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HAWTHORNE FOOD & DRINK (60 Richmond East, at Church, 647-930-9517, twitter.com/hawthorneto) Complete dinners for $45 per person (lunches $30), including tax, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $22/$13. Open Monday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, dinner Wednesday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN
Hawthorne Food & Drink certainly looks like a regular restaurant.
There's slate on the wall and bare tables set with stemware flanked by beige banquettes and a state-of-the-art open kitchen. There's a "soup of the moment," and shelves lined with Mason jars of house-made preserves that practically scream locavore. But dig below the surface and Hawthorne is not what it seems.
Helmed by executive chef Eric Wood, who filled a similar role at Fabarnak, Hawthorne is a joint labour-management project supported by the hospitality workers' union and the unionized hotels. It offers a paid three-month internship in a real live restaurant. Where do we sign up?
You'd never know that any of the 11-member staff are anything less than professional. Servers are friendly and unusually attentive. When I bellow, "I can't hear you above the music" across the table, they take the hint and turn the sound system down. Think they'd do that at Grand Electric? And like Fabarnak's, the carte's far more adventurous than it need be.
"Marginalized people don't deserve a marginal experience," says Wood. "If you want anyone to be exceptional, you have to give them exceptional skills."
And so we get extravagantly plated starters like paella "bombs" of crispy rice cakes topped with mussels, clams and sausage in a garlicky tomato relish ($9), and honey-glazed quail dusted in za'atar ($10). At lunch, so-called knuckle sandwiches come generously stacked with meaty lobster and pickled pears ($13), their toasted sourdough buns sourced from no less than Fred's Bakery. Only Chinese scallion pancakes piled with rubbery mushrooms ($12, both with fries or house greens in cold-pressed canola oil) miss the mark.
Their lids theatrically removed at table, tagines brim with East African roasted chicken and crusty panzanella bread salads studded with butternut squash ($12 quarter /$16 half at lunch/$19 dinner). Described on the menu as "perfect," Hawthorne's steak frites comes awfully close, 7 glorious medium-rare ounces of sous-vide hanger with spicy house-made ketchup and chunky Kennebec fries ($17/$23).
At Fabarnak, Wood called his ever-evolving daily four-course mini tasting menu the Square Peg. Here, it's the Four-Square Meal, today clever Korean cabbage rolls in a peppery tomato sauce, matched with a fennel slaw topped with pink house-cured char, a tasty wheat berry and mushroom risotto, and retro sticky toffee pudding ($16/$22).
Come dinner, the Russian Orthodox salad ($9) finds alternating slices of pickled apple and horseradish on a bed of wilted greens dressed with a dill 'n' caraway aioli and puffed rye kernels ($9), while smoky barbecued side ribs on a bed of collard greens arrive rubbed with lemongrass, splashed with nam pla fish sauce and drizzled with sweet hoisin ($11 as a starter/$14 at lunch as a main).
Of the mains, ridiculously tender beef cheeks get layered over rosti-style potato cakes, butter-braised baby bok choy and peppery crab chow-chow ($22). Appropriately fatty slabs of ponzu-glazed pork belly straddle a pool of bisque-like lobster broth finished with properly al dente long beans and crushed peanuts ($19). And we'll wager that most carnivores won't notice that wide ribbons of house-made papardelle with wilted kale and charred fennel and deliciously tossed with toasted pecans and raisins à la Moroccain ($17) are completely meat-free, so meaty is the payload, especially when sided with cheesy onion fondue ($4).
Desserts are still hit-and-miss, among the former a terrific Earl Grey-infused crème brûlée and beignet combo, the latter an Elvis-inspired collision of dry banana bread, crystalized peanut butter and candied bacon brittle (both $7) that truly needs a sploosh of Reddi-Wip to be a hunka-hunka burnin' love worthy of the King.
All very well. But has Wood taught the kids how to handle cantankerous restaurant critics?
"No, I don't think anyone could teach them that," he laughs. "That's something you learn in the line of fire."