It's a sad truism that most eateries are a flash in the pan and close "for renovations" within a year after opening in a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog environment. But something tells me that for the owners of Bestellen, the odds are in their favour in these real life Hunger Games.
The former IGA grocery store has been literally transformed into a posh "farm" that cleverly makes its focal point a meat locker. (Make sure to take a peek going to and from the private bathrooms.) Add a barn board ceilin
g, a painted wall mural of pig and cow parts and you kind of expect to be hearing a moo moo here and an oink oink there coming from out back.
The menu intrigues, too. With the proper 72 hours notice, you can place an order for a whole roasted suckling pig with all the fixins ($59/person, eight minimum). And in case you don't want to plan that far ahead, menu selections include a nice sampling of finger foods that include that '70s cocktail party staple, devils on horseback (bacon wrapped dates) ($6), brussels sprouts and belly ($6), and duck fat roasted potatoes ($6), retro openers with a cutesy culinary twist. But be forewarned, some starters are sure to spoil your appetite like an order of caramel popcorn ($5), a fancypants version of Poppycock and Cracker Jack rolled into one highly addictive, slightly spicy appetizer. Heck, who needs dinner with a few orders of this and a couple of cold drafts? And make sure to save some room for some fried cheese curds ($7), a couple of mouthfuls of tasty morsels with just the right zip.
Oysters may be commonplace, but the presentation of Bestellen's half dozen ($18) Malpeque and the very clean French Kiss varieties makes it an event. The large oval copper pan, piled high with crushed ice and seaweed, holds some of the freshest mollusks ever sampled, including a stellar mignonette, fresh horseradish, lemon and a homemade hot sauce that really should be bottled and sold for an exorbitant price.
But what Bestellen tries to really impress with is their in-house-aged meats that make their charcuterie top notch. Platters like these have become almost as ubiquitous as pizza, but since all of their meats are cured on the premises, they can and do get very inventive. Alongside a small plate ($13) with pickles, mustard and bread is a luscious coppa, a thin mortadella with pistachio, a salami with walnuts and a hearty, rustic pork terrine with, wait for it, duck heart, a rarely, if ever, seen combo in this risk-averse town. And where most throw on some tired day-old bread crisps, this board arrives with toasted slices of homemade brioche. It could be the best in town going right now.
So a lacklustre steak tartar ($13) does come as a bit of a letdown. It's not that it isn't the freshest cut of ground beef, because it is. It's just flat and flavourless, even with a stunning coated quail's egg and espelete aioli. Even the burger ($18) lacks life. After such an exquisite charcuterie, how is this possible? Day old meatloaf has more flavour, even with the raclette and some caramelized onions. Thankfully, that homemade brioche bun makes an encore appearance and is good enough to eat on its own.
That momentary dining derailment quickly becomes an afterthought when a pappardelle special ($18) arrives. Homemade pasta ribbons cooked al dente with generous amounts of suckling pig, mushrooms and a brilliant stroganoff-like sauce makes this an absolute winner. And though slightly overcooked, a Guinea hen ($29) is serviceable with delicate mizuna greens, black trumpet mushrooms, homemade spaeztle and a wonderfully strange soubise sauce.
Desserts, too, are worth saving room for, even if by now we can't wait to vacate these truly uncomfortable seats. But the pain is worth the gain of witnessing the deconstruction of something as pedestrian as carrot cake ($6) with a ginger cake bottom and delicate threads of carrot. A plum clafouti ($6) is equally satisfying.
Recent Top Chef Canada finalist Rob Rossi (former Mercatto chef) and business partner Ryan Sarfeld certainly come close to a winning performance with Bestellen. In spite of some peculiar flavour lapses, this duo still deserve a hearty round of applause for giving the Dufferin Grove neighbourhood a haunt to be proud of.