Three chefs -- Tempo's Tom Thai, Roxborough's Elaina Asselin, Patriot's David Chrystian -- have radically changed Toronto's dining scene in the last six months. They've had more impact than any trio since Michael Statlaander, Jamie Kennedy, and Greg Couillard threw a culinary Molotov cocktail under Hogtown's old guard 20 years ago.
Add another name to these infidels: Sam Gassira, a major talent who's worked his way up through the ranks at Oliver's Bistro, Fred's Not Here and, most recently and spectacularly, Eat My Martini.
Low-key trat Gassira left the College Street cocktail cantina a mere month after my four-N review appeared in these pages last November -- which didn't do my cred much good. My review of Eat My Martini is still posted in the window despite the fact that the current chef has nowhere near the chops.
At the time of his departure, Gassira told me he just wanted to chill, regroup and rethink. When I learn that he's resurfaced at Focaccia, a tiny, low-key trat near Yonge and Bloor, I head right over.
Focaccia is actually two adjacent restaurants. One is a take-away featuring superb southern Italian comfort-food lunches like veal meatloaf with super-creamy potato-avocado-hardboiled-egg salad ($6) and such sandwich-pressed s'wiches as olive-oil-brushed grilled veggies with smoked provolone ($5).
Though I've cycled past it hundreds of times, I'd always assumed the fancier Focaccia -- a cute two-storey townhouse two doors down -- was yer standard Cal-Ital bistro catering to advertising/film execs from nearby towers. A recent birthday lunch with fashion terrorist Ian Cognito debunks my preconception.
This pleasant space, with its smooth service, ridiculously low prices and superior food, goes way beyond Cal-Ital.
Lunch starts on a high -- a basket of house-baked jalapeño-fuelled cornbread, oregano-flecked soft breadsticks and Focaccia's namesake flatbread layered with tissue-thin Yukon Gold potato slices and caramelized onion.
With difficulty, Cognito chooses the daily special, mushroom risotto ($13), which comes with the soup du jour, gazpacho. Rolling his eyes, he expects the usual V8 Juice lumbered with cucumber. Instead, he's blown away by a spoonful of this garden-fresh puree embellished with pools of olive and chili oils. I'm equally impressed with my stellar Caesar ($3 with main course), a minimal toss of romaine, smoky Portuguese slab-bacon lardons and delightfully light garlicky citrus vinaigrette.
The risotto arrives stunningly presented on a large white plate, its intense beigeness deepened by shiitake, button, portobello and oyster 'shrooms, and undercut by aromatic pink peppercorns. On top, a pan-sauteed, cornmeal-breaded calamari crown finishes off this sublime dish.
I swoon over my osso buco ($13), two astoundingly tender cross-sections of veal shank slowly simmered in white wine, sauced with an anchovy-spiked portobello-garlic gravy and joined by crispy asparagus. Awesome.
Reclaim classic But it's the dinner menu that lifts Focaccia into the stratosphere. Reclaiming a classic, Gassira liberates the cliche that is quiche with his goat-cheese-and-onion tart ($9), a creamy custard set in a buttery pâte brisée crust, sided with grilled radicchio and endive hearts slathered in a mango splash.
A revamp of a Martini standout, oven-roasted spring salmon ($17) comes crusted with black and white peppercorns and sided with velvety pumpkin gnocchi laced with brandied bisque rich with asparagus. Similarly peppered -- and rock-salted -- a 10-ounce seared strip loin ($18) materializes with a sinfully delicious potato-spinach gratin obscenely sauced with pungent blue Gorgonzola.
Gassira's inspiring combination of haute and home cookin' continues with tonight's special of half a deboned and roasted Cornish hen ($17) -- again salted -- that gets twinned with a retro-futuristic scallop of apple-cider-glazed rutabaga. Throughout this outstanding meal, we've tippled a Californian cabernet (97 Cypress, $7 glass/$35 bottle) that makes the perfect foil for an experience of this calibre.
There's more. Desserts are also baked on the premises, and though they pale in comparison to what's gone before -- what wouldn't? -- they mock the competition with their simplicity and elegance.
Bit overwhelming Chocolate tart sees dense semi-sweet cocoa compacted over a chocolaty crust; orange-almond cake sings with saturated citrus and crushed-nut intensity; and usually boring old crème brûlée seethes with espresso strength (all desserts $5).
The only downside to this embarrassment of riches is exactly that -- almost everything we try is almost too rich. Individually, Gassira's creations are in a class of their own. Collectively, they become a bit overwhelming. All they need is the counterpoint he already offers with the goat-cheese tart -- perhaps a briny black-olive tapenade with the first-rate breads or a lemony rapini side could further complement dishes that are already 99.9 per cent beyond reproach.
(17 Hayden, 323-0179)
This unassuming boite on a back street near Bloor and Yonge belies the culinary creativity found within. Chef Sam Gassira joins the pantheon of artistes -- Patriot's David Chrystian, Roxborough's Elaina Asselin -- who are shaking the foundations of Toronto's old-guard dining scene. Throw in smooth service and alarmingly low prices and watch the foodies flock. Complete dinners for $40 per person ($25 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, and for dinner 5 to 10 pm Monday to Saturday. Closed Sunday and holidays. (Note: open for lunch and dinner on Pride weekend.) Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, 18 steps to washrooms on second floor. Rating: This unassuming boite on a back street near Bloor and Yonge belies the culinary creativity found within. Chef Sam Gassira joins the pantheon of artistes -- Patriot's David Chrystian, Roxborough's Elaina Asselin -- who are shaking the foundations of Toronto's old-guard dining scene. Throw in smooth service and alarmingly low prices and watch the foodies flock. Complete dinners for $40 per person ($25 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, and for dinner 5 to 10 pm Monday to Saturday. Closed Sunday and holidays. (Note: open for lunch and dinner on Pride weekend.) Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, 18 steps to washrooms on second floor. Rating: NNNNN