Cowbell Restaurant's Co-Owner and Executive Chef Mark Cutrara is all about going back to the way food and farming used to be.
"We are treating all ingredients as precious commodities, as farmers did."
And supporting local farmers is what Mark truly believes in.
"We're offering different product than most restaurants," he says.
For one thing, he's challenging your preconceived notion of a steak.
"We're looking at different qualities - flavour versus tenderness, muscles worked a l
ittle more, intensely flavoured, grass fed."
And in Mark's words, there's no time like the present to introduce this kind of food to Torontonians.
"Five years ago, I wouldn't have considered this, but now is the best time - in hindsight."
Mark started toying with the idea back when he opened Globe Bistro in 2006 (where he was also Partner). He was doing a Farmer's Plate, based on the food of 2 farmers in Ontario.
"We couldn't keep up. We were naïve to do it for a 200 seat restaurant," says Mark. "That dish outshined all other menu items."
He says, "My decision to leave Globe to pursue this idea was really difficult."
It seems that this was meant to be, as the Toronto crowd has welcomed Cowbell since its first day. The small 30 seat bistro with reservations of a 2 hour seating time is continually booked up and sometimes a line forms out the door.
No one balks at the "pig face" that is served ("We work with face a lot," he tells me) or the use of all the animal parts like I thought they might. In fact, people seem to really get into it.
And as for whether Mark does slow food, he says, "You can't get much slower than farm to table." He sous vides a lot of food - a technique borrowed from molecular gastronomy - to preserve and slow cook meat. He is especially pleased with how people are enjoying his slow-cooked elk.
Mark apprenticed under Jamie Kennedy, who has always had this slow and local food philosophy, and it is becoming a shared notion by many chefs here in city.
Full carcasses of beef, elk, deer, etc arrive weekly and Mark is adamant about not "sticking the farmers with the legs. " He cooks jowls for up to 36 hours, dry age's meat and brines certain cuts in salt water. Downstairs beneath the restaurant he cures meats in house like brigole and prosciuttos.
"I really love to do chacouterie," he says. And his pot pie over all others dish is very important to his using of the whole animal philosophy.
I look over the menu that changes daily and is only recorded on chalkboards on the wall. Then the server explains each and every one. Each server has their own way of describing things. I overhear one guy explain the dishes and it different enough from the description told to me that I feel like I missed out just a little.
Fresh bread (made here of course) and home-turned butter is served on a thick wood board. Tap water arrives in old-fashioned milk bottle.
The dining room is small with a creamy light, pea soup coloured walls and bathroom white and black tiled floors. Tables and chairs are quite closely knit. Thin tables and long benches with material the colour of old luggage allow parties of 6 to congregate. The window into the kitchen reveals an insanely small space.
I of course have to try the Cowbell Chacouterie Plate ($16), which upon arrival looks seemingly simple, but in fact has taken weeks to prepare.
The plate is spare with meat slices dotted about. In between the meat lies a gherkin, a teeny square log of beet, 5 tiny leaves of dressed greens, a minuscule slice of hot red pepper and a swath of mustard, like dried paint on an artist's palette.
Thin baguette rounds accompany the meats. There's Cooked Lamb Tongue (it's much better than it sounds), Pistachio Studded Mortadella (it looks like lunch meat, but tastes nothing like the store bought kind), Spicy Liverwurst (smooth, comforting and peppery), Homemade Prosciutto (tastes like honest-to-goodness pig), Bison/Lamb Jaeger Salami (thick tiny rounds that are slightly greasy on the palate and full of roaming beasts flavour), Elk Salami with Pork (silky, almost slippery with clove wine aftertaste).
I make delicious, hearty little open face sandwiches as I go along.
Next I try the Lentil Soup ($10) with Bread Sausage, Pork Belly and Croutons. After I order the soup, the kitchen and bar staff discusses where the Berkshire pork is from.
Pulsed lentils float amongst a thin broth with a smidge of fresh parsley scattered on top. The 2 croutons on top remain crunchy while the ones that have drifted to the bottom have sopped up the rich, meaty liquid. The 2 pieces of bread sausage is crumbly and salty, while the 2 small pork belly pieces are divine - like diamonds among the sand.
Composed Braised Lamb ($36) is accompanied by Tabbouleh Couscous. By the time in the meal, I feel like I've had more than enough meat, but this is just the beginning.
The couscous has been formed into balls like falafels. They are dry but flavourful. The tabbouleh rests on the lamb tenderloin.
The plate consists of everything lamb - a chop, a piece of tenderloin, kidney, liver and testicle and a small slice of cured lamb. It's not quite nose to tail eating, but close.
The chop is tender, but chewy, and the tenderloin has that lovely grassy taste that comes with fresh lamb. The piece of kidney is incredibly soft and melts in the mouth like foie gras.
I'm a big liver fan but I've never had lamb's liver before this. It is creamy and pungent, like baby beef times ten. Also, I've never had lamb testicle before tonight. It is like a moist scallop and tastes like a runny omlette. It's extremely jiggly. The cured lamb is a relief after the testicle.
So by now I am full of more meat than I've ever had at one sitting. I don't think I'm going to have meat for the rest of the week.
Then the Red Angus Pot Pie ($21) arrives. It is served in a large bowl with thick, puffy pastry flowing over the sides.
The pastry is thick and chewy with a flaky crust and the meat incredibly soft. The huge red meat flavour is at times overwhelming along with the rich buttery taste. There is so much meat here - it's packed like it's going on an extended vacation, though they are thankfully bite size. The potato and carrot are cut into the tiniest little cubes.
It's too big for me. It's the biggest serving I've ever seen in a potpie.
The focus on ingredients has to be commended, but all of this meat is incredibly filling.
Mark says that this kind of cooking and eating is not a fad.
Perhaps not, but I won't be having meat for the rest of the week.