Chef Grant van Gameren of Enoteca Sociale
A few years ago, something magical happened on Dundas West. In a sketchy end of town, two young entrepreneurs — who had met on Craigslist, of all places — opened up a restaurant. It was tiny. It didn’t take reservations. Converse All Stars were accepted, if not encouraged. The centerpiece of the miniscule kitchen was a rickety electric stove worthy of a college dormitory. And this restaurant churned out some of the best, most adventurous, most transcendental charcuterie and cooked food the city. The Black Hoof had arrived, and Toronto fell in love.
This past August, head chef and co-owner Grant van Gameren moved on. The other owner, bartender extraordinaire Jenn Agg, took over as matriarch. Things are still going strong over at the Hoof, but something interesting is happening. Its aura is spreading as chefs and other staff carry the legacy outward with new ventures of their own.
Last month, two ex–Black Hoofers brought the gospel to Parkdale with the opening of Grand Electric. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere and has created quite a buzz.
It was here, incidentally, at this too-addictive bourbon and taco bar, where I suffered one of the great regrets of my life. A Gza track that can only be described as dope had just dropped, and my server had just set down a too-good-to-be-true plate of chicken frito ($14), with fried thighs, drumsticks and whole wings doused in an impossibly savoury Asian fish sauce, topped with chili peppers, green onions and garlic.
The regret was this: that I had not yet learned to snap my fingers in that cool, index-finger-loose, flick-your-wrist kind of way.
Grand Electric is positively dripping with Black Hoof magic.
When I first walked in, avoiding a lineup by arriving right at opening time, the place was — of course — too hip. It was woody, like new spots on Queen West usually are, and there were too many beards.
I watched co-owner Ian McGrenaghan compulsively adjust the volume of the music so that it remained perched on the cusp of discomfort. But the experience at Grand Electric comes together when eating and drinking begin. Beer selection is craft heavy, and over a dozen types of bourbon line the shelves.
Most importantly, chef and co-owner Colin Tooke — also using a cheap electric stove — cooks some of the best Mexican-inspired food in the city.
Even the salad ($11) is high-five-your-dinner-companion good. Girthy pieces of Boston bibb lettuce are drizzled with a creamy-sweet buttermilk dressing and sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. The lettuce rests on a Coca-Cola reduction, which, at the very least, is fun. And can a salad in Toronto be complete without pork — in this case, a puck of it, with pieces of shoulder and pork head?
The chalkboard menu boasts four kinds of tacos (pork belly, fish, spicy chicken and beef cheek, three for $10), all served on proper corn tortillas. The meat for the pork belly taco is not actually cooked al pastor as the menu suggests — that is, on a spit, shawarma-style — but it doesn’t really matter, because, like all of the tacos, it hits the spot. The braised meat has the consistency of pulled pork, and it’s topped with cilantro, green onion and candied pineapple for a ferocious flavour spectrum.
Anyone who’s looking for a seafood kick should opt for the tuna ceviche ($7.50). The tangy, tender and fresh morsels of tuna are zigzagged with a house-made avocado mayonnaise and served with just-out-of-the-fryer corn tortillas.
McGrenaghan and Tooke have paid serious homage to the raucous vibe of Guu, but have tailored it to hip Queen West denizens. They’ve done it with panache and an appreciation for lowbrow. And they’ve made it look easy.
Back on Dundas West, another spot has gotten an infusion of the Black Hoof ’s allure. The progenitor of it all, the crazy-talented Grant van Gameren, was recently announced as executive chef at Enoteca Sociale.
In light of the changeover, one thing is certain: Enoteca Sociale has not undergone a complete van Gameren revolution. As he himself puts it: “I’m not looking to recreate the Black Hoof anywhere.” This is still very much the Italian restaurant that Toronto has come to love. Much of van Gameren’s influence has taken place quietly, and the truly discerning will appreciate it.
The most blatant reminder that a change has taken place is, without a doubt, the addition of sweetbreads ($15) to the menu. By appearances alone, you’d never suspect that van Gameren spends nearly three days preparing them, soaking them in cold water for 24 hours to remove impurities; brining them for four hours; cooking them sous vide for one hour; pressing them for 24 hours; cold smoking them for 45 minutes; marinating them for half a day in fresh lemon juice and salsa verde; then, at the end of it all, grilling them. They are masterfully tender, and still retain chalky undertones, which is good.
One of van Gameren’s big changes at Enoteca has been extending the processes for just about every dish into multi-day ordeals, including doubling the number of house-made pastas.
His spaghetti with spot prawns ($21) is simple and delicious. The pasta is garlicky, inundated with dried chili flakes and blanched rapini. Sweet and mild spot prawns from B.C. are sautéed for a mere 15 seconds, so as not to sully their freshness. The dish is topped off with bottarga, otherwise known as the poor man’s caviar, and a dash of lemon juice for acid.
Van Gameren’s venture into vegan-friendly food is less successful. The baked kale ($13) only works when all of the contrasting items are eaten together: vinegary kale, sweet persimmon, savoury pine nuts and earthy, razor-thin oyster mushrooms. The too-seasoned kale is overpoweringly sour on its own.
As a dessert, a quivering chunk of panna cotta ($8), with candied pear, pine nuts and mustard-infused syrup is light and refreshing.
This leg of van Gameren’s journey is bound to be interesting. The chef has research trips to New York and Rome planned, and an upcoming concept known as “Grant restaurant” is in the works. It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on this chef.