This city needs another hipster haunt like we need another big affable moron as a mayor. But if you look a bit beyond the typically trendoid interior of The Emerson, you'll notice that something extraordinary is going on here at the intersection of Lansdowne and Bloor.
Much larger, almost cavernous compared to most restaurants of its ilk, The Emerson somehow manages to evoke the charm of a dimly lit 20-seater. Vintage photos and other bric-a-brac ratchet up the cozy factor, but what really gives the place its warm, cuddly feeling is the staff, a rare bunch of food industry enthusiasts who seem genuinely happy just being alive and doing what they do best. Pinch me - am I dreaming?
A blackboard list detailing all the ingredients they've run out of may be even longer than the actual menu itself - but hey, at least they're honest. So some may find the menu is a trifle too tailored with a small selection of comfort food classics like a daily savoury pie (chicken pot, hunter's, seafood, beef, or shepherd's). Yet any one of these could be the only thing on the menu and you and your belly will still leave fuller and fatter. In fact, in the very capable hands of chef Scott Pennock, you could just point to the menu blindfolded and be thrilled with anything coming out of his kitchen.
The confident Pennock was known for his foie gras and high-end comfort food at places like Rosedale's Pastis and Biff's bistro, and later at Gio Rana's in Leslieville. Talent is not in short supply here. And though the handsome and strong chef looks like he'd be more comfortable on a Harley than cooking in a kitchen, donned in a black T, he commandeers his small team like a well-oiled machine.
A duck and pork rillette ($9) is hermetically sealed with a thick layer of goose fat, its unctuous topping the perfect spreading vehicle for the moist, shredded meat. As for presentation, the fact that it's not being stuffed into a Mason jar like so many of late, is an added bonus. Served with warm toasts, a brilliant house-made mustard, homemade gherkins and pickled shallots, and this not-so-little opener is more than just a pretty eye pleaser, not to mention a steal at this price. Even more appealing is a kitchen that anticipates our need for a tad more seasoning. Were they watching us eat? Did they hear our whispers? Voila, a small ramekin of Maldon salt appears. Nice touch.
Ravioli ($12) is often too heavy and rich to be considered an appetizer - at least in gluttonous North America. But even though the portion here is puny, the sturdy homemade pasta reveals a staggeringly good creamy filling of silky ricotta that could compete with even the most high-end trattoria. Topped with fresh tomatoes and a sprinkle of cheese, this rustic sampler delivers on all fronts.
Sweetbreads on toast ($9), served on a large piece of toasted baguette and topped with a potpie-like gravy, frisee and chives, is a combo that could use a bit of tweaking. While the sweetbreads are sublime and the gravy is great, the bread becomes too soggy for such a moist and tender gland. But it's a pretty insignificant slip up when you taste the hunter's pie ($13.50). Not only is the duck and goose combo the least bit gamey, but tucked under a delicate crust is a stew-like sauce so thick you'll think it's been reducing for days. Sorry all you gastropub wannabes out there, but this is the Platonic ideal of the perfect meat pie, notwithstanding the fact that it was unevenly heated -- scalding on one side, tepid on the other, but worth losing every layer of skin on the roof of my mouth.
Another awesome retro classic, osso bucco ($16), is also a bit too tepid to the touch but again great value and half as pricey as what other "finer" establishments might command. Its refined jus blended with oozing marrow creates an inimitable flavour intensity. Pearl onions and cloud-like gnocchi just gild the lily. Portions are so substantial, you may not even want to consider any sides ($5; $20 for all 5) like green beans almandine, shaved cauliflower coleslaw, or fries with thyme salt and a homemade mayo. But do pig out and try the bacon maple-roasted brussels sprouts. They boast a tonne of flavour, even if they could use a few more minutes for added browning and crispiness.
Alas, near perfection eludes the kitchen with a spider steak ($15). This lesser-known cut of beef is usually only thrown into ground beef blends. But cuts that were once relegated to the scrap heap for both economic and ethical reasons are now being reconsidered instead of using more expensive cuts. I'm all for that, but tough and stringy doesn't begin to describe this slab cut from the back of the leg. It's virtually inedible, going back twice due to improper cooking. But what ensues is what will make me a regular at The Emerson: Chef Pennock comes out from behind the kitchen counter with profuse apologies. Not only did he look at it, he tasted it then said, "Shitty." That takes cajones and is a real vote of confidence for his customer.
We're back on track with an icebox cake ($5), the kind of dessert you delighted in as a child...if you lived in Mayberry. Think about it: Oreo cookies folded into whipped cream and topped with confetti sprinkles. It sounds so simple to make but miraculously this wet cookie combo tastes as sophisticated and satisfying as a Callebaut chocolate soufflÃ©. And a fruit "flaky" ($5) with creme fraiche and whipped cream is really just a healthier handmade version of the Vachon classic. But be sure to save room for the intriguing gotta-try-it-for-the-name-alone dandelion root ice cream. Though not made in house, it's made exclusively for The Emerson during the winter.
Despite having been open just more than a week on the night we dine, The Emerson is ready for the foodie hordes. The menu is manageable for the small kitchen team, which ensures focus and execution with finesse -- most of the time LOL. So what if there was a complete fumble; again it's all in the way it was handled. And in the hands of someone as professional as Pennock, even the few blunders make it, and him, all the more endearing.