When I am asked about my favourite places to eat in Toronto (and I often am, as I am a “professional” cook) I deftly respond, “Buca, Bar Buca, Edulis, Bar Isabel and Le Select Bistro. To your follow up questions, yes I’ve seen Ratatouille, yes I loved it and yes it is accurate. And my favourite thing to cook is porcupine Barigoule. What do YOU do for a living?” I can now safely add Buca Yorkville to that list without pause or hesitation.
While you might find Chef Rob Gentile taking a break with the likes of Mario Batali or Alain Ducasse for a couple of Instagram snaps, I would venture to say that this man might be one of the hardest working chefs in Toronto’s culinary scene. I don’t know if it is coincidence, but almost every time I dine at one of Buca’s two other locations, I see him there, working away, making sure everything is just so. One might argue that he has clones.
I went to Buca Yorkville at the tail end of fall, during their soft opening, and like coming out of an art-house flick about the shifting paradigm of emotional responses to cat videos, I had to spend some time ruminating on all of the things that I put in my mouth. Phrasing. I slid under the radar of Yorkvillian popped button suits, fake breasts hiding under cascades of Lagerfeld sequins and I was able to sit at the bar as the dishevelled gourmand I’ve grown to be.
I was greeted warmly at the door and quickly reminded of an exchange I had with a server at Buca proper who told me that Buca is a family restaurant and they want you to feel at home. They aren’t saccharine about it either. It mattered not that my shirt was wrinkled or that my dining companion was wearing a futbol jersey or that neither of our breasts were made of silicone. You genuinely feel like you’re having a really pleasant exchange with any one of the servers, sommeliers or bartenders there. The service staff is beyond knowledgeable. Like many European restaurants, you get the feeling that working at Buca is not just a side job to make the rent; nay, this is a career of consummate professionalism.
When a restaurant opens, one plays off any miscues that occur to growing pains. Any poor execution can be attributed to the struggle of opening a restaurant. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to start off on a sour note, especially in any artistic endeavour such as cuisine. Picasso didn’t offer up any of his childhood sketches before dropping the Blue Period’s Old Man with Guitar.Buca was patient and they bided their time before opening the lavish dining room at the foot of the Four Seasons.
The menus are easy to navigate and you’re told to eat ‘from the outside in’, lighter snacks giving way to more robust mains. I want to stress that it was insanely difficult to choose anything on these menus because everything looked delicious. Our lovely server made some quick decisions for us. With the first pani de buca dish, any of these worries were immediately swept off like the crumbs I proceeded to spill all over the bar. I don’t know the genius behind the bread program at Buca, but I want to raise them on high like my firstborn and tell them that all the light touches will be theirs. Served alongside our squid ink grissini and fluffy focaccia, we opted for the salumi de mare (salami of the sea).
When I came back from France in 2008, the charcuterie craze in Toronto was in full effect – Grant Van Gameren was helming the menu of The Black Hoof making offcuts shine in the nose to tail style – but nobody has really improved too much upon it because let’s be honest, it’s hard to ameliorate the art of salting, curing or smoking meat. Rarely do you hear of the extolled virtues of cured seafood. For those of you who do not enjoy “crushing” pickled herring rollmops as much as I do, I might suggest making a stop here.
Along with most of the third world starving to death, there has been much talk that one of the top food trends of 2015 will be seafood charcuterie. Before my experience at Bar Buca, the most cured seafood I’d had was pickled herring on rye, gravlax on a bagel, salt cod on a not salted cod, some octopus soppressata off of the floor and bottarga shaved on everything short of sorbet. My dining companion and I chose the hot smoked eel, the octopus soppressata with preserved lemon and the tuna blood loin n’duja, garnished with pickled artichokes, a dollop of buffalo milk yogurt infused with the lightest touch of mustard. All of the fish were sustainably caught within our nation’s borders and in these dying days of seafood, it is capital to know that I am not being party to the immense devastation of the world’s oceans.
Now that you’re feeling sufficiently guilty about eating canned tuna like the bastard person you are, let me tell you about this fantastic puntarelle salada that came next. I’ve never dressed a salad in pesto and only now do I realize what a blind fool I’ve been – chicory, pine nuts, gremolata, quail yolk, tossed in a pesto Genovese. It was light, tart and refreshing – a great preface for the gluttony that awaited us in the following courses.
For their next song, the pizza to end all of the “best pizza in Toronto” arguments you keep having on Facebook appeared before us. I have never seen such a flagrant use of chanterelle mushrooms in my entire cooking career. And let me tell you, that’s not a bad thing at all. They were unceremoniously scattered over a pizze bianche with a rich, melted orgy of gorgonzola and marscapone, with marjoram jumping into the sheets with them. The crust, serving as a mattress in this highly sexualized food metaphor, was at points was about as thin as carta di musica (super thin Italian flatbread for those not in the know). And to cut this beast, they have really adorable pizza scissors. And the award for the city’s best service ware, look no further – the cutlery is to die for.
Because I hate myself and I really wanted to feel the burn, we also carb loaded with some paste which carries a nomenclature that is a mouthful unto itself: scialetielli alle vongole. This pasta is painstakingly hand cut and served with some of that hot smoked eel we had earlier, a scant passing of chilis and B.C. clams still in their shells. I could eat smoked eel with anything. Shut up with whatever you’re doing and go purchase some smoked eel – or better yet, go to Port Elgin, New Brunswick and hoist one of those suckers out yourself. Go to the medieval task of murdering said eel, nailing its face to a slab of wood, skinning the sucker and smoking it in the smoker you built with your roughhewn hands in the dying light of the tundra sunset. Forsooth, a honey badger…
For Buca Yorkville’s final act, we were given the most tender octopus I’ve had this side of Tangiers. This dish also saw the appearance of those plump clams we had earlier and I realized that if you played the menu right, you could see a little bit of a narrative present itself with recurring items done in slightly different ways. Rather than coming off as redundant, it illustrated how adept Chef Gentile is in his ability to showcase various techniques using the same ingredient. I’m unsure if this is deliberate or just my own eccentric intrepretation of the menu – whatever the case, I was soundly impressed when beaten in the face with this epiphany.
The octopus also came with fregola sardo (a lovely Sardinian pasta that’s not quite Israeli cous cous and not quite pasta but somewhere in the middle – especially good with a bit of a bite), wilted spinach and golden roasted baby artichokes. My friend behind the bar suggested we also order the romanesco side dish that came with crispy lardo, a heavy accumulation of pecorino and a duck egg yolk that doubled sneakily as a cracked black pepper sauce when broken. I would like to go on about how good all of this was but by this point I was stuffed and I needed an espresso, as is tradition.
The coffee is a declarative hallmark of the Buca franchise: simple things done perfectly – but with just a little extra. They made us try their cannolis and then insisted we take some home with us. This final note of such a beautiful meal completed me in ways that true love never will.
All photos by: Ruben Guayasamin 2014.