April 25, 2014

Sea-ing is believing: Hopgood's Foodliner and Catch reviewed

Two new Toronto restaurants get serious with seafood

Chef Geoff Hopgood

Chef Geoff Hopgood

There are few delicacies in this world as elegant as the scallop. With just a touch of seasoning and a proper sear, these beauties can hold their own on even the classiest of menus. For me, scallops retain their allure because they’re mysterious, and, let’s face it, just plain trippy. Hanging out on the ocean floor, the plankton-eating mollusks can have up to 50 pairs of bright blue eyes. They are as fascinating as an alien species and out-of-this-world tasty.

But that exotic allure and knockout taste come at a price. The line between a pearly, sweet, melt- in-your-mouth morsel and a dry, fibrous, nearly inedible abomination can be razor thin. The scallop seems to efficiently sum up the unforgiving nature of cooking seafood: done properly, it’s glorious; done poorly, it’s embarrassing. Rarely is there a middle ground.

Until recently, Toronto had been lacking in solid seafood restaurants. A number of places have tried to do cooked seafood properly as of late, with varied success: Malena, the Atlantic, Estiatorio Volos and Fishbar, to name a few.

Last month, two new contenders stepped to the plate. Catch opened on St. Clair West from the team behind the Rushton, and Geoff Hopgood brought Hopgood’s Foodliner to Roncesvalles.

Heading up both kitchens are born-and-bred Nova Scotians. Nigel Finley at Catch and Hopgood himself grew up with fresh seafood on their doorsteps. To be sure, February gave Toronto seafood lovers reason for optimism.

Hopgood earned widespread acclaim during his stint at the Hoof Café, and he surprised just about everyone with the sudden opening of Hopgood’s Foodliner, named after a chain of grocery stores owned by his father’s family in Nova Scotia.

Foodliner is not a seafood restaurant per se, but it is seafood heavy. It’s key charm lies in the intermingling of lowbrow with highbrow, which plays out brilliantly, for the most part. It’s endlessly amusing to see which “plebian” food Hopgood will elevate next.

It just so happens that the best item on the menu — and possibly on the entire strip — is not seafood oriented at all. It’s the Halifax donairs ($12 for two) served on a crinkled paper bag. Slices of beef and pork are doused in a sauce of evaporated milk, sugar, garlic and vinegar: it’s so sweet it’s obnoxious, but it somehow works to superb effect.

It’s worth making the reservations and the trip to Roncy for these little guys alone.

Hopgood’s continues his tribute to trashiness — and shows some serious cojones — by serving store- bought Triscuits with his hot crab dip ($15). Made according to his mother’s recipe, the dip is inundated with P.E.I. rock crab and lots of mayonnaise. It’s good, but tastes akin to something you’d find at a family Christmas dinner, not Toronto’s restaurant du jour.

Tuna crudo ($16), as luscious as any top-notch sashimi, is a standout. It’s briefly brined in Marmite (as in the savoury, quintessentially British gloop) and then punched up with house-made mustard and finely diced Granny Smith apple and daikon.

Charred octopus ($20) borders on rubbery despite its three-hour braise. And while the bold grill marks are pretty, they overpower. The octopus isn’t burnt, but the too-pungent char makes it smell and taste that way. A mild potato escabeche adds a touch of acidity, which would have been nice had the flavour of the octopus been allowed to speak up a little.

And the scallops ($22)? Disappointing. They’re skimpy, with a barely discernable sear, though they’re cooked just right inside. They’re not bad, but the star of the dish is the crispy, shredded and pressed pork shoulder that they’re resting on, which has been cooked overnight then deep-fried.

If there was any doubt, Hopgood’s Foodliner has solidified Roncy as a worthwhile culinary destination, despite its few misses. Several dishes are worth the trek to the west end, just don’t go expecting a bargain.

When I first heard about Catch, my hopes were high. The chef had communicated to me his love of “forgotten fish” such as mackerel, herring and periwinkles. I envisioned a menu that was at once adventurous and sustainable. It didn’t quite pan out that way.

Upon entering the warm, woody atmosphere at Catch, I open the menu to see smoked salmon staring me in the face. I’m disappointed, needless to say. Other not-so- surprising selections abound: sea bream, halibut and mussels. The only not-so-run-of-the-mill fish on the menu is smelt.

Some of the food at Catch shines, but some of it wibble-wobbles on the tightrope walk of seafood cuisine.

The scallops ($13) are dry-rubbed with a mix of spices such as cinnamon, coriander and mustard seed. Scallops rarely need anything as complex as a dry rub, but these boast some of the punchiest, most vibrant sears I have ever seen. Sadly, the interiors have lost their translucency, but just barely. The cooking is just shy of perfect, and the cassoulet alongside is also good, with the beans retaining bite instead of descending into mush.

Then comes the wibble-wobble: the clams ($16). They are overcooked and tough, swimming in a sauce so buttery that it’s starting to separate. A sprinkle of tomatoes is haphazardly chopped, which betrays a lack of attention to detail. The accompanying pieces of pork belly are thin and dry.

Fried smelts ($9), meanwhile, are lightly breaded and slightly crispy, full of that rich, fresh-from-the-water taste common to smaller fish. These ones are de-headed, which some would deem unnecessary. Underneath, collard greens get some tang from lemon juice, which makes for a nice contrast.

Then come the entree fish: sea bream ($16) and halibut ($18). Each dish is strong where the other is not. The sea bream, for example, is properly seasoned but overcooked. The best part is the skin, which is as crisp as a sea breeze and delicious, too. The halibut, meanwhile, is succulent and peels apart in large, moist flakes. The cooking is spot on, but the fish tastes nearly unseasoned.

Therein lies the central problem with Catch: it’s inconsistent. Still, it’s a new restaurant, so it will hopefully iron out some of the kinks with time.

So, is Toronto finally a seafood town? I’d hesitate to say yes, despite these two additions, but we’re getting there.

Hopgood’s Foodliner, 325 Roncesvalles Ave 416-533-2723
Catch, 744 St. Clair Ave. W. 416-658-0568