A Little Dream of a Restaurant in Toronto

November 15, 2017

I almost never walk into a restaurant and think, “I’d like to work here.”  But that’s exactly what I thought last night at Canis, a small dream of a restaurant in Toronto.

There are only 30 seats, but the eight people in the kitchen and dining room work with such quiet pleasure, you long to join them.  There’s a sense of easy camaraderie, confidence – and pure pride in the food they’re serving.

With good reason. Chef Jeff Kang has his own way with ingredients, layering flavors with originality and assurance. I get the sense he tastes in his mind, knows exactly what he’s going for, wanting each dish to offer up a surprise. I found myself eating slowly, savoring the way the flavors ricocheted around each other.  There was not a single time I said, “I wish this had more….”

The restaurant is small, spare, restful.  The wines are all organic, and thoughtfully chosen. Every object seems carefully chosen. (Just look at those butter knives!)

The menu is seasonal, and changes regularly. But last night I began with a little amuse bouche, a tartare tartlet laced with cured egg.

The bread was dense, chewy, full of character, and the spreads made me keep coming back for more.

But it was with the first dish that I really began to take notice of how fine the food here is. Swordfish arrived looking like a limp orchid, sliced into delicate pearly petals.  Served in a black bowl, it was cradling sliced cucumbers (the texture echoed the swordfish), and crunchy black radish laced with sharp little sparks of salmon roe.  Tying it all together was  a clear, gentle beef broth, a kind of garum made of meat.

Albacore tuna was fish in a completely different mood.  Dense instead of silky, the tender fish was gently smoked, and served with an astonishing array of sweet and salty components. Little leaves of artichoke – the tender white bits close to the heart – fluttered across the top, along with tiny pickled grapes. Underlining it all was a base of alliums,  cooked down and charged with spice so there was both sweet and heat.  It was a remarkable dish, the flavors changing with each bite.

These are the grapes – immature – and pickled like capers:

One of the especially pleasant aspects of Canis is the the way the staff interacts with the diners. At some point every one of the cooks left the open kitchen to deliver a dish he’d made, as if he wanted the pleasure of watching you experience it.  I couldn’t help smiling as I ate this roasted squash – almost meaty – with its ruffle of charred kale. The sauce?  Peanut miso.  The contrast?  Caramelized whey.

 

Meat – it might be lamb or duck, or in my case the richest chunk of meat, a short rib with the texture of velvet. On the side, roasted Jerusalem artichokes and white chanterelles.

“Do you prefer sweet or savory dishes?” Jeff asked as the meal started coming to a close.

“Not a sweet person,” I said.  And so he served me that milk sorbet above with its brilliant crimson crown of fermented grape ice.  It’ was a lovely way to finish a meal, especially interspersed with bites of this hibiscus financier.

So often at the end of dinner, late at night, you glance into the kitchen and see the cooks rushing to clean up, buzzed with adrenaline and eager to get out.  Not at Canis; there was an almost meditative pace as the evening ended, and  I looked up to see Jeff and his sous chefs standing around the counter in the kitchen as if reluctant to leave.

I got the feeling they couldn’t wait to come back tomorrow.

I certainly understood.

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