The Art of Fine Dying: Dandylion

Toronto has weekly restaurant openings with reviews typically predicated upon who worked where and under which chef did what in which country. There needs to be a requisite narrative – there needs to be lore. What of the chef’s tattoos? Where did they get those scars? Where did they work? People love a history, and in an industry becoming increasingly reliant upon nepotism over sheer unadulterated skill, I always try my damndest to seek out establishments that are solely in it for the food and the food alone and when I dine out I try to only keep the food in mind. In those reasons I find my own philosophical basis for cooking and in that, the charge that fuels a crusade into the ceaseless development of my own palate. This smorgasboard of multisyllabic incoherence is but to say: I don’t give a hell about who you are, I’m here to eat and learn as I do so. And this January evening, I learned everything I needed to know about Chef Jason Carter.

I knew I was off to a good start when I walked through the doors of Carter’s Dandylion restaurant when the sounds of Mikal Cronin could be heard playing in the background as the chef greeted me from behind the pass. This thirty seater restaurant is hidden on an otherwise unassuming stretch of Queen West between Beaconsfield and Dufferin, typically a clogged artery of gakked out condo-rats. Like Edulis, one of my favoured restaurants in the city, the chef wants a little mystery to his menu, so out of respect there was no wielding of the black mirror or Daddy foraged Canon Digital Rebel. You’ll have but to go on the power of my weak wristed descriptions and hopefully they will provide the impetus for you to go out and try this place for yourself.

Marble tables and exposed brick lined the way from the front door to the curiously open kitchen underneath modest hanging lamps. Carter works with only one other cook and a dishwasher. From his vantage point, he is able to dictate the flow and arrangement of a service’s procession. The menus themselves are pared down revealing only three apps, three mains, two desserts and a cheese option – the descriptions exceedingly elemental letting your imagination scamper wild. There are no bacon flavored cocktails, there are no freakishly hoppy IPAs, and lastly, there are no bearded lumberjack wannabes shoving the efficacies of micro brewing down your throat.

There is a small beer menu featuring a couple of local hits and a lot of my favourite Quebec classics – memories of my severely alcoholic Unibroue-fuelled life in Montreal. My favourite was the Freigeist Traditional Gose ($14) – a nice sour brew that comes with a cute little ghost picture on the side of the bottle. The wine list, if you’re into that sort of thing (and shamefully, the writer is not), features six white and six red, so you’re not left struggling with a sommelier’s encyclopaedic tome.

Cooks, when going to a restaurant, if given the budget or allowance for frivolity, will buy everything on the goddamn menu. We barge into your restaurants, leaning our elbows on your tables, spilling crumbs on our crotches, dressing down in t-shirts and ripped jeans, oil varnished baseball hats, reeking of cigarettes and reefer smoke – but chances are that we’ll understand, appreciate, and devour the menu with more reverent virtue than your average customer. So when the server strolled up to our table and asked what we’d be having, we just asked for one of everything.

The whole wheat sourdough here is unlike most I’ve had other restaurants – instead of butter, they gave us a whipped fromage blanc topped with brunoised shallots and black pepper; a practice common in small town France. The chef noticed that one of my companions wasn’t knocking back beers like the rest of us idiots, so he placed a wine glass of carrot juice in front of him which is the type of kind-hearted consideration that makes you say “aw shucks”. According to my pal, the juice itself was “unreal”.

Unfortunately, our very first course, a special, was a miss. We received a filet of whiting dressed simply with lemon zest and very decent olive oil. The fish had not been fully descaled, so we found ourselves picking scales from our teeth. It was an ordinary and oily dish. I kept my fingers crossed that it would not be indicative of things to come.

Next arrived a play on the beet salad with yoghurt, golden and candy cane beets, segments of blood orange and grapefruit. This was a tart yet light way to cut the rough experience with the whiting out of our memories ($13). Immediately beside that was a bowl filled with forest of dandelion greens, green peas, shaved artichokes, hiding slivers of sweet sea scallops in between ($17) – all of this dusted with a chorizo crumble and dressed with a slightly spicy soy vinaigrette. Shaved raw artichokes are no joke – it is a painstaking task for any cook (unless of course you’re one of those crazy bastards who derives masochistic enjoyment out of cleaning artichokes) and it’s this kind of technique that any cook dining can applaud. This is where we all kind of looked up at each other and mouthed: holy shit.

The final of our three starters were the world’s three most expertly cooked, succulent, fall off the bone lamb ribs ($16) that we tried to dissect with a knife and fork . The chef noted our struggle and bemused that us three ruffians weren’t going about eating the ribs like normal people – you know, with bare hands. Three moist towels arrived at the table promptly as we discarded our cutlery by the wayside.

The two main courses that arrived exhibit the kind of relaxed precision one can attain when they have the time to focus on the main ingredients. First the flawlessly seared trout ($23), served atop an upscale play on what we decided was much like a potato salad (the writer wonders if this is an asinine thing to say) – potatoes being replaced with root veg like turnips and salsify, swimming in a dill beurre blanc  – which had been composed of the rendered fat from the cheese served with our bread. The roast pork shoulder was also a delight; the fatty and tender muscle cut with sweet and tart tones delivered by the braised red cabbage and apple beneath it ($22). The final dish I could smell far before it arrived at the table: an earthy fragrance of the hinterlands (the writer is being mildly facetious – but does not apologize).

Burrowed beneath a nest of puffed rice, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and granola, was a poached egg resting on a hearth of wild mushrooms and wilted kale ($20). In an age of hyperbole, it’s increasingly hard to take anyone seriously when they rave about how “perfect” or “amazing” something is – so I understand if you roll your eyes when I say that this is by far one of the best plates of food I have had in the past ten years of my informed culinary life. The wafting aroma of the toasted oats and seeds, the chew of the foraged mushrooms, the sweetness of the clear sour broth. I love when an egg yolk transforms into a sauce on the plate and when we punctured it, it blended with the broth. I pray this dish makes guest appearances on future reincarnations of the ever changing menu.

Until I quit smoking, dessert was never really my thing. Belmont Milds were my dessert (and if I ever become terminal, my dessert they shall be once again). However, now that I’m mainlining sugar like Baby Spice, I love dessert like tattooed girls love cats, Seinfeld reruns and pizza. First, a crumbly pear cake ($8), drizzled with honey and a killer ginger ice cream. It competes with the Bar Isabel’s Basque cake and fills you with the nicest warm and fuzzy feeling. The second dessert was a bowl of very delicious piles: one of white chocolate crumble, another of passion fruit curd, a gravity defying meringue and a mixture of fresh and preserved raspberries ($8). This is how you close a menu: two mesopheric home runs.

The menu is symphonic, building itself deftly with slight variations as it continues, culminating in a bombastic finish. There is much to like about this restaurant and I only expect greater things to come of it. The involvement of the chef in the cadence of the service. The flavours that are neither Asian nor European nor Canadian, but could lend themselves to any place and any time. It is beyond compare and when I taste things like this in the future, I won’t be reminded of my childhood like all those Michelin nerds rant about – I will be reminded of this dinner with my two friends on a crisp, Canadian winter night where my belly was perfectly full and my appetite was whet. Bring your loved one, invite your family or go it alone: this is a meal of unassailable resplendence.

Dandylion is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 5:30 to 10:30. 1198 Queen St. W at Gladstone.

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