Modern comforts: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Woodlot and Ici Bistro

Modern comforts: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Woodlot and Ici Bistro

Two neighbourhood restaurants serve up light-handed renditions of our rib-sticking favourites

(Image: Vanessa Heins) 

The comfort food revolution has brought us much to be thankful for, including cheaper, more casual restaurants, and the glories of deep-fried mac-and-cheese, but it hasn’t exactly delivered a surge of culinary innovation. Spurred on by a sputtering economy, the comfort trend spawned a wave of barbecue joints, gourmet burger shops, neighbourhood pubs and by-the-book bistros, and it introduced childhood-evoking staples like cookies and milk to scores of restaurant menus where the “licorice root, three ways” used to be. It offered certainty when everything else around us seemed ready to collapse, not only for diners but for restaurateurs, too.

Comfort eating, like love and psychotherapy, is driven by equal measures of longing (for simpler times) and industrial-grade denial (s’mores are less fattening when they’re made with single-estate chocolate from São Tomé), powerful motivators both. So most chefs have been happy to feed our cravings without letting their own high-minded notions get in the way.

Yet even the most cliché-ridden genres eventually spawn a few subversives: the smart, free-thinking innovators who can transform the familiar into something new and individualized. The comfort revolution spun off two such restaurants this fall: one north-woods urban, one French, both run by smart, sophisticated cooks who aren’t afraid to take risks.

Woodlot, a cozy, northern-themed new bakery and restaurant at College and Palmer­ston, specializes in weighty, kidney-warming dishes, many of which are cooked in a roaring wood-fired oven at the heart of the room. The place is run by boyhood friends Robyn Donio, who owned a chain of noodle restaurants in Vancouver, and David Haman, a talented chef who opened Czehoski on Queen Street West with Nathan Isberg in 2005 before moving on to work the lines at Senses, Noce and Lucien. Haman also spent 18 months running the farm operations at Cookstown Greens, the boutique produce supplier. From the looks of Woodlot, the simple life got into his blood.

As the name suggests, Woodlot is as rustic a place as you’ll find in Little Italy. There’s a woodshed and chopping block out front, where Haman’s staff split a cord of maple logs each month. Inside the two-storey room, there are Ojibwa spirit prints on the walls; a conspicuously decorative jug of birch syrup sits on one of the wine racks, and there’s a communal harvest table in front of the open kitchen. Most of the restaurant’s 40 seats are upstairs in the tiny loft overlooking the action at the stoves. The feeling up here, jammed into this cheery space, warmed by the rising heat of the fire, is instantly mellow, even amid all the west-enders finally looking apropos in their trapper beards and red plaid shirts.

Haman does two menus—one meaty, one vegetarian—both of them seasonal and local and stocked with nouveau lumberjack fare. His braised duck cabbage rolls are a prime example of what he can do with the usual dishes: he wraps wild rice, prunes, chestnuts and orange zest in delicate savoy cabbage, beautifully transforming the freezer-aisle staple into its hyper-ideal. Though his rolls are original, they taste almost proto-Canadian; eating one feels like seeing Lake Superior for the first time.

He also serves an enormous chop of whey-fed pork swaddled in milky, buttery fat, roasted to medium, sliced into thick medallions and interleaved with soft-fried sage, Niagara black walnuts and gently candied apple; it’s like Sunday dinner at the home of a Mennonite farmer who misspent his youth in a kitchen in France. (The portions here are nonsensically huge; order three courses at your peril.)

Haman’s vegetables are generally impeccable: perfect brussels sprouts tossed with sweet butter or autumn roots (parsnips, potatoes, turnips and cipolline) under a light, shimmering semi-sweet glaze of butter and honey. And the bone marrow–enriched mashed potatoes, should those five words somehow need any further elaboration, are deeply inspired, though your second thought while eating them will be of a life spent in StairMaster penance. Even the bread, from ex–St. John’s Bakery whiz Jeff Connell, is brilliant; his crunchy red fife and sourdough baguettes, available for take-away between noon and 5 p.m. every day, are some of the finest loaves in town.

All this said, even a month after opening, Woodlot still had some problems to address. For every dish like those fabulous cabbage rolls, there was another that didn’t quite work. Haman’s spaghetti carbonara tasted more like cream than of eggs, cheese or cured pork. The chanterelle lasagna surrendered its finesse to a torrent of béchamel; the roasted haddock gratin one night smelled skanky (how does this happen?); and the boar ragoût was criminally oversalted.

These are all simple problems with simple solutions (I gather Haman didn’t staff up enough for the opening crowds), and given how great the food was here, I bet the place will become excellent with time.

Ici Bistro, a friendly 24-seat room at the deserted western reach of Harbord Street, suffers no such inconsistencies. Bistro cooking has a couple of centuries on North America’s comfort craze: cassoulet is, after all, fancy pork and beans; and onion soup, capped with garlic toast and gooey gruyère, is the original warm hug in a bowl. Yet the genre has been desperate for an update in Toronto, where the bulk of bistros (Loire on Harbord Street and Delux on Ossington are exceptions) whip off undistinguished steak frites and crème brûlée without much lightness or love.

Ici opened in October, at the successful conclusion of a two-year liquor licensing fight with city hall. The delay built invaluable goodwill (every diner seems to hate city hall these days) and anticipation, which were only heightened by the knowledge that the stoves would be manned by Jean-Pierre Challet, a respected, French-trained chef best known for his turn at the Inn at Manitou in the late 1980s, then the Windsor Arms’ Courtyard Café (it was great once) and The Fifth after that.

The room is plainer and the design more modern than at most bistros. Challet and Jennifer Decorte, his business partner, seem keen to emphasize that the place is not your usual bistro. They’ve managed to scrub away a century’s worth of Gauloises stains and insidious charm from the bistro form, in large part by fine-tuning the traditional dishes—even the ones that usually sit in your gut like mini-busts of Charles de Gaulle—while keeping them true to their comforting roots. Challet does beef bourguignon as a single, moist, fork-tender and beautifully seasoned block of seared and wine-braised meat, and serves it with a cipolline tart. Lobster thermidor (cue the timpani) comes as three citrusy, deliciously crazy-making cakes—two lobster, one crab—that get Asian cues from scallions and just a smear of bright, bold béchamel to make them sing. His duck breast, though a tad too chewy, builds brazenly heavy spicing with saffron, star anise and fennel pollen, plus honey, into a wonderfully intoxicating, almost pheromonal pong.

But Challet’s kitchen hits its highest notes with boiling fat: the man is a master with a deep fryer. His meaty, fluffy Barbadian cod croquettes arrive with a sunny Meyer lemon rouille and not the faintest trace of grease. It’s the sort of dish on which a younger chef would gladly hang his toque. Here the croquettes are just an amuse-bouche. The potatoes he serves with his steak tartare (it’s hand-chopped, maybe too mayonnaisey, but good all the same) are whipped to near weightlessness and then dropped into the fryer so they arrive thistledown light under crispy, golden, almost sub-atomic skins. (They should be their own menu item.)

This is bistro cooking, all right, but it’s bistro’s younger, modern heir—as stylish and sexy as Charlotte Gainsbourg. And it’s proof that you can warm people and satisfy their longings without relying too heavily on heft or cream or cliché. That’s one of the most comforting things of all.

293 Palmerston Ave., 647-342-6307
Mains $19–$28

Ici Bistro

538 Manning Ave., 416-536-0079
Mains $15–$30