Opening a restaurant in this town is slightly less risky than boarding an Italian cruise ship. Food costs and competition alone should be enough to steer anyone sane clear. And while most end up being just a flash in the pan, barely managing to eke out a year in business, every once in a while a chef like Jeff Claudio of Yours Truly surfaces to thumb his nose at the insurmountable odds.
Yes, some might say it's yet just another painfully hip eatery to dot Ossington's already crowded restaurant
row. And notwithstanding the silly name, I'll stake my two-decades-old reputation as a food critic that this is one of the most exciting places to open in eons.
The menus are cleverly divided into two: one is a meat ($45)/veggie ($35) tasting menu, the other for small yet satisfying snacks. And even if the dishes are hard to visualize, for example, carrots lead a list of ingredients that also includes puffed pork, persimmon, wheatberry malt and watercress, once they pass your lips you'll do the sign of the cross and be a Claudio convert.
In a room awash in wood-barn tones, with the added warmth of Edison bulbs, as bare-bones as it looks Yours Truly is as cosy as it comes. But it's the food you're going to remember for days, weeks, even months after your visit. Four small plates make their way over with a craftsmanship rarely seen. Bucking all plate presentation norms, this kitchen has the courage to go against the grain and make it work in their favour. Like Claudio's salt cod ($6). Where most use it in a recipe for baccala, here the traditional is transformed by stuffing the fish and seaweed mixture into hollowed-out deep fried tofu (inari). Add to that a drizzle of horseradish kewpie mayo, and you have one darn tasty and sophisticated starter.
A simple Xi'an sandwich ($5) is already my contender for 'last meal' when I'm on death row. OMG, overstuffed with moist shredded lamb as thick as an 8oz burger (pre-cooked), crammed between exquisitely thin grilled bread made out of lamb fat, flour and water, this is an out-of-body experience, the delicate aroma of cumin still wafting over our table as some pork ssam ($7) arrives. Meaning 'wrap' in Korean, the ssam here is made with pedestrian iceberg lettuce. But when layered with pork tail (from Perth Pork Products), coriander kimchi and pickled daikon, you'll find yourself weeping, in utter awe of its gastronomic genius.
Even the bread presentation has been given considerable thought. And though it comes at a price ($5), you are paying for a dam nice selection of Thuet bread in a brown paper bag accompanied by whipped duck fat. Yes, whipped duck fat. (Type II diabetes is a manageable condition, right?) It's this kind of ingenuity and playfulness that sets Yours Truly apart from its peer-wannabes.
Another exquisite entry is the lobster rolls ($14). Where most other kitchens will try to get away with a smothering of heavy mayonnaise to help conceal the fact that there is barely any seafood, YT reverses the mayo to lobster ratio. Not only is it a most generous portion, practically half a lobster, but sandwiched into thick and slightly sweet and egg-y slabs of massa (Portuguese brioche) makes this a destination dish. Go take-out if you can't get a seat.
Already full from the 'small' plates, we can't believe that the kitchen makes time to present not one, not two, but three amuse-bouches as labour intensive and impressive as the dishes you actually pay for. Leaves and dirt, anyone? Comprised of compressed spinach, rye crumbs and whipped buttermilk; or how about a delicate trout tartar, served peppered with blanched ginger and sesame seeds; and finally a pork hock soup, a simple blend of smoked pork, white beans and onions -- everything you want in a dead-of-winter soup.
Following a fascinating array of samplers come the mains, including an insanely impressive trout with finely crisped skin on a bed of cloud-light whipped potatoes and lovage (leaves and stalks); a slab of rare duck partnered with yams, oats and a whisper of sour cherries works beautifully, like a very bold dessert called 'Winter', an apple wood panna cotta with apple and pear 'streusel' beneath a rustic roof of meringue topped with buttermilk 'snow' and butter powder. It might look like a house that's been hit with a wrecking ball, but don't let that throw you. It's just delicious, deconstructed.
It is a rarity, perhaps even unprecedented, to enjoy such inventive, perfectly-crafted food served in such an unpretentious setting with such sincere service by waiters who actually know what they're serving. But no miracle applies here. Chef Claudio (aka wunderkind) from Ladner, B.C. whose not even 30 yet has already graced the kitchens at such prestigious places as Per Se in New York City, Alinea in Chicago and Noma in Copenhagen. Sadly, since the chefs have nightly meetings about ingredients, you may not get to experience all of the above. But something tells me that whatever they decide to put on your plate, it will truly meet with your satisfaction.