“Fuck, that’s amazing!” Jacob Wharton-Shukster laughs out loud at my exclamation upon my first mouthful of Chantecler’s polenta and calls over Chef Jonathan Poon and repeats what I’ve said. Poon smiles widely, but shyly, and doesn’t miss a beat as he continues to plate dishes at Chantecler’s pass on a busy Wednesday night, their third day in business.
These guys had a fight with the city to even open their doors – the former Mangez sandwich shop didn’t have an existing liquor license and by default, in an effort to keep out clubs and bars, local councillor Gord Perks tries to block any new liquor license in his Parkdale riding. Perks has the theoretical best interest of the neighbourhood at heart, but you can’t block progress, and new restaurants and businesses, if they are small and community-minded, actually help a place like Parkdale thrive.
Three days in and Chantecler (1320 Queen Street West) is obviously thriving. The 26-seat restaurant quickly fills, with Wharton-Shukster running front of house and mixing up some killer cocktails – Chantecler even has a twist for old cranks like me who aren’t into the cocktail craze – house-made tonic to go with my gin. I like this place already. And the husband is over the moon because they’re serving cask ale.
For two so young, they’ve amassed quite a pedigree already – Poon has worked the stoves at Delux, Woodlot and Noma (yes, that Noma), while Wharton-Shukster has worked front of house at Buca, and Origin. Both of them did a stint at Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner. It’s safe to say they know their stuff.
The space is not huge, and the star of the room (save for the guys themselves) is the perfect condition 1935 Moffat 4-burner electric stove in the back corner on which Poon and his staff prepare the majority of the dishes. There’s a prep area in the back and a small convection oven to supplement the stove, but that old gal is running all night and has pride of place under a tile mosaic of the restaurant’s name.
The relatively short menu reflects what Poon can manage on the stove, but also speaks to a type of Canadiana fusion. There’s influences from across the country (Pacific cod, mackerel), paired with ethnic influences (polenta, gnocchi) and then a dash of Asian flavours to create a diner double-take. Yes, Poon really did pair traditionally-Italian polenta with shitake mushrooms and Chinese 5-spice mix, thus provoking my enthusiastic proclamation.
The aforementioned polenta. Chantecler’s menu is mostly smaller dishes – we share 3 appetizers and 2 mains, plus dessert between 2 of us and it’s about the perfect amount of food.
Cured and torched mackerel with rye, yogurt and preserved lemon.
No, this is not tiramisu. It’s fluffy gnocchi pillows with cod row, chive and seaweed. And it’s outstanding.
Poon has fun with onions, stuffing them with either creamed kale or glutinous rice and black truffle.
Beef and beet makes for a horrorshow presentation (that’s a good thing) atop parsley root and marrow.
Desserts at Chantecler follow the ongoing trend towards less sweet; warm oats with poached pear and buckwheat could double as a yummy breakfast, and the sea buckthorn parfait with meringue and almond praline is tart and sweet at the same time. (I’ve been served sea buckthorn 3 times in the past 10 days, so I am officially declaring it a trend, which is totally okay because it’s a really interesting ingredient, formerly used primarily in beauty products.)
There are still a few items on Chantecler’s menu that I need to try. The chicken consomme, for instance, made with their namesake chicken, and the pork neck is getting some awesome raves. That this place is just a few blocks from home is both a blessing and a curse but I think the place makes a great addition to a neighbourhood that has long been a very tight-knit community. The wait was worth it because these guys will fit right in.