The Top Food Trends and Who Does Them Best: Tasting Menus
They take twice as long and cost twice as much as the average dinner—and we’re smitten
In the months after David Chang opened Shōtō, every semi-ambitious chef in the city became a tasting menu convert, serving a dozen small courses, plus intermediary amuses or “tastes”—a pervasive foodie noun. It’s the dining equivalent of a marathon: you rarely make the finish line in under three hours. The best of them are usually at pocket-size places where a chef-proprietor riffs on seasonal ingredients, flexing his culinary muscles—tasting menus are almost exclusively a peacocking male chef thing.
Justin Cournoyer, a Susur protégé, cooks an often brilliantly inventive tasting menu at Actinolite, his restaurant on a forlorn corner of the ungentrified northern stretch of Ossington. He wraps thin slices of roasted celeriac around leek hearts, uses hemlock twigs to skewer twisting curls of squid and drapes lightly cured venison over reindeer lichen (worth trying once for the peculiar bristly texture). His showstopper is a Nordic-themed plate of Kolapore Springs trout he smokes with boughs of juniper and serves with tiny cubes of beet pickled in a house-made juniper-infused vinegar. He balances all that woodsy flavour with a scattering of nasturtium leaves and a tart buttermilk-horseradish granita that melts in your mouth like a dusting of fresh snow.
By comparison, the tasting menu at The Grove, on Dundas West, is pure comfort food. When Ben Heaton opened his place a couple of years ago, it was just another gastropub. He’s still working within the gastro vocabulary of meat and potatoes and a deep fryer, but has increased the sophistication a thousandfold. He deconstructs gnocchi with a mound of riced potato sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts and a sous-vide egg yolk, studs a parsley root broth with roasted sea snails and fresh horseradish, and intensifies the flavour of a sous-vide beef cheek with a funky black garlic purée. His coriander-dusted roasted squash fritters, served with a dollop of whipped coconut cream for dipping, were exquisite mouthfuls.
Another basic principle of the tasting menu regime: shock and awe. At Chantecler, next door to a Parkdale soup kitchen, Jonathan Poon concocts a menu that’s like a futuristic version of dim sum, filling airy gougères with a briny seaweed butter and a moist turnip cake with crumbly Chinese sausage, which is then covered in a potent house-made XO sauce. The style of cooking shares a lot with Ossington’s studiously stripped down Yours Truly, one of the forerunners of the new wave of tasting menus. One meal there began with a shooter of potato and dashi broth topped with a parmesan foam, followed by Dungeness crab, sandwiched between discs of apple and compressed yogurt, then adorned with dots of Thai basil jam and diced pomelo. The restaurant’s output hasn’t been as consistently brilliant since Lachlan Culjak took over a year ago, when head chef Jeff Claudio left to travel the world, but the kitchen is still capable of mind-bending stuff, like a duck fat confit potato coated in leek ash that cracks open to reveal a runny duck yolk, which has been injected into the cooked spud with a syringe.
Those are the menus that stand out, but so far none bests Shōtō. The black-tiled room has been around for a year and a half, and reservations still remain elusive—scoring one of the 22 seats is like being welcomed into a secret club. Mitchell Bates, the taciturn head chef, is thoroughly at ease in the open kitchen, much of his time spent explaining his eclectic ingredients to his guests. On my last visit, the menu progressed from geoduck to sweetbreads to a pea custard laden with trout roe to a corn-stuffed ravioli topped with a crumbling of cotija to a blueberry sorbet with mini doughnuts made from taro. Each dish required hours of effort for a few quick yet miraculous bites.