Is it a bistro? Is it a gastropub? Who cares. What Richmond Station isn't, is an actual subway stop, but trust me you'll definitely get off at this station. Ba dum dum.
At the tender age of 27, baby-faced Top Chef Canada season two winner Carl Heinrich (Marben, db Bistro Moderne) must really be an old soul in drag. How else could someone so impossibly young conjure up such a chic little downtown boÃ®te and make it a huge success in such short order? Unpretentious best describes the kind of fare to be found at Richmond Station, but food this simple and straightforward is rarely afforded the same kind of care and treatment you expect from restaurants that cost twice or even three times as much.
The subway theme may be a clever one for an eatery in the downtown core, but other than a wall or two of those ubiquitous white subway tiles there's really very little else to play with that motif. And that's a good thing, cuz I don't do cute. Instead, your eyes will be fixated on the organized chaos and cacophony of the wide open kitchen. I can't remember seeing such a veritable herd of chefs work so closely together for so few tables. Therein appears to be the Heinrich mantra: do it right or don't do it at all.
From the outside, Richmond Station could easily be mistaken for yet another after-five meat market. But with food this well thought-out the only meat being picked up here is the triple AAA from the kitchenand perhaps the dreamy young servers. And whether you sit at the more lounge-y lower level or just outside the kitchen on the upper floor, one thing is for certain: you will be treated to a damn fine meal that takes local to the extreme.
As the locavore movement shows no sign of losing steam, farm-to-table restaurants are becoming the norm. But Heinrich takes it to the nth degree. His ingredients come from 100km Foods Inc., where chefs build relationships with the farmers and producers so they can offer seasonal ingredients in their prime. Still, show me a modern restaurant that doesn't use olive oil because "it's not local" and I'll show you a chef with mighty big cojones. Richmond Station doesn't. Here it's mainly canola; and instead of balsamic from Modena, Italy, it's an elegant Baco Noir vinegar from Niagara that you'll be tempted to sip from a wine goblet. Everything, and I mean everything, is made in-house and that includes a whole wheat bread with an unearthly moistness that rivals even Ace Bakery's baguette.
Starters are stupendous: a lobster bisque ($9) with tarragon and anise oil reveals a deft hand that's almost too affordable to be true. Polenta fries ($8) may be yesterday's news, but with a dunk into spicy mayonnaise and/or a house-made marinara, this alt to the thick cut fry breathes new life into a tired food fad. Ditto the charcuterie ($14) platter, another ho-hum trend re-imagined by this creative kitchen. Don't expect the typical wooden board of sliced prosciutto, salami, and a chicken liver pate. Instead, there's a fascinating array of tender preskopf cheek meat (head cheese, a traditional German favourite), an awfully good offal beef heart salami and a Moscow sausage. Why is the sausage so special? Gee I don't know, I can't remember the last time I had one still warm from being freshly grilled, its juices squirting out with every chew.
Mains are a bit of a conundrum, but even with a few hiccups they are still mighty impressive. A smoked pork chop ($26) special, accompanied by BBQ eggplant, sunchokes and green beans sounds like the perfect plate for late fall. But in one of the kitchen's few missteps, the meat is leathery tough and dry. A blessing in disguise because in its place we're rewarded with a boffo burger ($20) with a side of rosemary fries. Beautifully stuffed with short ribs, aged cheddar and a beet chutney, this exquisite patty is further enhanced with a brioche bun. I wouldn't be surprised if this kitchen had to test many buns before deciding on one that's pillowy soft yet sturdy enough to soak up all the overflowing juices.
Coq au vin ($25) is a French classic thankfully making a well-deserved comeback. Here it's almost Mastering the Art of French Cooking perfect with succulent chicken legs, a pommes puree, pearl onions, bacon and mushrooms. But a side slab of tough, dried out white meat is an odd distraction which is more than made up for with a parsnip ravioli ($22). Handmade discs of pasta reveal a silky parsnip puree served with sautÃ©ed brussel sprouts, grilled mushroom and "new farm" (read: herb) dressing. Nice, except for a trifle cloyingly sweet squash coulis that battles the stuffing's subtle root flavours. Not to mention the redundancy of two pureed textures.
But pastry chef Farzam Fallah (Pizzeria Libretto, Ruby Watchco) gets it back on track with the delightful things he does with the desserts. His smashed pumpkin pie ($9) may look like a house fell on it, but the ingredients are anything but a deconstructed afterthought. Combining components such as a sable cookie and butterscotch mousse respects the perfect sweet and savoury balance. And a green apple sorbet ($9) with a green tea granita equally fascinates, framed by gossamer thin meringuea most refreshing palate cleanser.
Many a folk have frittered away their 15 minutes of fame. But this winning chef ain't making too many rookie mistakes. Heinrich may be young, but his smarts ensures that he surrounds himself with other talents in his kitchen. More important, he actually cares about his customers. When an earlier dish goes back, he practically calls a conference with the server to tackle the issueall during a busy dinner rush. That kind of care and concern is most appreciated. Richmond Station is not perfect, but it's pretty close.