as Parts and Labour marks the start of a new phenomenon, it’s nonetheless completely derivative (just as the Black Hoof is derivative
of the Spotted Pig and Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, and the Spotted Pig is derivative of London’s St. John…); how much longer until we’re all sick of pig face and tongue salad, just as we turned on truffle oil and 12-course tasting menus a few years back?

But after eating my way through most of the menu, shouting myself hoarse and sweating my way to the exits through the throngs of fashion victims and bedraggled scenesters in identical facial hair and $300 jeans, I went home, took an Advil for the headache, tossed back a double Knob Creek for the exhilaration and went to sleep. And I was glad.

Parts and Labour
½
Mains $18–$36.
1566 Queen St. W., 416-588-7750