“It’s like going to your grandmother’s house for dinner, if… you know… your grandmother really, really knew what she was doing.”
That’s how Grace Restaurant co-owner Chris Hoffman described the menu, as members of Toronto’s food media sipped Meyer-lemon bourbon cocktails prior to Monday’s dinner at the College Street stalwart.
As foodies across the city turn their culinary calendars from winter’s root vegetables and braised meats to lighter, fresher fare, the departure of former chef Dustin Gallagher has similarly given the four-year-old boîte a chance to turn over a new leaf.
That the leaf du jour happens to be stinging nettle, served in open ravioli form, with duck heart, shaved cauliflower, almonds and morels is thanks to newly minted chef Kevin Castonguay, who formally manned the stoves at neighbourhood hit, Woodlot.
“I like to create food around the produce. We’ll use whatever is in peak season, and then be creative and open minded with it," says the young toque who has cleverly and seamlessly integrated several vegetarian and vegan dishes into the new menu. “That’s nothing crazy, every chef will tell you that,” downplays Castonguay, before almost shyly adding that he’s also looking to execute everything perfectly, too.
It’s the kind of quiet confidence that translates from menu to the plate.
Aside from the aforementioned stinging nettle and duck heart dish, the night’s menu also featured a brilliant sunchoke chowder — a vegetarian dish that didn’t miss the smoked ham hock thanks to house-smoked potatoes and hazelnuts; a vegan white bean salad served with charred endive, citrus and sunflower seeds, followed by olive oil-poached striped bass with spiced yogurt, green peas and smoked bacon.
Sitting at a candlelit table after a dessert of salted butter tart with gingerbread and ancho chili ice cream, co-owners Hoffman and Lesle Gibson, are clearly excited about the restaurant’s new focus.
Since opening in 2008 with a menu that hit all the right notes in a city on a comfort-food kick, Gibson says that over the course of the last four years — as the restaurant evolved along with its young chef — the menu became more fine-dinning than familiar. “By no means have we simplified the approach to the food now with Kevin, it’s just getting closer to what we always wanted Grace to be, which is modern farmhouse.”
“It’s Grace version 2.0”, adds Hoffman, referencing again, that sublimely talented grandmother of our collective nostalgias. “It’s our four year anniversary, so it just seems like a good time to reset.”
While resetting can certainly be a challenge, if the food and the feel are any indication, Hoffman, Gibson and now Castonguay seem to be making the transition… well, gracefully.
503 College St. Toronto
Written by J.D. Ney
After years of editorial positions with two of Canada’s leading food and hospitality magazines, J.D. decided to get out of the professional journalism game, but found that he couldn’t leave the writing–to say nothing of the food and drink business–behind for good. Combining a passion for fine food and better beverages, with a keen eye for the broader story and culinary trends across the city, J.D.’s work can be read here at Spotlight, and you can follow him on Twitter.