Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Woodlot is like the Golden Fleece. It's a legend, some scintillating thing that is unattainable, that everyone wants. When it opened nearly a year ago off the corner of College and Palmerston getting a reservation was pretty much impossible- it's still tricky to get anything other than a late dinner if you're making a reservation the week of. It's casual fine dining in the setting of a renovated garage. Industrial glam with exposed lights, raw wood, cement, and great allure. You enter and can either eat at the big communal table (a frequent spot for walk-ins to alight), you may go down into the moody bar area with it's long polished counter to dine at, or do as we did and rise up to the interior balcony overlooking the kitchen. It's great to be able to watch a chef and their team at work, but we wound up at a little table nestled against the back wall in seclusion and intimate privacy.
It was something of a special event for me, as my mom has been visiting from Australia, which she does every couple years. She really wanted to come on a blog dinner, and go somewhere...special. She likes to tell us how the prices in Perth for average food are so astronomically high that even fine dining here seems like a light check to leave! Woodlot, for the quality, is not even that up there. We went with my sister Mary and our good friend Elena, whose ship was at port in Toronto for the first time in ages. Lots of visitors from afar!
Quickly, we were plied with a basket of days bread. Woodlot is also a bakery during the light hours, and I've had their loaves at other restaurants. This is a restaurateurs restaurant and Woodlots distinct red fife with it's stone-heated, crusty bottom, seems to pop up at all the nicest places I eat. I love their bread but as the server said, they'd burnt the pumpernickel that day (I still enjoyed it, and asked for a loaf when we left- nothing butter can't fix in the right quantity. They had so many in baskets, left over! She was a total dear and gave us a few loaves to take home...super nice!).
Tomato Watermelon Gazpacho - 9
To get us warmed up, we began the cool night with an equally chilled soup. It really isn't meant for a four way split, but we managed. Watermelon and rich tomato reduce to make a soup only a bit thicker than broth, oddly hearty. It had such an interesting play between tangy and sweet. The bites of salty feta and black olive nibbles brought the sweetness back into focus after each bite.
Hokkaido Scallop Ceviche -14
Visually more related to sushi than I would have anticipated, the ceviche arrived in elegance. The scallop was tender, and unlike other ceviche that I've had, you hardly noticed the lime, which was cleaned away before serving. Instead there was a side of fat black quinoa grains, and a whipped avocado sour cream. I found that too overpowering with the delicate, darling scallops. The quinoa was wonderful by itself, hearty with crunchy kernel hearts. Sea asparagus spears and grapefruit sections added bursts of difference. There were flakes of sea salt that kept us coming back for more.
Roast Naturally Raised Flatiron Steak - 27
We were all so blown away! Mary had this great steak, which is funny for a couple reasons. Mary isn't a big beef fan, and she also (I'm sorry Mary!) has never known how to appreciate the meat. She gets steaks well done. In a very bold move she ordered this medium well done, and I was impressed. The poor chefs, having to do that to beautiful meat. It may have come out straight medium, it was still very red in the middle- Mary has always hated the red. She loved this. I love this. My mom and Elena loved this. With hints of miso and soy, there was a seriously interesting and rustic undertone to the meat, but it never overpowered a genuine flavour. The scallions piled over the slices of tender meat were pearly and translucent, garlicky as well as oniony, adding a gentleness.
Chop of Whey-fed Pork - 26
A whole half belgian endive (witlof, my mother calls it by its Dutch name) was grilled and laid atop a sliced brick of pork, it's fatty rind thick and seeping flavor into the meat. The vegetable was very bitter, as you would expect, but with sprinkles of salt over buttery olive oil which when eaten with the pork, made a balance. I thought I tasted a tease of balsamic. I found the meat hearty for pork, actually quite sustaining. The drippings tasted of smoke and cracklins, but mostly the meat was natural and that was all it needed.
Roast Pacific Pickerel & Porcini - 23
Simplicity is the best route to take when handling fish. Anything heavy handed, and you lose the delicacy, especially with a white fish. Here the pickerel flaked off the fork, little drops of natural oil peeking from the crisp (not crackled) skin. It was a light cilantro drizzle than punctuated a fresh flavour. The fish had a good natural fat, while still solid and just cooked enough to be hot without even coming close to dryness. I would compare it to satin. The wedge of fish was beautifully accented with shaved fennel, peas and beans.
Red Fife Whole Wheat Papardelle - 15/21
These noodles were wide and flat, ambitiously encroaching on lasagna in breadth. The red fife grain doesn't change much of the flavour or texture compared to regular semolina pasta, but I felt very full for the amount in my small order. That could be because the pasta was so wonderfully cheesy! The sauce was spiked with a vinegary taste of mustard, but mostly tasted of butter, cream and romano. It was very rich! What really amazed me was the whole filberts studding the whorls of noodle, adding crunch and a lusty sweetness. There was also a sprinkling of tangy baby chanterelles on top, making the dish wind up hearty and earthy.
Caramelized Jerusalem Artichokes - 6
Not realizing how filling even a small order of the papardelle would be, I had ordered these Jerusalem artichokes. This is another first in my slowly growing knowledge of good food, and less common ingredients. I really has expected, well, artichokes. These little fellows look like beets. While there's a hint of the succulent bitterness of a globe artichoke, it's very hard to compare them. Apples and oranges. These were bittersweet, the sweetness coming from a heavy caramelizing. They were firm and crunchy like radish, but hot as hell! I thought I could taste hints of parsley and leek, and like many things from our dinner at Woodlot, a twist of citrus. They were a hint too heady sweet for my taste in the end.
Japanese Cheesecake - 9
Occasionally I find cheesecake so painfully overwhelming and heavy handed- but this is Woodlot. The cheesecake was light with a texture more like spongecake, the cheese milder than one would find elsewhere, cut with a citrus hint of orange zest. Even the amaretti graham crust it sat on had a lightness to it. The pistachio ice cream began to melt quickly as a flurry of spoons hurried to try everything by itself, scooping up gobs of ripe peach as well, and then together for the meld of flavour. Together it's very sweet, but taken alone the different components are unique and enjoyable.
Goats milk and Wildflower Honey Panna Cotta - 9
Gelatinous in texture, the panna cotta wiggled its way onto our table, tapered from the jelly form it had once inhabited. What is this orange powder on top? Advertised as honeycomb? What odd concoction? It took a little while and some guesswork to figure out why, when eaten, the sugary coating seemed more solid. It's ground up sponge toffee, with no doubt. The texture was a bit too odd, though kudos for the innovation. The actual sweet cheese was as lovely as fresh cream. It was a smooth gel that was not nearly as heavy as goat cheese, and didn't taste much like it. The fat pickled blueberries were flowery and juicy. Great but for the topping, which gave it a bit of a junk-food spin I could have gone without.
Soma Chocolate and Hazelnut Pot de Creme - 9
It's so lovely to see some conspiring between Toronto fixtures. Soma is a lovely chocolatemaker down in the Distillery District, and the cocoa used here comes from them. They make some extraordinary hot chocolate! Out of the desserts, this wound up swaying us all with it's bitter citrus kick and sweet ground hazelnut lid. Not bad for something I blurting out a desire for just as our server was leaving the table. Little flakes of sea salt were fireworks on our tongues, working teasingly with the smooth, rich, strong dessert.