Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews The Emerson


The Emerson's dining room, adorned with old racing bikes (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)

In the heyday of Pastis, I’m pretty sure that super maître d’/owner Georges Gurnon never put hand to stove. But he nevertheless maintained ironclad control over the food, thanks to his fabulous French aesthetic, the icing on the cake of passion and professionalism.

During that time, for a few years, a young guy named Scott Pennock was the Pastis chef, and it seems he learned a thing or two from Georges. Taste the food at The Emerson and you’ll know it for sure.

Pennock is chef there. The menu is a straight take on Pastis: bistro-simple, French-influenced and highly disciplined. One doesn’t normally think of menus as having discipline (or not) but it’s important. Pennock limits himself to a small card with one daily special (and a daily pasta) on a weekly rotation. Ergo he’s always cooking only what he knows.

He knows meat like a mouse knows cheddar. Sweetbread salad is an à la minute cleverness, close kin to Italian bread salad: nicely dressed cress and frisée are adorned with just-fried little sweetbread delights, over barely grill-kissed thick French bread that soaks in just enough dressing to be entertaining. Chef Pennock riffs on foie gras with a very Pastis salt cure.

But his dreamiest app is ricotta, ravioli-like clouds, with intensely mushroom-y cream sauce that might be better than all but the best sex — or would be if the room were slightly easier to be in. The rock music is great… and loud, so people are shouting over it. It’s also very dark. The long, narrow shape doesn’t help. The bar at the front has lots of tchotchkes, but the dining room is plainer, adorned only by old racing bicycles in the wall… and in the open kitchen, the scurry of chefs — who are all even cuter thanks to their bow ties and retro caps that cooks wore in American diners.

But this kitchen brigade is better for far more than eye candy. Their Saturday night special, hunter’s pie, tastes like the best of French meat stews. It’s moist duck and pheasant with carrots, cremini mushrooms and onions in fab brown sauce with a fragile puff pastry roof, served in a small, black iron frying pan. Shaved cauliflower spiked with cumin makes iconoclastic coleslaw. They do a very good burger, great beef with fried onions, buttery bun and a full sour pickle — which would be even better if they just used Beemster instead of a Beemster sauce, ’cause a river of cheese drips off the burger in a major mess.

Their signature dessert is classic ’20s-era Americana: icebox cake (so-called for its sojourn in the fridge) is over-whipped cream mixed with Oreo fragments. Very yummy comfort food. Kind of like the mismatched English china, the porcelain on the kitchen shelf… and everything Scott Pennock puts his hand to.

Good breeding always tells.

The Emerson, 1279 Bloor St. W., $80 Dinner for two

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.

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