Review: Chantecler [May 2014 Tasting Menu]

Ever since discovering the number of relatively affordable tasting menus available in Toronto last year, I’ve been dying to try one out. Chantecler, receiving the praise of numerous critics and winning the hearts of the online reviewer community, has long been on my list. Choosing a place to eat for my birthday this year was, for once, a relatively easy decision. All I needed to do was strongly “hint” at the BF to make a reservation for the tasting menu at this Queen West establishment. Although the tasting menu was fully booked for the day of my birthday, there was luckily a spot open for Friday dinner. I was ecstatic for weeks.

Chantecler bar

Chantecler bar

Even with all the excitement and buildup, Chantecler still managed to surf above my expectations. The meal was like a long symphony, with course after course of well-orchestrated small plates, some comforting with familiar elements, others a complete surprise.

Speaking of which – SPOILER ALERT: although Chantecler does change its tasting menu on a regular basis, a number of fundamental pieces (based on observation) remain the same; and since the element of surprise is a key component to tasting menus, I would actually advise you against reading the details of this post, unless your curiosity gets the better of you.

Another warning: I wrote down everything as dictated by the waitress, but am not 100% confident about all of the components of the dishes because I happen to have terrible hearing (I blame it on that one friend that screamed in my right ear “as a joke” and too much clubbing in my university years) and an egregious short-term memory, plus the BF is a bad listener – so, my apologies in advance if I have misrepresented the food in any way.

Chantecler kitchen

Chantecler front kitchen

Being patrons of the tasting menu, we were escorted to the “special seats” facing the front house kitchen, in full view of the iconic Chantecler backsplash and vintage Moffat stove top.

Eagerly waiting for the food to arrive...

Eagerly waiting for the food to arrive…

I don’t often order mixed drinks at restaurants, but watching Nikki Sunseri demonstrating the possibilities of a cocktail on the “How to Drink” series by Tasted on Youtube inspired in me a new interest in well-made drinks.

Our waitress recommended the Gin & Grapefruit Tonic when I asked for something that “wasn’t too sweet”. I was sold the moment she told me that the tonic was made in-house.

Gin & Grapefuit Tonic - Beefeater gin, house tonic, grapefruit

Gin & Grapefruit Tonic – Beefeater gin, house tonic, grapefruit

This was a bright and refreshing drink, not too sweet with a bold grapefruit flavour. Very easy to sip on.

Beef tartar with pine nuts and Asian pear, served with shrimp chips

Beef tartar with nuts and Asian pear, topped with an egg yolk and served with shrimp chips

Our meal began with beef tartar. This item is on their regular menu, but I believe served with different mix-ins (wasabi and peanuts). The tartar was fresh, lean, and well-seasoned with a hint of heat. I witnessed the waiter make the regular-menu tartar several times in front of us, combining a lean cut and a more marbled cut.  I really liked the tartar but the BF wasn’t a huge fan because he’s not particularly partial to raw beef.

Home-made BBQ pork buns

Homemade BBQ pork buns

Next up, homemade BBQ pork buns. Interesting because I’ve never seen them made this way before. A sweet, crumbly cookie crust gives way to a savory center of pork belly swimming in a rich BBQ sauce. It’s sort of similar in concept to the pineapple BBQ pork bun found in Chinese bakeries. I loved the salty-sweet combination and the textural contrast. The BF said that this “ruined BBQ pork buns” for him forever and continued to talk about how great it was for the rest of the meal.

Pork lettuce wraps - Miracle Whip, roast seaweed, and puffed rice

Pork lettuce wraps – Miracle Whip, roast seaweed, and puffed rice

Sitting in front of the kitchen is a lot of fun. We watched the chef make a few batches of these pork lettuce wraps right next to us, and I was curious about them because I read about them on another blog. The waitress surprised me when she brought one of the platters over and said “these are for you”! I happily obliged and dug in. The combination of flavours, seaweed, rice, pork, and miracle whip was odd but somehow worked. I liked the crunchy texture of the puffed rice and the umami flavour that the seaweed imparted. Though as the BF pointed out, the flavour of miracle whip was a little too strong, and cut through the other flavours especially considering how sparse the filling was.

Turnip cake - scallions, chinese sausage, topped with housemade XO sauce

Turnip cake – scallions, chinese sausage, topped with house made XO sauce

“This will look familiar,” the waitress narrated before she set the dish in front of us. Turnip cake, familiar indeed. Being Chinese, I’ve had my share of turnip cakes and really enjoy the dish. I love the Singaporean version at Congee Queen – lightly deep-fried in cubes, then stir-fried with a bit of spice. Crispy on the outside, warm and smooth on the inside. The version presented at Chantecler had great flavour and texture, enhanced by the bold flavours in the house made XO sauce. If they had been slightly more crispy, it would have been perfection.

Torched Scallops from Bay of Fundy - ginger, scallion, sweet soy sauce, kumquat

Torched Scallops from Bay of Fundy – ginger, scallion, sweet soy sauce, kumquat

We saw the chef in front of us make several orders of these scallops for the regular menu. I couldn’t get over how meticulous the whole process is for making this dish. The chef cuts and delicately pats on a sauce on each of the scallops, sears them with a blowtorch, puts them in shells, gently places the garnishes, pours on sweet soy sauce and heated oil, then presents them in a shallow bowl filled with pebbles, as if that’s the way they looked when they were fresh out of the sea. I loved the presentation for this dish.

