I just got a job, working as an Environmental Scientist consultant for an engineering firm. It will be solid. So C and I went to celebrate at Harbord Room last night for their second seating. This place has been riding the wave of buzz for the past year plus. EnRoute Magazine calls it one of Canada’s best restaurants, Toronto Life loves it, gets a lot of praise from the foodie community, and is hipster and restaurant-industry-folk central. Unlike many places in the city, it can chameleonize from a restaurant to a lounge, especially when those cooler-than-you front of house staff get off their shift. Was surprised to see how small the room is – about 30 covers inside, and supposedly 30 more outside when the weather is nice.
Cocktails – I had an original cocktail to start, hilariously called “Autumn Whisper”. Granny smith apple, vodka, lime, maple syrup. Delicious. C keeps the Bombay patronage alive, and was happy with the generous 3 lime wedge provisions.
Appetizers – I ordered the chestnut and chorizo soup, C got diver scallops w crispy pig’s ear, pear, and bacon vinaigrette. I had the pig portion of Cara’s meal too. A great start. My soup was complex, smoky and spicy from the chorizo, nice hearty hits. Cara’s app was great too. Scallops were perfectly cooked, pig’s ear was a bit disappointing (just salty slightly porky fried pork rinds) but still tasty. And good to have some crunch, especially if they were going to waste anyway.
Mains – Whenever I see lamb on a menu, I am automatically drawn. I want to know how the chef prepares a hearty, somewhat forgiving protein. Lamb can also be seasoned and spiced a million different ways, and this can tell you a ton about a chef’s personality – traditional (mint or goat cheese), slightly exotic (Moroccan spiced with dried fruit, cinnamon or cloves), experimental (earwax), whatever. They presented lamb three ways (another common way to present an ingredient) : a loin, lamb sausage, and a cool shepherd’s pie-like derivative with al dente scalloped potatoes on top. Mixed in with some wilted spiced kale for some greenery. Rich, forgiving, well-executed staples.
Cara had my favourite dish of the evening – the comfort food elegy. Duck confit gnocchi with pumpkin, pine nuts, soft cheese, and fried sage. Talk about November cold night comfort food caressing your cheeks… right in the face ! So rich, so umami, so satisfying, and the gnocchi were perfect – big and pillowy, heavy but light tasting. My main criticism throughout the meal was that the chefs have a very heavy hand with salt. Too much salt makes a dish feel too much like imminent cardiac arrest. When I reach for a few extra glasses of water that night and many more the next day, you really know it was oversalted.
All in all, the Harbord Room is worth the trip and a 9:30 second seating and the cash. The service was a bit too aloof and pretentious, but still courteous enough. I do not think it’s worth all of the hype – some classic and well done dishes, but nothing avant garde. For me, nowhere near as eventful as Nota Bene (nor should it be given the price tag), but much more soul and heart than corporate-class places like Jump. I feel like the chefs at Harbord Room think they own this city – its food culture, its fellow food groupies and colleagues. It’s great to be good at what you do, but it’s still food. Food is as much everything as it is nothing, don’t take yourself too seriously boys. Thanks for a fun night.