503 College Street
There’s a recession coming. Gas prices are going up, the housing market looks set to crumble and everyone is preparing to tighten their belts. Inevitably, at the table, our thoughts will turn to comfort food. Hearty, healthy fare from the family recipe books will win out over expensive, exotic ingredients or dishes we can’t pronounce. The trend toward local and seasonal produce and admonishments to not eat anything our great-grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food has us considering the delicacies of past generations, only with a more genuine attitude. The retro kitsch of “comfort food” and thirty-dollar meatloaf has been replaced by what Grace chef Dustin Gallagher refers to as “modern farmhouse”; a more elegant, timeless way of eating that honours the past and the present, using fresh, seasonal ingredients with a nod to tradition, family and the classics.
In fact, the theme of “returning home” is true not just of the food, but of the restaurant itself. Owner Lesle Gibson, who operated Xacutti, the restaurant that used to be in this space, had been working in LA for a few years, helping to open a number of restaurants there.
“While LA was a great experience, my heart has always been taken by Toronto,” says Gibson. “My family and great friends are here, so when the chance arose I jumped all over it. I’ve always loved the space and looked forward to the challenge of creating a new space in such a familiar place. There’s nothing like home.”
Gibson and designer Patti Cuccia overhauled the space completely, painting the walls a warm cream colour that reflects the evening light throughout the room. Matching leather banquettes and wood tables, along with comfortably wide leather seated chairs are understated but welcoming. Retro lampshades, the leaded glass windows at the front, and a collection of Gibson’s family photos truly give the room the feel of an elegant family kitchen. A long open centre aisle (that many restaurateurs would try and cram more tables into) allows an ease of movement and a sense of freedom for both servers and customers. A darling courtyard with lush greenery is an elegant alternative to a streetside patio.
In the kitchen, Gibson knew that Gallagher was the chef she wanted to work the stoves. “I’ve known Dustin for a very long time and the faith came naturally,” Gibson explains. “He used to cook for me in my first restaurant before he went to Susur. I saw huge potential in him back then and had no doubt that he was the perfect fit for this new venture.”
Gibson also gives credit to Gallagher for the comprehensive menu, “The concept of the space just fell into place… no second doubts and the food was Dustin’s creation. He knows myself and my family, understands my roots and found a missing niche in this city. It’s simple clean food done very well. Its all him.”
At 26, Gallagher is considered young to be running a kitchen of this size and stature, but Gibson’s faith in him is obvious, “His youth is in age only, he’s very mature in technique and his passion and enthusiasm are contagious. He’s destined to stand out.”
And stand out he does. Gallagher’s menu is a compendium of classic dishes, all perfectly executed. Divided into meat, vegetarian and seafood categories, diners can pick from dishes more reminiscent of Sunday dinner than swank restaurant fare.
Apple glazed pork tenderloin with watercress and radish salad is sweet and tender; the asparagus salad topped with a hard boiled egg and vibrant purple spuds is gorgeous in its simplicity. I enjoy the iceberg lettuce salad with crumbled blue cheese atop hefty slices of beefsteak tomato, feeling like I’m in a scene from Mad Men and wishing I had a martini and a cigarette to accompany it.
The home-made gnocchi with porcini and oyster mushrooms has found a fan with everyone who’s ordered it, and in keeping with the plan to ensure the menu is seasonal, by our second visit the dandelion greens in the ravioli have been replaced with a filling of ricotta, peas and mint. There is nothing that evokes spring more than the flavours of fresh peas, mint and butter combined together and I wholly adore this dish and its seasonal simplicity.
Gallagher is no slouch with the fish either, and both the oil-poached halibut and the daily market fish of seared sea breem are classic and simple, allowing the fish to be the star on the plate.
Desserts too, stick to simple classics done extremely well. Apple pie, carrot cake and lemon tart – all staples of the farmhouse kitchen – are a delight to the eyes and the palate, with thoughtful accompaniments of house-made ice cream, or in the case of the carrot cake, little rounds of honey butter. Milk and home-made cookies are a fun nod to childhood and a visit to Grandma’s house, and while a chocolate souffle might be considered a bit adventurous for retro farmhouse fare, the dark chocolate custard, baked to eggy perfection and drizzled with crème anglaise was a little dish of joy. A cheese menu, where diners can select from a variety of artisanal Canadian offerings, is available for those with less of a sweet tooth.
Service at Grace is formal and proper but not overbearing. Our server makes a point of serving everything from the right, despite that one of us is seated against the wall – a little touch that in this day and age, also harkens to another time when such things were the norm, not a delightful anomaly.
Gibson is now working on the lounge space upstairs, formerly Bird, where the menu will remain the same but where Grace will be able to accommodate private parties of up to 30 people.
The cliched saying, “you can’t go home again” doesn’t seem to apply to Lesle Gibson. She’s returned to the city she loves, to a restaurant space that she adores and has taken her customers back through not just her family history (Grace is named for Gibson’s grandmother), but their own. Grace evokes summer days full of sun-kissed tomatoes, apple pies cooling in a window and a feeling of safety, warmth and comfort that can only be found at the family table. That Gibson and Gallagher have put a modern twist on our collective childhood memories is a good thing – it gives Torontonians somewhere to go when we’re craving the comforts of home.