Authenticity. Rustic style. Down-home cooking. Good value. These are the winning calling cards for today’s new restaurants. And while some know how to execute this unpretentious philosophy exceptionally well, others just don’t get it.
Take, for example, a recent dinner I had in Toronto. The critically acclaimed restaurant (which shall remain nameless) is an unremarkable hole-in-the-wall with bare walls and tacky pink tiles that serves Low Country/Acadian fare with an extra helping of attitude. I enjoyed my shrimp grits in a glossy ham-hock broth. And I adored a large order of moist corn bread spread with whipped maple-pumpkin butter. But when I asked the bartender if he would kindly pack up my leftover corn bread to go, he told me that he couldn’t. The chef wouldn’t allow it, as he sincerely believes his food should be eaten fresh, hot off the grill. On principle, the restaurant doesn’t even stock any takeout containers.
“But if you want to tuck it into your purse,” the server said, nudging a pile of cocktail napkins toward me, “I won’t tell anyone.”
Are you serious? He was.
I didn’t smuggle out the corn bread, yet I couldn’t help recalling this specious display of inflated self-importance after I returned to Vancouver and enjoyed two memorably relaxing, wholesomely satiating dinners at the delightfully unaffected Flying Pig in Yaletown.
Owned by John Crook and Erik Heck, both of whom previously worked at Joe Fortes and Glowbal Grill, this casual “nouveau Canadian bistro” specializes in such basic, seasonal classics as pea soup, roasted half-chicken and maple-sugar pie at arrestingly affordable prices.
With its exposed brick, wooden beams, communal tables, open-concept kitchen and exceedingly comfortable, easy-to-talk-across acoustics, the Flying Pig stands out as a welcome slice of home-style goodness in a sadly plasticized neighbourhood that has become dominated by generic chain restaurants and niche grooming salons.
The portions here are big – so big that almost any appetizer could satisfy a moderately hungry diner. Let’s talk about the Flying Pig’s three-pea soup, my favourite new dish for a fast lunch-on-the-run. This isn’t just another bland version of greenish pabulum. It’s a hearty stew made with a thick medley of sweet and salty maple-smoked ham hock, chunky chickpeas, garden-fresh sweet peas and earthy dried split peas. I thought I hated pea soup until I tasted the addictively creamy contents of this rustic-handled crock bowl.
Another appetizer that challenges a single eater: chipotle-rubbed skirt steak, sliced against the grain into tender, pink strips with crackly edges, served aside a mountain of crispy, thin, lightly salted hickory sticks. Yes, this dish is a blatant imitation of the perennially popular Texas flank steak at Bin 941, but it’s much less sweet and costs only $9.
Go ahead and dig into main courses, if you have the metabolic fortitude. Red-wine-braised beef short rib (which falls off the bone with just the right amount of tug for chew) is a Flintstonesque dish served with an empty shank bone, hollowed out for its bone marrow, which is creamed into mashed potatoes and sliced into gelatinous discs swimming in a dark, beefy gravy. Wild seafood pappardelle, tossed in a brightly herbaceous rose sauce, is piled high with halibut, salmon, perfectly taut-skinned prawns and two giant Quadra Island honey mussels.
Should you want to roam more broadly, tapas-style, try a few of the restaurant’s signature side dishes on a wood-plattered trifecta, as our backward-bending server suggested. Lobster and prawn risotto is unfortunately overly creamed with too much mascarpone. But who’s going to complain when the $9 plate is fortified with a whole lobster claw and at least a half-dozen of those beautifully firm prawns?
Button mushrooms ($5) are roasted under a rich Parmesan herb gratin that delectably masks their humble origins. And Brussels sprouts (also $5) – fried until the layers unfold into shattering crispness, and are then tossed with an addictively tart ambrosia of lemon, capers and Parmesan – is the absolute best rendition of this newly trendy cabbage I’ve ever devoured.
It was all a bit too much for us. Especially when paired with a few glasses of Oregon pinot noir and a tooth-achingly sweet slice of sugar pie (the kitchen may want to think about replacing the caramel sauce, chocolate drizzle and scoop of walnut ice cream with a plain dollop of unsweetened whipped cream).
But when we asked if we could take home the leftovers, our lovely server didn’t even blink. He actually divided all our food into equally portioned containers, wrote our names on the top and delivered them with a huge smile.
Now that’s a charming winner that makes me feel right at home.