THE RESTAURANT (69 Nassau, at Augusta, 416-340-1110) Complete meals for $22 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of organic red. Average main $8. Open Wednesday to Sunday 10 am to 6 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, small washroom on same floor. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
To say that The Restaurant's Michelle Bellerose is an unconventional chef is an understatement. And that's putting it mildly.
The clever first-time restaurateur comes to the culinary arts from a background as an improvisational musician with an interest in homeopathy. Not the usual route for someone trying to make a splash in Toronto's trendy resto biz.
She'd been catering her music gigs for some time and had devised a unique hybrid vegetarian cuisine that combines the best qualities of raw and cooked food. But she'd never considered being a chef, let alone owning a restaurant called The Restaurant.
"Up till then I had no idea I could cook," laughs Bellerose, who grew up in a household where Mom hogged the kitchen spotlight.
Six months ago, the fledgling Restaurant (the low-profile hole in the wall briefly called Closbe that served mostly organic all-day breakfasts to Kensington Market's funkier folk) fell into her lap, and the seemingly diverse elements of her creativity became one. Serendipity pointed to a bigger stage. Well, one with 40 seats, half of them on the patio if the weather's cooperating.
That's where, in these dying days of summer, the Troubled Balkan and I take to the ramshackle terrace. A cursory glance through the lengthy laminated lineup and my inner Julia Child zeroes in on Tomato Blood Verchette ($6), described on the card as a raw dairy-free soup. The delivered ambrosia is as bursting with flavour as a ripe watermelon, its phenomenal sweetness deployed by pear. The name? Oh, like everything she does, it's just something she made up.
I've sided it with another terrific riff, a Japanese ceramic bowlful of nutty vegan portobello pâté ($3) that gets spread on toasted points of Little Stream Bakery's lovely organic sunflower rice bread. A toss of sun-dried pomegranate seeds and a slightly pickled tangle of curried parsnip threads add intense garnish. I wash the last of the delicious dish down with a generous goblet of Ontario-grown blueberry juice ($3) that would be even more gobsmacking with a shot or two of vodka.
The Balkan wolfishly tucks into his Blue omelette ($9), so named for its stinky Danish cheese content. As well, his fluffy eggs come wrapped around thin sugary strips of turnip that the chef bastes with grainy Dijon before quickly pan-searing them alongside sweet caramelized onion. The impressive plate's completed with an improvised salad - today slightly pickled purple cabbage, licoricey fennel and cooked cranberries - and several wedges of that great toast.
More toast arrives under a thick layer of Bellerose's Crème de Bruyo, a pseudo-starter or dessert of faux cream cheese made from organic raw chocolate ($4). A healthy spoonful of blackberry compote fortified with brandy sits atop each toasty triangle. A rum-ball variation of raw cacao mixed with ground walnuts, finely chopped cherries and candied ginger bound with maple syrup sits centre plate.
As we polish off the last of our organic French plonk (2001 Domaine Bassac, $7 glass/$28 bottle), I wonder how Bellerose will handle her imminent success. Perhaps she'll play it by ear?
"Somehow, I can't see myself doing this for very long," she sighs. "I'm an artist. I change."