The Critic: Jen Agg strikes again with the city’s first haute Caribbean restaurant, Rhum Corner
Jen Agg, the woman who could make Torontonians line up for weird animal parts at the Hoof, strikes again with a new restaurant devoted to Haitian cuisine
A double-chambered slushie machine churns behind the bar at Rhum Corner. One half is filled with piña colada, the other with daiquiri—the junk food of cocktails. Jen Agg opened the Haitian restaurant last fall, next door to her nose-to-tail spot, the Black Hoof. She spikes her piña colada with Goslings and Bacardi, and serves it in an elegant champagne coupe.
Rum used to be the thing your drunk uncle sipped with Coke to numb himself to another holiday gathering. Sometime in the past year, it overtook bourbon as the liquor of choice among cocktail snobs. I have friends who host formal rum tasting parties, and I know of others who make special trips to rural distilleries in the Caribbean to smuggle obscure brands home. Every Toronto bar seems to make a variation on the dark and stormy—my favourite is the one at the County General on Queen West, where the bartender combines ginger beer with lemon syrup and Appleton (they call it the St. Elizabeth). They have a rum-centric drinks list at La Cubana, a Havana-style diner that replaced the Blue Plate on Roncesvalles last fall (they’re loyal to Havana Club). At Rhum Corner, there’s a wall of 60 varieties. You can mix them with Mexican Coke (prized because it’s sweetened with cane sugar instead of corn syrup), or go for a boozy snow cone with a blend of Havana Club and Wray and Nephew rums, and falernum, a gingery Caribbean syrup that tastes like concentrated Christmas cookies.
Until Rhum Corner came along, the city’s Caribbean food scene was pretty much limited to strip mall roti houses and kitsch spots like the Real Jerk. Those places don’t have Agg, who can make even horse hearts trendy. The success of the Hoof originally seemed a fluke. Agg’s background was in bars—she ran Cobalt, one of the first spots on College Street to break from the ’90s crantini wave and serve serious cocktails. At the Hoof, she wanted food as sophisticated as her drinks, for which she concocts her own infusions and bitters, so she hired Grant van Gameren and Geoff Hopgood, relative unknowns who turned into two of the city’s most talented chefs. The Hoof sparked a city-wide obsession with charcuterie, bone marrow and obscure animal parts. There’s still a lineup to get a table, and sometimes you’ll find yourself sitting next to a food world celeb like Anthony Bourdain.
Agg built a mini-empire, opening Cocktail Bar, a holding pen for Hoof customers across the street, and Hoof Raw Bar, a short-lived attempt to popularize seafood charcuterie (she was ahead of the curve—crudo is now all the rage). After van Gameren and Hopgood left to open their own cultish restaurants, Bar Isabel and Hopgood’s Foodliner, Agg took another gamble, replacing them with Jesse Grasso, whose last job was sous-chef at a rustic Italian restaurant in Vancouver.
Grasso is now also executive chef at Rhum Corner, which is located in the narrow spot previously occupied by Hoof Raw Bar. There’s a sort of circuitous island logic to the name and to the restaurant’s origin story: Roland Jean, Agg’s Haitian artist husband, was making off-menu drinks at Cocktail Bar from his personal rum stash. Staff started referring to his section of the bar as Rhum Corner, and the name stuck. Their new venue recreates the laid-back vibe of a Port-au-Prince hangout. On one wall, Jean painted a mural of a naked woman lounging beneath a beach umbrella. The ceiling and bar are chipboard, the unisex bathroom (marked by a sign that reads “Les Toilettes”) is wallpapered with tropical erotica, and the soundtrack alternates between calypso and vintage reggae, with the occasional Madness track.
What might have felt contrived turned out relaxed and assured. Grasso’s team of cooks pivot around the open kitchen in baseball caps and monkish beards, and find subtle flavours in a short menu of stews and rice and beans. Jean flew his sister up from Miami to help Grasso—who’d never been to Haiti—perfect his recipes. Dinner is served on humble enamel plates (or, in the case of a flaky patty of salt cod, in a wax paper sleeve), but the cooking is first class. He makes savoury Haitian fritters out of grated malanga, a particularly ugly, furry yam-like tuber. They come with a pile of bracing, scotch bonnet–laced coleslaw called pikliz. After a few forkfuls, it builds into a tongue inferno.
Grasso’s griot—pork that’s cooked sous-vide, then fried—has a powerful citrus tang from a bitter orange marinade. It’s accompanied by rice and beans, fried plantain, and more pikliz (the house condiment). My dinner companion, an East Coaster who suffered too many plates of Jiggs dinner as a kid, was stunned by how much he enjoyed his stewed turkey leg, the dark meat succulent and peppery. It came with djon djon—a rice dish that balances scotch bonnet heat with an earthy mushroom broth.
The servers in Agg’s restaurants wear skater shirts and Converse high-tops—they’re as hip and youthful as the clientele. Sitting on one side of us was a table of four 20-something women with Beyoncé hair, taking an out-of-town friend on a foodie tour of the city. On the other, a young Haitian couple giving their toddler daughter a culinary lesson. I overheard several excited conversations about the goat (the women Instagrammed as their plates arrived). It’s the dish to get in a Caribbean restaurant, the true test for Grasso, but I was reluctant: every time I’ve tried goat, it’s been leathery, stringy and insipid. Rhum Corner’s goat, I’m happy to report, is as rich and tender as a long-simmered boeuf bourguignon. Grasso stews it with the animal’s bones, for extra depth, and serves it with a creamy polenta.
There’s only a single, simple dessert on offer: caramelized fingers of ripe plantain with a scoop of coconut ice cream. It’s nice but nowhere near as memorable as the Hoof’s signature, over-the-top closer of banana bread, seared foie gras and a healthy dollop of Nutella. When our server asked if we needed anything else, we opted for more piña coladas. It was too soon to step back out into the drifting snow.