Theatricality aside, the scallops were very tasty bites. They were light, sweet, and melt-in-your-mouth; with the sauces and garnish complementing rather than distracting, serving as a subtle background to the main event.

BC oysters - lime, fish sauce, tiny diced carrot and cucumbers

BC oysters – lime, fish sauce, tiny diced carrot and cucumbers

Another seafood course followed. Did I mention that I’m in love with the beautiful ornamental dishware?

The oysters were deliciously salty and briny. Although I couldn’t help but wonder how long it must have taken to dice the carrots and cucumbers into such tiny, tiny pieces.

Poached egg white topped with quail egg yolk, dark vinegar on the side

Poached egg white, topped with quail egg yolk, dark vinegar on the side

The next course was simple, but new to me as I’ve never seen or eaten eggs this way before. Our waitress recommended for us to mix together the egg whites with the quail egg yolk, and add a dash of the vinegar. Light and delicate, the egg whites were cooked just right and served as a good palate cleanser.

Egg yolk mixed with the egg whites, with a dash of vinegar, as the waitress advised

Egg yolk mixed with the egg whites, with a dash of vinegar, as the waitress advised

Adding the vinegar to the mixture, the flavours suddenly became familiar. My grandma used to make steamed eggs served with a bit of vinegar, which is pretty much what this tasted like. It brought back a small wave of nostalgia.

Steamed shrimp with vermicelli, garlic oil, and scallion

Steamed shrimp with vermicelli, garlic oil, and scallion

When the waitress came with another plate which she classified as a “snack”, I started wondering exactly how many courses there were because I was already getting full. But who was I kidding, I could never turn down good food.

The BF said that the dish is something that his Dad would make (his Dad used to be a chef, so needlessly to say his high standards for food developed with eating great food growing up). I’ve had similar dishes made with fish instead of shrimp in both restaurants and at my BF’s home.

Chantecler’s interpretation of this Asian dish was very “clean”. The both the shrimp and vermicelli were cooked perfectly. I enjoyed the garlic oil on the shrimp, but it was overpowering in the vermicelli because all of the oil had sunken to the bottom. The BF thought the garlic flavour was too strong overall. Nevertheless, we polished it off.

De-boned chicken wing stuffed with pork and chives, garlic vinegar sauce, crispy kale

De-boned chicken wing stuffed with pork and chives, garlic vinegar sauce, crispy kale

After all that foreplay of endless snacks, the main course finally arrived. And it. Was. Magnificent. The concept of a de-boned, stuffed chicken wing is complete foreign to me. I have never seen, heard of, or tasted anything like it. A slightly crunchy layer of batter enveloped a whole de-boned chicken wing, stuffed with a mixture of pork and chives. The acidity from the vinegar sauce on the plate provided a nice contrast to the richness of the stuffed chicken wing, but paired with the pork it was reminiscent of a dumpling. It was like a weird juxtaposition of a dumpling and a fried wing. Mind. Blown. Maybe it was the novelty and excitement of discovering something new, but I was beyond impressed by this dish.

Panna Cotta - poached rhubarb, syrup, tapioca

Panna Cotta – poached rhubarb, syrup, tapioca

Dessert time! The first of the desserts was a panna cotta served in a cute little tea cup. The tartness of the poached rhubarb paired quite nicely with the silky rich panna cotta. I detected a hint of almond in the syrup, which, combined with the panna cotta and rhubarb, kind of reminded me of a Chinese almond pudding, which is usually served with fruit.

Profiterole - black sesame, ice cream

Profiterole – black sesame, ice cream

The profiteroles were beyond incredible. Every component of this little bite was perfect. The pâte à choux was evidently fresh, its crusty shell giving away with a small crunch to a smooth vanilla ice cream draped in a layer of sweet black sesame paste. Heavenly.

Nutella "bombs"

Liquid center Nutella truffles

“And to seal the deal…” our waitress said as she set an alluring golden box in front of us and opened it to reveal two truffles set on a bed of buckwheat. I popped the sphere of chocolate in my mouth all at once expecting a slow melt, but was surprised when the thin chocolate shell burst open to fill my mouth with a lush Nutella liquid. You should have seen the grin on my face. that must have been the best finish to a meal I’ve ever had.

In all honesty and put generously, I haven’t yet tried many tasting menus. My only other experience was an Omakase menu at Solo Sushi Bekkan (which I’ve written about here). My enthusiasm for what Chantecler offered may be partly attributed to the novelty, but no one can argue with good food and ingenuity.

Chantecler’s tasting menu was a series of adventurous bites that sent me on a tasting journey. Flavours were clean and bold in a way that suited the more upscale establishment, and the aesthetics were anything but an afterthought. Although it came with a hefty price tag of $85 per person (optional wine pairings at $45 pp), this is a meal that I would long remember. I wouldn’t hesitate to do a repeat visit in the future, or return to the restaurant to sample their regular menu (lettuce wraps and spicy “popcorn shrimp”, what’s not to love?).

Food: 4.5/5

Service: 4.5/5

Value: 4/5

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

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