When I enter Chantecler, a modest blue box poised on the 1300 block of Queen St West in Parkdale, I throw away all preconceptions and expectations, rinse my memory of all previous eating, clean the slate as it were, and murmur, a little tremulously to be sure, bring it on. Chantecler, you see, is one of the few restos in the city with a committed progressive carte. Ever since cooks could tap into the web and download the world’s cuisines, the chefs, techniques, exotic ingredients, trad values have taken a knock. No longer is there just one tradition – but dozens of ways. One immediate result: fusion. Cooking has become an expression of post-modernism where only relative values prevail. Criticism is powerless in a world where one person’s poison is automatically rated as another’s ambrosia. What gustatory disasters have ensued, undertrained chefs devising dishes which cry “Look Ma, I’m cooking”, everything popped on the plate except the kitchen stove.
Progressivism, like a shark, can’t be stopped. Plenty of failures – but also influential innovations, Ferran Adria’s molecular cuisine is one example, and of course Rene Redzepi’s Noma, foraging extraordinaire where a single stalk is king. After this, the old steak/frites will never seem quite the same.
And where will it stop? Cooking is particularly vulnerable to fashions in art. Do the sere slopes of conceptualism beckon? In London in June, an exhibition of invisible art showed an empty plinth, the curators advising such a piece demonstrated that art is about “firing the imagination” rather than simply viewing objects. Think of what this might mean for cooking - an empty table entitled “memory is the only feast, eating is vulgar materialism. ”
Its ok, Toronto is a long way from the invisible lunch – think of the current retro surge of dead carcass.
Chantecler is a disarming 26-seater with owned by Jacob Wharton-Shukster and Jonathan Poon, who has done stints at Noma and Colborne Lane, which is still Toronto’s progressive avatar. Decor, comfort is minimal. Music is loud. No noise baffling. But the spirit is strong and I’m a bourgeois willing to be epater’d.
Not so fast. Chantecler’s a smoothie. No shocks but some surprises. The service is prompt and informed. The menu is eleven items long: As is now the custom, each dish is announced by ingredient. We’re encouraged to share, an initiative I embrace. Today, I eat a three-course marathon with reservations, remembering how as a kid, I dreaded the three-course routine , wondering why I couldn’t just cherry pick the melon and roast potatoes with gravy, instead of eating everything as a moral duty. Sharing a plate is an amoral high.
We start by sharing Smoked Duck Breast $14, ruby red curls with attendant fat, beet alongside, peanuts strewn about, raspberry vinaigrette and a few strands of wild arugula which aren’t as piquant as the farmed kind, and a few slices of irresistibly dehydrated baguette or something like. The potato gnocchi $13, is even more enjoyable, little velvety dumplings drifting in potato sauce infested with thousands of almost invisible cod roe, a taste so subtle that it makes salmon roe seem brash, covered in close-chopped chives, and showered with bitter, powdered seaweed. Subtle and lingering.
In Toronto, you can’t go wrong (usually) when you order halibut, which for historic marketing reasons, is the city’s solid bet, and with reason, its firm texture cooks up a treat. This tender, pull-apart fish $21 is enhanced by perfect white asparagus spears, wild asparagus, snow crab, a dish to please the most traditional eater. We’re a bit disappointed with the Roast Chantecler Chicken $19. The Chantecler is a heritage bird from Quebec, raising the hope that it will have character beyond the creature’s infinite utility. Lumps of crusted and dullish taste,$19, come in a bath of stock with ramps, seaweed and shredded dried oyster. Term it a mishit. Maybe it’s time to deconstruct the chicken, just serve the parson’s nose, the two tender little cheeks on the chicken’s butt, it’s the best part of the bird, to my mind.
Chef Poon is much more assured, even bold with desserts which are original and highly satisfying .Sea Buckthorn is forage–plus, a super Vitamin C, bright orange berry. Here the berries are mashed into a parfait with soft meringue and toasted pecans. Also $8, the (bitter) almond Panna Cotta is the perfect foil for glistening tapioca and honeyed osmanthus syrup.
Chantecler, 1320 Queen W. 416-628-3586. Dinner for two: food plus tax $95
Out of four stars: food ** and a half. Service ** Vibe * and a half
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