So I made it to Cava on Monday evening—the new restaurant’s fourth night of existence. That’s far too early for a fair review but I was there on my own buck for once and curious to see what Chris McDonald has achieved. The four-square room is very simple—its old concrete underfloor polished up like some abstract grey-on-grey terrazzo, green and white walls that are destined, one hopes, for adornment, and a long bar down the eastern quadrant. Chris was behind it, looking calm and cheerful in his chef’s whites, and he stayed there all evening, playing delicate riffs with a knife and a Serrano ham—high priest of his own umami shrine. It was good to see that Avalon’s gorgeous crockery and monogrammed Champagne flutes have found a new home, the latter now used for cava and Waupous dry cider from Prince Edward County, a change which kind of summed up the difference in intent between the two restaurants. The tables are small and wooden with no linen but a broad slate band across the middle to take the heat of a cast iron casserole. They also have an odd little hole in them—just the right size, it turned out, for a customized retort that ends in a metal loop into which the server can slip a paper cone. It came into play twice during the evening—once for popcorn with a delicate butter-caramel chewiness that eventually gave way to a slow-building chili heat, and again for herbed frites that I venture to say might be the best in the city.
Until the full menu kicks in this week, the dishes on offer were works-in-progress but I found them impressive. Crunchy crostini were topped with a smooth, citric avocado spread like the god of guacamole and a generous spoonful of avruga, that smoked, acidulated and dyed-black-with-squid-ink herring roe from Spain. (Note to the people who make or market avruga: change the name. It sounds like you’re trying to pass off your tasty product as some species of Caspian sturgeon caviar, which does both the herring and the sturgeon a disservice). Cava’s sardine escabeche is awesome, the texture of the fish like velvet, its own intense flavour matched by the sweet tang of oven-dried cherry tomatoes, red onion, peppery rocket and fried garlic. Chris’s partner at Cava, Doug Penfold (whose CV reads like a top ten list—Avalon, Canoe, JKROM, Pastis, The Fifth, Biff’s), is doing sterling work in the kitchen, which leaves McDonald free to perform in his open salumi bar like a Japanese sushi master—except he’s cutting charcuterie instead of fish. And very fine charcuterie it is. The aforementioned Serrano ham with its rich, earthy, sweetly funky flavour; a mousse of foie gras and squab liver which tastes as life-changingly delicious as it sounds; a hunter’s sausage seasoned with fennel pollen; a subtle chorizo; a venison sausage.
Charcuterie, in case you haven’t noticed, is the new gold standard for chefs. Stadtländer set the pattern, building his own smoke house, raising his own pigs and turning them into spectacular cold cuts. Chris McDonald has been playing with all manner of cured and aged meats for ages and they will certainly be front and centre at Cava. Meanwhile, down in Niagara, Tony de Luca has plans to challenge the peninsula’s wholesale prosciutto maestro, Mario Pingue, but I’m not sure he’ll catch up to Ryan Crawford, chef at Stone Road Grille, just outside Niagara-on-the-Lake. I had been meaning to go there for years, lured by best-kept-secret rumours and the positive affidavits of trusted palates in the local wine industry. I finally got there on Wednesday and had an excellent dinner. Owners Heidi and Perry Johnson (who met while working at The Keg, oddly enough) have created a delightfully casual room, subtly underpinned with standards of service and attention to detail that could teach vaunted Toronto establishments a valuable lesson. The same could be said of the kitchen. Crawford (Stratford Chef’s School, sous chef at The Old Prune, time served with Stadtländer, Kennedy, et alia) has a passion for preservation. Hence the jars of preserved lemons, the pickled cranberries, the honey-and-kumquat conserve, the house-marinated olives and also the dazzling charcuterie that was the highlight of my meal. Little fat-fringed ruby slivers of smoked duck breast burst with flavour. Cured pork tenderloin was sliced very thin, had the texture of silk and the colour of antique gold and a taste of exotic peppercorns. Chinese 5-spice perked up the duck rillettes; sopresata had the benefit of age which gave it a rich, mellow flavour. Chicken liver mousse—the recipe quite free of secret ingredients, Crawford assured me—could stand proudly beside McDonald’s foie gras ‘n’ squab and might even challenge the Platonic ideal of all chicken liver mousses (I’m referring, of course, to the version J-P Challet used to make in the last century when he was working up at the Inn at Manitou).
Yes, chef’s own charcuterie is the next big thing—painstaking, artisanal, full of the slow magic that turns sow’s ears into silk purses and therefore, oh so predictably, hampered by government inspectors who sense danger in any product not processed and pasteurized like a supermarket wiener. They see an echt house-made salami as the Devil’s work, creating all sorts of problems for restaurants that want to cure and age their own meats, the implicit message being that a top chef can’t be trusted to work with food. So bizarre.