Critic: Harbord Room chef Cory Vitiello’s new clubhouse is air-kissing, table-hopping fun
Not too long ago, I met a friend on the back patio at the Harbord Room. It was one of those stretched-out summer evenings when the last rays made the leaves overhead glow. We split a plate of oysters with a puckery apple mignonette and ordered rounds of manhattans, sipping down to the brandied cherries. The hand-ground brisket burger, the restaurant’s specialty, was rosy in the middle and sticky with aged cheddar and smoky caramelized onion jam. It would have made a choice last meal. We weren’t eager to leave. The moment it debuted in 2008, the Harbord Room replaced Bay Street’s Bistro 990 as the place to be if you wanted to appear in Shinan Govani’s next column. During TIFF, it’s a celeb love-in. The night we lingered on the patio, there was much cheek-kissing, jumping from table to table, whoops of recognition. The actor Scott Speedman sat in one corner, former morning show host Seamus O’Regan in another. Belinda Stronach passed through in white capris, with entourage in tow. She became a regular when she started dating the chef, Cory Vitiello, in 2010.
The auto parts heiress and Vitiello eventually broke up, and he went on to briefly date Tanya Kim, the CTV talking head, and then the CBS gossip show host Mary Kitchen. Keeping up with his personal life is exhausting. The strapping 33-year-old was recently named by Hello! Canada as one of the country’s most beautiful people, alongside Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber. He appears on Today and Steven and Chris, where his cheekbones are more memorable than his cooking tips. It’s tempting to dismiss him as more celebrity than chef, but he’s the real deal: he started cooking at age 15 and ran a catering business out of his parents’ Brantford home, trained at the Stratford Chefs School, then, not yet out of his teens, apprenticed under the revered Keith Froggett at Scaramouche. He cooked at Crush and the Drake before partnering with Dave Mitton, the impresario behind the proto-hipster Queen West watering hole Czehoski. The Harbord Room, with its salmon-pink panelling, Clapton on the stereo and pretty, disaffected servers who could be mistaken for Jessa on Girls, was among Toronto’s first true gastropubs. Vitiello’s cooking isn’t particularly original, but he follows the latest crazes (nose-to-tail and foraged greens one month, fried chicken the next), and everything, like my burger on the patio, is dependably tasty.
The Harbord Room’s success prompted a wave of new restaurants on the strip, most of them small bistros like Loire and Ici. The street is unrecognizable from my undergrad days at U of T, when it was a trough of takeout pizza and falafel, plus a few sit-down places like Messis (for lunch with the parents), the Boulevard Café (for first dates) and Splendido (for a graduation dinner during which the champagne cart was a small consolation for nagging questions from the parents about the job market). Harbord is now its own special dining destination: not as stuffy as downtown’s power restaurants, not as ruthlessly trendy as Queen West, not as tipsy as Little Italy. The one drawback of so many restaurants crammed together is the paucity of parking, such that a convoy of Caymans and Q7s constantly prowl the strip, waiting for a spot.
Vitiello and Mitton recently opened a Harbord Room spinoff only three doors away from the original, in the room vacated by Messis. They’d been planning to open a second location somewhere, admired the bigger space and 65-seat patio, and figured that two Vitiello restaurants would complement rather than cannibalize each other. They gave the second location a mouthful of a name: THR & Co. Vitiello oversees the menu at both restaurants, though he only works the line at the first location and appointed Curt Martin, the Harbord Room’s former chef de cuisine, to run THR & Co.
The two spots share staff and have similar menus loaded with handmade pastas, foie gras and herby sauces. But where the Harbord Room affects a bohemian gentility, THR & Co. is more polished and airy, with two walls of windows and a section of floor in hand-painted Moroccan tiles, this year’s decor fad. The status tables at the front have wraparound tufted leather banquettes and a view of the marble bar where, most nights, skinny guys in striped sailor shirts and their pouting dates pose like extras in a Godard movie.
The tables on either side of us, I noted, ordered the safest-sounding pasta dish. It’s a first-rate pappardelle, the noodles eggy and luscious and heaped with tarragon-flecked fava beans. But there are better treats to be had. I’ve eaten more than my share of tartare in the past year—young chefs have rediscovered the fussy dish—and the most picturesque and flavourful was THR & Co.’s mix of chili mayo, pickle and hashed beef heart that tasted more like a pricier cut of mineral-rich steak than what it is: discount offal. On the side was a tangle of dehydrated chili threads, which added another hit of heat. Instead of the usual toast for smearing the tartare, the dish came with puffed chips of beef tendon—they’re pleasingly greasy and salty.
Crispy tendons, similar to a chicharrón, are labour-intensive (a day-long job) and evidence of the restaurant’s big ambitions. The kitchen perfectly grills a rib-eye from a small Grey County farm and adds a dollop of butter, compounded for extra silkiness with veal marrow. The menu lists three small, extraordinary pizzas. They’re thin-crust but more like a sweet semolina flatbread than the ubiquitous blackened Neapolitan version, and the toppings on ours consisted of a harissa-spiced merguez sausage, charred scallions and a crumbling of cotija, all on a nutty romesco base.
Everything on the menu is tempting and designed, like tapas, for sharing. But Vitiello wants THR & Co. to be posher than the average tapas place, so the servers, who proudly rattle off ingredients, also arrive bearing a clean set of crockery with each course. I lost count of how many settings touched our table. By the sixth exchange of plates, I felt like a hard-to-please customer in the Fawlty Towers dining room and grew concerned about the sanity of the dishwashers.
The one thing I wanted all to myself was a cheesecake, deconstructed into a quenelle of peppery chocolate and cream cheese, a crumble of chocolate graham crust and a handful of preserved sour cherries. Maldon salt flecks, scattered over the dish like snowflakes, intensified the chocolate’s sweet punch. It’s the sort of simple dessert I’d happily order every night of the week. Yet another reason to search out a parking spot on Harbord.