We'd heard the buzz about Locavore, a hot restaurant that opened on Avenue Road north of Lawrence last year; how Executive Chef Matt Cowan was doing amazing things with naturally raised, locally sourced food (when you don't serve anything out of season, you definitely have to get creative - when there are no tomatoes for the sauce, what do you substitute?) With great reviews from the Toronto Star and reliable sites like martiniboys and chowhound, we happily stepped outside our geographical comfort zone and into what feels like a little part of suburbia in the city. As we stood outside a convenience store at the corner of Avenue Road and Lawrence, I pointed across the street at the mega-Shoppers, open 24 hours, and told my partner that Locavore had to be right beside it.
"I don't see anything," he said.
We walked past a couple of offices and forlorn boutiques and there was the number: 1552 Avenue Road. But, no Locavore. Instead, the black lettered sign read 'Trillium Bistro'. A waiter stood inside looking out at us through the glass garage door, which had been rolled up to admit the cloudy evening light and all the traffic noise from busy Avenue Road.
I asked him about Locavore and he informed us that it had closed about a month earlier.
"But I have reservations!"
"We kept the phone number," he explained, handing me a black business card.
What had become of Locavore? Was it an eventual victim of its Restaurant Makeover, which aired on November 24, 2008 and was described as 'uninspired'? Or had it succumbed to all the controversy raging around its name and its commitment to 'local' food? We had to do some digging.
Nobody on Toronto's foodie message boards seemed to know what had happened - though there were dozens of comments about the restaurant itself. Diners claimed that Locavore had lowered their prices since opening; another couple said that dinner for two with wine, tax and tip was in the $200 range, comparable to Toronto's priciest locales. Some said that the simplest foods (such as a poached egg with tarragon hollandaise, flecked with smoked ham hock served on top of a biscuit - basically, a LocMuffin) were to die for, while others said there was nothing to write home about.
One thing was apparent from all the postings: Some Toronto food lovers definitely take the concept of local, sustainable food quite literally. Locavore was lampooned for serving such foods as almonds, olives, lemons and eggplants - obvious imports from more than 100 km away. People apparently expected 100% local food, and despite the kitchen's commitment and creativity - starting diners off with preserved Ontario onions rather than bruschetta when tomatoes are out of season, offering desserts of the apple crumble variety and mains like free range pork - it wasn't enough to stop the complaints that Locavore was merely jumping on the 'green' bandwagon rather than displaying a true commitment to the environment and local farmers.
We tracked down Chef Cowan at his current lair, The Rosebud, on Queen Street West. It's a well established joint with a local following, considered haute enough to participate in Summerlicious (I don't even know what one appetizer, brandade with blood orange and lavash, even is - but the chef says he's happy as a pig in a pigpen working there.) When asked what happened to Locavore, Chef Cowan - call him Matt, he's super friendly! - was happy to tell us that it was a victim of the recession.
"We opened right about when the recession was starting," he said, "and the owners were young in the business. There wasn't enough advertising. I wish we had made it into the summer, where we would've gotten foot traffic, but about six months into it we made the decision to close." He said that word of mouth and advertising were key in getting a new restaurant's name out there.
I asked him if there were any other factors in the closure, and he responded that "location is everything," adding that the area is known as "the black hole" by other businesses. Half a kilometer north, people are out with their families, but there, it's only cars. Even The Rosebud has its struggles, now that Queen East is climbing in popularity for its family-friendliness; Queen and Bathurst has been relegated to 'trendy' status, which isn't always good news for restauranteurs.
Since I had Matt on the phone, I wanted to pick his brain about us - Toronto diners - in general. He has indeed worked outside Toronto - as a Sous Chef in Banff, at the prestigious Millcroft Inn in Alton, and the Devonshire Inn on Lake Wellington. I asked him if we measured up - restaurants and foodies - on the world stage.
"We're a young culinary city. We can't compare to New York, but we're on our way. We're still very intimidated by food here." I wanted to know whether we're about the food or the experience, and Matt said definitely the latter. "Here we want to be seen at the hot spots, it's not necessarily about the food. All the busy places are places that are 'hot', the food doesn't matter so much."
Finally I asked Matt about the locally sourced food movement. He doesn't think it's passé. He thinks it's sensible, though still inaccessible the way things are now. "Usually it's 30% more to buy local than to buy imported. If more people start buying locally, the prices will come down."
Of course, none of this insight was helping us - the hungry couple - as we stood outside the Trillium Restaurant, questions rattling around in our heads.
My partner asked, "Is it the same kind of food as Locavore?" We were looking at the menus posted outside the Trillium, and trying to figure out whether there was a North African focus to the dishes, which were priced in the mid-range similar to those at Locavore.
The waiter was vague. "Yeah, it's kind of French, mostly,". After a brief conference we decided to go in and give it a try. Our waiter, Marchello, offered us a 'nice big table' as we could take our pick of just about anything inside the single-story restaurant; at seven on a Saturday night, only three other tables were occupied. We chose a table for four, my partner taking advantage of the comfy, high-backed white leather bench while I sank into a soft leather chair.
