Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Zen and the Art of Dining

Niagara Street Cafe, Toronto
If you read my previous post, you know that Mike and I spent a delicious day in Toronto wandering from one culinary delight to the next. As fun as this style of eating is, we still love to sit down for a long, relaxing dinner. This often means gorging on... oops, I mean eating a lot of tasty, elaborately prepared food. The more flourishes and fanfare that goes into your meal, the better right? While it can be fun and rewarding when chefs cook like showmen, I like to balance those experiences with what I think of as the dining equivalent of minimalism.

We took that minimalist approach on our first night in Toronto and dined at Niagara Street Café. I read a recent review of the restaurant in the Toronto Star, and I was instantly sold. Naturally raised meat; fresh, organic produce; organic dairy; not to mention reasonable prices all in a romantic neighborhood bistro setting. You may never have the opportunity to visit Niagara Street Café (although I recommend it if you are in the area), but it is a nice reminder of how pleasurable and special a meal can be when every item on the table is made to taste just like itself, only better. Is it true that you or I could just as easily cook like this at home? In some cases we could, but if you are like me, you would never have the time to shop for and prepare a variety of dishes and dessert using the best local ingredients. We need restaurants and chefs to find the food sources that are not always available to the home cook. Of course, anyone can simply poach a naturally raised chicken breast, but even the simple dishes at Niagara Street were constructed with multiple components, all elegantly mingled to create a memorable dish.

The King West Village neighborhood is full of shady residential streets, ample apartment dwellings and bars and restaurants with patios that were full of Torontonians enjoying the comfortably warm evening. We parked near a lively Irish pub and walked on past smiling, contented Buddhas and other icons fronting a Buddhist temple to reach Niagara Street Café. We could only get a reservation for patio seating, but on this sun-kissed summer night, it looked like that is where everyone wanted to be. Niagara seems to have taken a cue from the temple just up the road with its calming, candlelit patio garden, sleek, cozy dining room and relaxed yet knowledgeable wait staff. As the sun went down and we drank our bottle of wonderfully spicy Portuguese red, Mike and I took in the romantic, unhurried atmosphere. In fact, Niagara Street appears to manage their reservation book so that no party feels mildly hurried, even if that means a table stays empty for longer than is desirable in order to accommodate a later reservation. “Do these people even care about making money?” we wondered. It looks like their only goal is to serve beautiful food in the most amiable manner possible. Of course, this couldn’t be true, but perhaps creating that perception is part of Niagara’s success.

When a menu is small, I sometimes fear that no dish will jump out at me, dictating that I must have IT and no other. That was not the case at Niagara Street where grilled fresh sardines were on the appetizer list. I've been itching to try these oily fish, and after tasting Niagara's, I am afraid no other sardines will do. Charred crusty-black, the little fish were moist and slightly salty with no hint of canned fishiness whatsoever. They were topped with a green pesto-like sauce and served on a bed of crisp fennel, but I hardly noticed these accompaniments.

We also tasted an appetizer of baby beets with goat cheese. This is hardly an original pairing, but I love beets and seem to have won Mike over to them as well. The portion was a bit slight, but then again, that is probably more conducive to eating as opposed to gorging... Still, there's always room for goat cheese! Like the beets, everything at Niagara was light and pristine including the potato focaccia that graces each table with a dip of banana peppers and olives. I don't know how they managed to make potato focaccia so light and airy, but there you have it.

Light and pristine does not mean any of the dishes were lacking in flavor. My main course of poached chicken breast with leg meat ravioli, peas and baby turnips in chicken consomme was saturated with pure chicken flavor, lightened with the bite of the sweet peas and a touch of bitterness from the turnips. There were two fat, rich ravioli floating alongside the tender chicken. Gracious wife than I am, I let Mike slide one out of the steaming broth and onto his plate. I can only hope he appreciated my sacrifice.

Of course, Mike did give me a generous portion of his hangar steak in return, but I found the meat a bit chewy, although it was perfectly medium rare. Mike thought it could have been more expertly sliced to minimize this problem, but he thought the texture throughout most of the steak was fine. It sat on a jumble of frisee, snap peas, green beans and waxy potatoes. These, along with all the vegetables at Niagara, were cooked just enough to make them tender while retaining their crisp texture and bright flavor.

It is hard to believe that we ate so much lovely food because the experience felt so tranquil, even cleansing. Of course, dessert was a thick, eggy crepe with large, tart local cherries, but even those cherries retained their purity under the light dusting of powdered sugar. We left Niagara Street walking slowly hand in hand, smiling at each other and relishing the warm air. It seemed that the Buddhist temple was not the only place in this Toronto neighborhood to reach nirvana; Niagara Street Cafe took us there through our stomachs instead.

Niagara Street Cafe
169 Niagara St. Toronto

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