CZEHOSKI (678 Queen West, at Tecumseth, 416-366-6787) Complete dinners for $75 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $24. Open for dinner Monday to Thursday 6 to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 pm. Bar till 2 am. Closed Sunday. Licensed. Access: half-step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Although Toronto has boasted a house of hiphop (Apple's House of Hip Hop, to be precise), until Czehoski finally opened a month back, after a two-year transformation from Czech butcher shop into the hippest thing to hit Queen West since - oh, I don't know - Habitat opened across the street four months ago, the city has never had a house of flip-flops.
Before he became the czar of Czehoski, owner Brad Denton - the former cocktail king of Halifax, apparently - made his fortune as the Canadian importer of Havaianas, the way-kewl Brazilian flip-flops favoured by forward-thinking fashionistas.
He and partner Luca bought the abandoned building a few years ago with a plan to turn it into a "pub with the soul of an art gallery" serving "high-end Canadian comfort food," as Denton explains during the episode of the Food Network's Opening Soon that airs this weekend (see Television, page 40).
Although Czehoski's original iconic sign remains, the storefront has been given an unappealing wood-panelled facade that recalls a f*ckin' Firkin. Up front, a row of booths face a display case that once held cans of Spam but now cools bottles of 50 ($5.75). To the rear, a more formal dining room decked out in chocolate velvet swags and cream-coloured linen attracts a more stylish crowd who pride themselves in being ahead of the hoi polloi. And Venetia Butler and me.
As the NOW production designer and I scan the inaugural card from 20-something chefs Nathan Iseberg and David Haman, we don't know whether to be intrigued or intimidated by mains pretentiously described as "warm winter root terrine for Christopher Boland" ($19) and "farmer's cheese vareniki in the style of the Kramars" ($18). Say what?
Instead, we start with something dubbed "braised duck parfait" ($11). It arrives at table in a tall soda fountain glass topped with crunchy wild rice that acts like the sprinkles on some gourmet version of a Nutty Buddy. With long-handled spoons, we dig through successively tasty layers of cool rosemary-scented chantilly foam, warm shreds of cider-braised duck and smooth fig and cocoa purée that build to a Dubonnet citrus finale. Some sundae!
More conventional, a small plate of caramelized salsify gnocchi ($9) comes accompanied by deliciously fatty lamb shank and a garlicky gremolata of sour acidic sorrel.
"A crunchy, tender, bitter, salty, sweet, savoury, cooked, raw and complex but very simple salad of seasonal fruits and vegetables" ($8) turns out to be commercial organic mesclun in a subtle lemon vinaigrette dressed with dehydrated salsify shavings, organic baby blueberries and a barely hard-boiled quail egg.
A microscopic square of blue cheese strudel the size and thickness of a postage stamp, a slab of pink watermelon scattered with black nigella seed and purple borage buds complete the salad plate alongside blobs of roasted heirloom beet and sticky yellow liang-liang, the herbal shampoo ingredient and alleged aphrodesiac.
Venetia falls for "low temperature steak in the memory of a grandfather" ($23), gorgeous slices of Portuguese-style flank slow-cooked in Armagnac and peppery tobacco (!) sided with cheddar-sauced cauliflower, creamy pommes dauphinoises and honey-pickled green beans.
My succulent confit of chicken breast ($22) gets poached as opposed to fried in olive oil, then served with a wild mushroom ragout, slightly bitter soul-food-style collard greens and crispy oven-dried crackling (fat-rendered chicken skin). We finish with 20-hour apple ($7), an intensified confiture glazed with caramel and paired with nutty pistachio brittle, whipped dulce de leche and sultanas macerated in Amarone.
Polishing off the last of the Shiraz - a 2003 Hyland ($68 bottle) that reputedly tastes of "toasty new oak, blackberries and creosote," Butler and I reflect on our most remarkable meal.
Sure, staff are still finding their feet - the fine line between aloof and overly friendly has yet to be found - but first-time headlining chefs Isberg and Haman, who between them have done the Saltspring Island thing as well as time in the kitchens of Vancouver's Lumiere, Toronto's Avalon and Ferran Adria's legendary El Bulli on Catalonia's Costa Brava, are a culinary crew in ascension.
Those easily frightened by creative cooking will likely dismiss their work as fusion confusion. But adventurous palates, ones able to appreciate the brash artistry of David Chrystian, George's Lorenzo Loseto or Habitat's Greg Couillard (when he's there) will cherish Czehoski.