After Marchello had told us about the specials - a pureed asparagus/cauliflower soup and a filet of halibut seared in a lemon butter, served with roasted potatoes - he left us alone to examine the wine list. With only five reds and five whites, the list was very simple, with prices hovering at about $8 per glass. The cheapest bottle was $31 and the most expensive, $62. Most of the wines hailed from Italy and France, with an Australian red and a New Zealand white for variety.
Despite cars constantly whizzing by outside the open window, snatches of music did assert themselves - mostly jazz standards and musical numbers. We couldn't tell whether the décor had a Middle Eastern flair or not; there were decorative latticework screens and beaded shades throwing soft yellow light around, but the chairs were covered in shiny black, white and silver vinyl, like an upscale version of a fifties diner.
"I like what they've done with the ceiling," said my partner, pointing out that the industrial panels had been textured and painted a sandy tone that complemented the pea-green walls. Overall the effect was slightly confusing, but the simple black tables, cloth napkins and sparkling glasses, as well as the huge shining bar, conferred a fairly upscale feel that was somewhat marred by the view of a big box lighting outlet across the street.
Marchello returned with house-baked bread and a red pepper puree dip scented with cumin, along with the standard oil-and-vinegar. "Ontario's Finest," he quipped, pouring filtered water after we asked for it. The menu was giving us some trouble. What were breaded chicken tenders - basically bar food, chicken fingers - doing as an appetizer alongside Zeilook, described as Moroccan eggplant puree with tomatoes, spices and fresh herbs, and another appy of Indian spiced chicken wings?
Marchello said that these days, you had to be creative and the menu was inspired by several cultures, with 'gentle spicing and flavours'. We bypassed the typical bistro salads in favour of another standard: crab-rock shrimp cakes with chipotle-lime aioli and baby greens, $9, and the roasted tomato and red pepper bisque with grilled prawns and feta, $7. These starters arrived quickly and soon I was digging into my reasonable portion of three crab cakes. Filled with real, fresh seafood, someone had nevertheless decided that the balance of the filling should consist of chopped red onions. The super-smoky aioli went a long way to neutralize the taste, but not the crunch, of excess onions. The promised baby greens was a hump of spring mix in the middle of the plate, dampened with a too-wet but flavourful raspberry vinaigrette.
My partner's soup was thick enough to qualify as sauce and very flavourful, redolent with prawns but only lightly sprinkled with feta.
For our mains, I wanted to try the braised lamb shank with tagine couscous and vegetables ($24). Marchello confirmed the tagine referred to the Ethiopian style of cooking in a clay pot, often used for stews. He told me the lamb was an excellent choice, and he was right - the huge bone had been stewed in its own gravy until the meat and fats ran together to melt at the touch of a fork. The couscous was light, fluffy, and very liberally studded with carrots and raisins, mildly spiced. A few side vegetables included carrots and celery obviously stewed with the lamb, plus crisp asparagus and another carrot, this one sauteed.
When my partner's Maine "Dry" sea scallops served with paella, sautéed vegetables and lemon aioli ($24) was placed in front of him, I couldn't help screeching that the three large scallops looked incinerated. I mean, there's searing, and then there's torching. The scallops were definitely overcooked - perhaps to hide their state of freshness? - but this was partially made up for by the superb 'paella', which bore no resemblance to the traditional Spanish dish but was rather a risotto. A bit of chorizo was the only nod to paella. The white Arborio rice had been perfectly cooked, well seasoned with parmesan and lemon, and even the waiter admitted that it was basically risotto. Some tender calamari rings were an unexpected bonus.
At this time we needed a little break for fresh air; the larger portion sizes of the mains had us completely stuffed. When we returned, another waiter was at our table to ask how we liked everything so far. He had seemed a touch hostile when we questioned him about Locavore's demise, so we asked our own waiter, Marchello, who had been attentive and helpful throughout without the hovering that would have been tempting for him, given the emptiness of the restaurant.
"Are you the new owner?" I asked him point-blank.
"There's new management here," he replied. I asked if he'd been busy lately and the other waiter looked at me suspiciously as he said that the community had been responding very well to their restaurant, which had now been open for two months. Neither one seemed interested in providing more details. So we ordered dessert and coffee, joined each other on the leather bench, and commented on how hard it must be to make a restaurant fly - even in wealthy Bedford Park - when you were on a main vehicle artery with virtually no pedestrian traffic whatsoever.
Our shared dessert arrived with a multitude of cutlery to enjoy it with: roasted pear-apple strudel with spiced rum ice cream is a bargain at $6, if only for the decadent ice cream, which reminded me of eggnog. Marchello admitted it was not made in-house, not that that was an issue - we can't really expect restaurateurs to make everything themselves! The strudel was incredibly light; crisp flaky layers of buttery phyllo pastry surrounding diced pears rendered tart by black currants. We couldn't detect any apples other than the garnish, but all was forgiven. Dessert was definitely bliss!
As we walked a few blocks to try and counter the rich meal, we wondered aloud whether Trillium would fly or would meet the fate of its touted predecessor, Locavore. My partner said that only word of mouth and a loyal clientele would save the restaurant, adding, "But you have to be really, really good for that to happen." Does Trillium make the grade? Personally, I did not think so. But given that its only culinary neighbour is a cheap Greek diner, in an area is well known for its dearth of restaurants, perhaps Trillium is just good enough to fulfill its promise.
*** out of a total 5