COWBELL (1564 Queen West, at Sorauren, 416-849-1095) Complete dinners for $50 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of Ontario wine. Average main $22. Open for dinner Tuesday to Thursday 5 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN
Am I the only person on the planet who doesn't automatically piss himself laughing when someone wisecracks, "More cowbell"? Since I gave up on Saturday Night Live back when Chevy Chase's shtick stopped amusing (October 25, 1975, by my book), I never caught the famous SNL skit that features Christopher Walken as a cowbell-loving record producer and Will Ferrell as the percussionist of the Blue Oyster Cult.
Luckily, owner/chef Mark Cutrara's brand-spanking-new Parkdale bistro, Cowbell, is no joke. His culinary CV includes impressive names like Chiado, Messis, JK ROM, Le Nouveau Parigo, Silver Spoon and most recently Globe Bistro, where he helped launch the jewel of the Danforth. Cutrara means business.
Opened with approximately a 10th of Globe's budget and relatively hype-free, Cowbell could be the quintessential neighbourhood resto. Its inviting space could easily cram in 50 customers, but instead seats 30 on kitschy Moorish-revival banquettes. Wainscotted walls display local artist Laurie Wonfor-Nolan's wonky landscapes - imagine Paint-By-Numbers with slightly wrong colours. A gorgeous white brasserie-style ceramic tile floor runs from an open kitchen at the rear to a wall of glass that opens onto an intimate curbside patio. In Parkdale, mind.
Locally sourced and mostly organic, Cutrara's chalkboard-posted card changes almost daily. While the entire house appears to be collectively swooning over smoked rainbow trout paired with sweet corn salsa ($8), we begin with bresaola ($6), paper-thin slices of air-dried Italian-style beef, accompanied by chipotle mayo and a stack of seriously addictive polenta fries. We could easily knock off a main-sized portion.
Another meaty starter finds a trio of beefy meatballs served over a diminutive bed of barley risotto and a pureed pool of celery-green lovage complete with purple flower tops. Call Cowbell's house terrine (both $9) a kitchen sink of charcuterie, a delicious rustic loaf thick with roughly chopped chunks of pork, veal, chicken heart and pistachios sided with a cornichon or two, a glob of Dijon and a lovely light watercress salad in sherry vinagrette.
Enter the entrees! Keeping with an Old World comfort food theme, Cutrara offers an obscenely moist ballotine of chicken ($23). "Naturally raised by Ellen and Dave Weber from Paisley," the chalkboard informs, the boneless bird comes slow-cooked sous vide and dramatically presented upright, its delish leek-and-spinach stuffing spilling onto the plate next to a pile of buttery perfect haricots verts and a crisped potato rosti.
Chef seals his allspice-kissed beef pot pie ($18) with an impossibly flaky layer of puff pastry, then finishes it with a frazzled topknot of frisée. Cowbell's massive 16-ounce pork chop ($25) sees a 2-inch-thick cut of prime Healthy Butcher pig oozing jus and garnished with fresh sage alongside a fine dice of roasted apple and celery root. There will be leftovers.
We polish off the last of a surprisingly serviceable blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay (2006 Calamus White, $6 glass/$26 bottle, sadly only one of two vintages offered by the glass) before fighting over the last crumbs of pastry chef Sarah Lawson's more than commendable rhubarb-and-plum shortcake dolloped with whipped crème fraîche ($7).
Service is exceptional as well. Instead of the clueless klutzes one often encounters in trendy trats, this lot are seasoned pros. After overhearing our praise for the extraordinarily chewy St. John's Bakery baguette and house-churned (!) organic butter that arrives at the top of our meal, the waiter provides several refills without our having to ask.
Though it needs a few more vegetarian options other than just salad ($6), Cowbell borders on flawless: good food from a chef at his peak, a comfortable room and a deferential staff. I'm with Christopher Walken. Toronto's downtown dining scene could definitely use more Cowbell.