Queue is for Quince

Queue is for Quince

Anyone who lives in the Yonge Street-Davisville-Eglinton area and has more than a passing interest in food must know La Salumeria, the tiny but well-stocked Italian deli owned and run by Rita and Ernesto Fuda for the last 20 years. Charles Oberdorf, then food editor of Toronto Life, introduced me to the place a decade ago (in those days Ernesto cut the best prosciutto in the city and carried more olive oils than almost anyone else). It was the first Italian deli in Toronto I had found that actually smelt like an Italian deli, with a complex and delectable aroma of freshly cut parmesan cheese, sopressata sausage and fresh crostoli made by Rita’s sister-in-law.

Now the Fudas are retiring while Ernesto patiently waits for a donor for a kidney transplant. To thank them and honour them, a party was held last Thursday at Grano, organized in part by Oberdorf. “We’re holding it early in the evening and expecting more than 100 people, including many in whites and waiters’ aprons,” he told me. “So service may be a little slow during first seatings at Vittorio’s, Quince, Zucca, even the fried chicken place at Lola Road… Virtually all non-Oriental chefs on this chef-rich strip of Yonge Street have relied on La Salumeria over the years for the odd kilo of grana padano,ends of prosciutto or bottle of walnut oil.” The deli’s new owner Carlo Celebre hopes to maintain that helpful reputation and vows to leave things as they are in the beloved store.

Notwithstanding the timely warning, I had booked a table at Quince that evening and was determined to keep the reservation as they have been very difficult to come by. I found out why when we arrived. Quince is the new venture of Jennifer Gittins and Michael van den Winkel, the couple who fed the neighbourhood so sucessfully for nine years at Stork on the Roof. They took a year off and now they’re back with Quince—she running the front of house, he leading the kitchen team. You would think that stretch of North Toronto would be an easy target for restaurateurs but that’s far from true. Marcel Réthoré had a hard time of it with Quartier, right next door to Quince, while over on Mount Pleasant but at the exact latitude, Steak Frites and then Square failed to wow the locals. Still, Gittins and van den Winkel had enormous residual goodwill from Stork days and examples of success in Zucca and Grano to suggest that relatively simple, well-executed food offered at a reasonable price with friendly, no-attitude service might do the trick.

They fit that description to a T and the queue at the door gets scary by 7 p.m. Van den Winkel is particularly adept at using the wood-burning oven, not for pizza, but for cooking whole fish (we had a perfectly timed European sea bass stuffed with lemon and fennel tops and paired with juicy grilled fennel) and for roasting whole chickens (herbs stuffed under the crisp skin, the flesh gorgeously moist and juicy, a huge portion). Generally the kitchen’s timing was absolutely spot-on and, though I was a little bored by the chicken’s vegetable quartet of julienned zucchini, julienned carrots, green beans and pearl onions (there are so many roots and leaves and brassicas, alliums, pods, gourds, stalks, squashes and tubers in the world more interesting than carrots and zucchini), I loved the side dish of cauliflower with gruyere gratin. There are some great value wines from Portugal and Argentina on the menu. My only real issue would be that a couple of the appetizers were oversalted, but I’m beginning to wonder (at last, after 20 years of this) if that isn’t some curious oversensitivity of my own. Half the restaurants I visit seem to have a heavy hand with the salt. The old wisdom was that this was a sign that a chef smoked (they say smoking numbs your salt sensitivity) but I’m not so sure. More likely a line cook eyeballing a pinch of NaCl and hurling it into the lentils before the double-smoked bacon is added and before the expediting chef adds his own final sprinkling of Maldon crystals. Or maybe it really is me. I should be able to find out in February.

In other news, Michael Pataran signed on on January 1st as executive chef of the Windsor Arms. One of the big persuaders, as far as he was concerned, was owner George Friedmann’s decision to rip out the Club 22 bar and replace it with a new 60-seat “contemporary Asian” restaurant. Still without a name, the place should open in early March, if all goes well.