The word "Chantecler" rolls off the tongue so musically, conjuring up cozy images of aprÃ¨s ski firesides in the Laurentians. But Chantecler is not only a popular resort north of Montreal, it's also a chicken indigenous to Quebec, created by a Trappist monk at Oka who crossed a handful of breeds like the Dark Cornish, White Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, White Wyandotte, Columbian Wyandotte and the White Plymouth Rock. (Thank you, Wikipedia).
So it begs the question: why would a Parkdale restaura
nt name itself Chantecler and not offer this uniquely Canadian fowl on its menu, let alone any chicken of any kind? (Btw, the consommÃ© doesn't count!)
This charming boite is so teensy it probably had no choice but to cook on stoves the size of an Easy-Bake Oven (actually a gorgeous butter cream 1935 Moffat). But then again everything at Chantecler is the size of a doll-house, from the uncomfortable art-school stools to tables that would probably fit inside Malibu Barbie's trailer.
Despite my initial reservations, I like this place. Co-owner Jacob Wharton-Shukster calls the food "progressive Canadian, with everything made to be shared by two so that you can experience more of the menu." Good thing, since there are only nine dishes and two desserts to choose from.
The collaborative effort reunites Wharton-Shukster with chef Johnathan Poon (Johnny to friends) who worked together at the short-lived Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner. But even apart they have some pretty impressive credentials: Poon was at Woodlot and spent some time at the world famous Noma in Copenhagen; Wharton-Shukster spent some time under Claudio Aprile at Origin.
Chantecler sits pretty, situated just a few doors down from the still sensational Grand Electric. So filling up the 26-seater probably won't ever be much of an issue. But with the size of that kitchen, what happens if they get slammed? In spite of their cramped quarters, the cooks don't sweat the pressure on a busy night. Maybe it's because they've already partook in a few of their own intriguing cocktails, one that includes the use of lavender smoke that fills this slip of a place with an exquisite aroma, or a glass of Chelti from Georgia (the country, not the state) made with one of the oldest grapes on the planet.
So we've established that charm isn't in question. But what about this so-called progressive Canadian fare? A cured and torched mackerel belly ($12) is from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And what's refreshing to see is that such a common fish is given such an extravagant Xtreme makeover, seasoned with elderflower, salt, sugar, wine vinegar, coriander, dill and tarragon, preserved lemon, yogurt and a few fangled crisps for added texture and depth to the presentation. But for all the fancy-shmancy ingredients it doesn't impart much more flavour beyond the taste of, well, fish.
And what's up with this disturbing no-bread trend? Why wasn't I consulted? Even if you're willing to pay a bit extra for some fine homemade loaves, Chantecler doesn't offer any, at least not for now. So what do we use to sop up the sauces with? Fingers, anyone?
Potato gnocchi ($13) may arrive looking like a soggy-looking tiramisu, but the hand-rolled and paddled potato puffs are utterly exquisite. And I certainly wouldn't have expected that clever "cocoa" dusting to be powdered red seaweed, but then again chopped chives, aerated potato foam and cod roe (though we don't see or taste any) gives this Italian classic an odd, but tasty fishy finish. The following dish, a soft Ontario corn polenta ($12) with shitake, Chinese 5-spice powder and a shallot ragu, has us asking why everything is so soft and mushy. Was this menu designed for a seniors' residence? Is there nothing on this menu that we can't sink our incisors into?
Thankfully, a pork neck ($21) gets us masticating with glee. This surprisingly underused and underappreciated meat, a prized cut in the growing nose to tail movement, is a nice choice. The barley-fed pig is beautifully braised and served sliced with one Kusshi oyster from B.C. (all the rage out West), wilted lettuce and a handmade Chinese XO sauce made from dried seafood. With the comforting aroma of pork fried rice, this is, by far, the dish that packs the most flavour punch. Flavour isn't an issue with a wild Pacific cod ($19) from the Northwest Territories that's baked and broken apart, then served alongside seared king oyster and oyster mushrooms with toasted seed and a boffo bonito beurre blanc. What you might find a bit off-putting is a slightly sour aftertaste. And as tender as the wine-braised beef cheeks ($19) are, served in beet and bone marrow sauces with a parsley root puree beneath, it, too, is so soft it barely needs chewing.
One dessert is far the most inventive dish of the night. A parfait ($10) puree of sea buckthorn (one of the healthiest foods on the planet that delivers Omega-7s), orange blossom and flower water jellies, topped with French meringue and almond praline. But warm oats ($10) do nothing to quash the retirement home mood of this food, even if a unique take with completely unseasoned oats topped with an overly tough caramelized pear (now this should be soft), buckwheat foam (wow) and brown sugar.
Watching chef Poon at work underscores his meticulous attention to detail. He warms each plate himself, wiping each one clean with an OCD-like urgency. But some of the team's decisions do perplex. Their choice of dinner plates, for example. Not because they are inexpensive and from IKEA; we certainly understand the need to keep costs down. The problem is their dark blue, beige or brown colours that provide a terrible backdrop for the kind of food they want to showcase. Even going the mismatched china route from flea markets would be more in keeping with Chantecler's rustic Old World leanings. And what's with the fungi fetish? They're in six out of the eight dishes. We're told that the menu will change monthly, so perhaps they will heed some of our suggestions. In the meantime if you forget your dentures, don't you worry.