Face it, only our mothers think we're special. We all hate being haughtily told "those tables are reserved", only to see that the party never arrives. So instead of sitting in a nice, cozy corner, we shared our meal with a schizophrenic vent that couldn't decide whether to blow hot or cold air blasts all night long.
Open barely a week the night we visit, Ascari Enoteca 26 joins the barrage of new restaurants opting to offer smaller and more focussed menus. On the whole, this is a very good thin
g. But when the only mains listed are pastas, isn't that taking the concept to an extreme? Even The Old Spaghetti Factory offers veal and chicken.
This stripped-down menu is the brainchild of Erik Joyal and chef John Sinopoli, a well-respected duo who've not only contributed to Leslieville's reputation as a dining destination with their uber popular neighbourhood haunt Table 17, but with their short-lived Izakaya on Front Street that was clearly an idea a decade ahead of its time.
With their charming 30-seater, named after the famed Italian Formula One driver Alberto Ascari, they must need to turn over as may tables as possible, which might explain why we're constantly being reminded that they'll need our adjoining table by 9pm.
That shouldn't be too much of problem when openers make up more than half the menu. And one by one they come out hot and strong. Like a baccala fritti ($11) , cod fritters that are golden but greaseless with a lovely dipping of basil and black pepper mayo. Now if only they had less potato and more fish. Tuscan white beans ($5) may be just a hearty peasant food of France and Italy, but in Sinopoli's deft hands they are elegant offering, with an infused undertone of rosemary that can only be accomplished by slow cooking. Think of it as the perfect cassoulet minus the meat. And rich, velvety chicken livers ($8) topped with soft onions and a delicately fried sage leaf will tempt you to order seconds. But why serve such an exquisite execution on something as uninspired and tired as crostini? 1993 called; they want their toast back.
A roasted quail salad ($14) could have been catastrophic in the wrong hands. Here the bird is not only superbly cooked, but its perfect pairing with cipollini onions and Niagara ice wine vinegar makes it a sure winner. Add dandelion to that and you have a new greens trend for 2012. The only major miss with the starters is a tasteless potato pie ($5) bereft of any flavours. I'm sorry; did someone say there was grana padano in the mix? Don't think so.
Awaiting our pastas, we're reminded again that they are going to need the seats beside us. Note to Table Nazi: two people sitting at a table for four but eating enough food for six and spending in excess of $200 should equal, LEAVE US THE BLEEP ALONE. Luckily both tables are still with us when the mains arrive. All pastas are made in house, with the exception of one, but the real tragedy of an expertly crafted and toothsome tagliatelle ($19) is the addition of a strangely sour Jerusalem artichoke sauce that simply smothers otherwise beautifully fragrant Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms. Backfires continue with a stracci ($22) with braised lamb as dried out and tough as a Real Housewife of New Jersey. Add to that an odd blending of black currants and parsnip puree with Marsala, swiss chard and pine nuts and you have just too many competing flavours. By contrast, when the Casarecce ($17) arrives, a sigh of relief can be heard down the block. It doesn't get better than homemade sausage with pepperonata, tomato, pepperonicino and roasted fennel.
The delight continues with desserts like a zeppole ($7), in this case banana doughnuts accompanied by a rich caramel sauce. Not too sweet, it's the perfect end to the meal, as is the semifreddo ($7), with an unusually inventive flavour combo of quince and camomile.
Ascari Enoteca 26 is a work in progress. It needs to pay lots of attention to many minor things that are easily fixable. But if this team's track record is any indication, it should be another contender for neighbourhood favourite in no time flat, that is, if they stop pestering patrons for their tables with every chew.