Last night my colleagues and I shared a bi-annual tradition: a fancy-pants dinner at a terrific Toronto restaurant. This night we chose one of the few 4-stars in town: Mark McEwan's North 44 )°.
You may remember our summer outing to another in his empire, One. While not altogether dissimilar, North 44 is the original in his pack, and more formal than the others. A bit old school (catering to a certain set who live in the neighbourhood) it could be fussy, but isn't. The service is warm and malleable, appropriate for the old money as well as the new kids on the block. Esther, our gorgeous server, grew increasingly hilarious as the night (and booze) flowed. At the end of our meal she heard us talking about the smoking-hot chef de cuisine in the open-kitchen behind us, and before we knew it, she was prancing proudly toward us, leading Handsome William to our table. Jesus. We were all afluster as he stood there, politely asking about our meal. Turns out he was working the grill, and (with cocktails, wine, port, and scotch coarsing through my veins) it was all I could do not to thank him for his gorgeous meat.
I was, for once, tight-lipped and demure.
North 44 )° Caters (the restaurant's off-shoot featured on The Food Network's The Heat with Mark McEwan) is a favourite among the people who rent our venue for weddings and high-end events, so Executive Chef Sash Simpson is a bit of a regular around here. After taking great care of us for dinner (sending out a throng of oysters, shrimp, duck confit, and an array of desserts between courses) he sat and had a beer as the kitchen geared-down. He's about as interesting a guy as you can find, his rapid rise through the culinary world fascinating.
He was adopted out of an Indian orphanage at seven and is now one of thirty-two children in his family. He told us about being a troublemaker in high school, soon dragged into the principal's office where the threat of calling his mother fell flat. Sash warned him not to bother. He knew she saw bigger things in him and that some class-clowning was hardly worth worrying about. No woman who adopts that many children sweats the small stuff.
So, at 15 he started working in a restaurant, climbing the ranks from dishwasher to busboy and eventually found himself in the kitchen. Barely 30, he's got to be one of the youngest (not to mention entirely untrained) Executive Chefs on the planet. A beautiful dinner became super-special with this chat. While we see Sash all the time, it's nice to see him in his element, running the most relaxed kitchen I've ever seen. We were surprised and impressed to find out that, aside from the full dining room we enjoyed, there was a party of 50 upstairs ordering à la carte. The sign of a well-run operation, not a single moment of chaos to be seen.
Conditions for photography were abysmal, so you'll have to imagine, but the meal was pitch-perfect. Sash's food is fairly traditional, not gimmicky at all, which is, of course, how I like it. Simple, perfectly-executed, and of the highest quality.
I started with the roasted heirloom beet salad with mâche and the most-beautiful little goat cheese samosas. Fresh and hearty. After enjoying Sash's generous deliveries (the duck confit polenta and the tempura rock shrimp with chipotle-yuzu aioli and crispy parsnip shavings were out. of. this. world. ) I moved onto the beef tenderloin, topped with braised short rib, served with potato rosti and green beans. I'm a sucker for tenderloin, as you know, so it's my usual go-to for a first-visit. And Handsome William nailed it. (You can say that again.) My friends were happy to share, so I happen to know the grilled branzino with herbed potatoes and swiss chard, the roasted lamb rack with braised lamb shank croquette and sweet peas, and the bison were immaculate.
Dessert didn't disappoint: Butterscotch Pudding Profiteroles. OMFG. Perfect little pastry nuggets filled with the finest pudding I've ever tasted. There are no words.
Thanks to Sash and Handsome William and Beautiful Esther for one of those great, great dinner experiences.