The Top Food Trends and Who Does Them Best: French Cuisine
It’s time to rediscover buttery, sublime Gallic cooking
Traditional French restaurants never went away, but they certainly lost their appeal in the last decade, eclipsed by fusion cooking, molecular gastronomy, the tyranny of artisanal versions of Kraft Dinner and a thousand other fads. Now it seems every other cook is back to simmering sauces for eons, perfecting the timing of a soufflé and paying homage to Escoffier. I suppose there were only so many communal tables and foraged salads we could stomach before we craved rich terrines and formal service again. Even white-linen establishment standbys like Scaramouche, where I spotted Maple Leaf magnate Michael McCain and family silently dining one recent weeknight, and Auberge du Pommier, where the chef, Marc St. Jacques, has reinvigorated the menu with complex preparations of game and foie gras, are packed once more.
I still hear people moaning about how much they miss the signature “black gold” spaghettini at Truffles, the Four Seasons restaurant that closed during the recession. They should give Café Boulud, its replacement, a chance. The chef, Tyler Shedden, was mentored by Daniel Boulud and sticks closely to the master’s style of traditional French cooking while prioritizing Canadian ingredients—Cumbrae’s aged strip loin, wild honey from Quebec, that omnipresent Kolapore trout. His is a modern style of French cooking: he serves a nutty, nicely seared slab of foie gras with crackling pieces of chicharron, tops a white truffle–laced risotto with a cloud of parmesan foam and rests a ruby-rare venison on a bed of braised red cabbage. And there’s no shortage of people-watching opportunities: one night, I was surrounded by a Liz Taylor look-alike dripping in diamonds, a table of ET Canada hosts and the kind of wealthy older couples, in twin-sets and tweeds, who speak to the charming, French-accented waiter and never to each other.
The most romantic Gallic room of the moment is Ici Bistro, J. P. Challet’s corner spot on Harbord. Candles drip over old wine bottles, the lights are low, and few bottles on the brief, thoughtful wine list break $70. Challet makes three versions of steak tartare, my pick a decadent plate accompanied by caviar and a beignet. Like any respectable French chef, he manages to sneak booze into almost everything, including a dish of confit lamb blanketed in an uncommonly rich bordelaise, a velvety lobster bisque that’s simmered with Pernod and cognac and topped with a creamy foam, and a towering dessert soufflé with a Grand Marnier–flavoured custard. This spring, Challet will move Ici into the Windsor Arms Hotel, where he’ll have more seats and a chef’s table.
Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth’s Edulis, a few steps from the King West hubbub, may look like a modest neighbourhood bistro, but it’s a culinary powerhouse, justly making all the best-restaurants lists, tables booked months in advance. They prepare feasts of whole Chantecler chicken baked on a bed of hay, or roasted loin and belly from a milk-fed piglet, and they’re the only restaurant I know of attempting canard à la presse—a famously complicated French dish of Muscovy duck in a sauce made from its own blood. The first couple of times I dined at Edulis, my only complaint was a predictability to many of the dishes—a lot of heavy cream sauces and stewed meats. But Caballo has since ditched à la carte and now only makes a five- or seven-course nightly set menu, which paradoxically has resulted in more variety. On my last visit, he dressed gossamer-light Nova Scotia snow crab and mushroom gelée with a piquant yuzu vinaigrette, fanned shavings of Périgord truffles over scrambled eggs and a nub of thick, salt-cured foie gras, and contrasted a delicate smoked halibut cheek with a creamy bread sauce and the crunch of toasted almonds.
The last course was a glass bowl of tapioca, ingeniously layered with paper-thin ribbons of raw squash and tongue-tingling meringues he’d laced with Sichuan pepper. Of the many excellent things I ate this year, that dessert was one of the most memorable. Caballo took a grab bag of ingredients that shouldn’t have worked together, and created something new and delicious.