Elegant Whimsy – Food and Fun at Trevor Kitchen bar

Trevor Kitchen and Bar
38 Wellington Street East

The entrance way to Trevor Kitchen and Bar reminds me of a Goth club. There’s a shiny red motorcycle situated just inside the door and dark stairs lead down into a candlelit room. Seriously, I’m expecting to hear some Bauhaus as I descend into what food critics referred to as a “subterranean grotto” when the space first opened in late 2006.

Despite the white walls, both the long bar area and the adjacent dining room are dim, with candles and ceiling pot lights creating ambient shadows across the 150-year-old stone walls. It’s a potentially intimidating space, but prospective diners shouldn’t be scared of the dark, because the team in the kitchen have prepared a seasonal bistro menu that is akin to your Mom wrapping you in a big hug and then serving you Sunday dinner. If your Mom was fancy and cooked foie gras.

Chef de Cuisine Jesse Vallins has manned the stoves here since owner and Executive Chef Trevor Wilkinson first opened the place to rave reviews two and a half years ago. Wilkinson has since stepped into more of a chef/owner role with Vallins running the day to day operations and back of house.

Having started his culinary career at the age of 18 at a Scarborough sports bar, when he made the switch from selling guitars – a job he knew was never going to take him very far – Vallins has worked at some of Toronto’s most notable restaurants.

“It was not really fantastic food,” he says of the that first gig, “but it was all homemade. It was run by a family and they brought in fresh fish for the fish and chips, they made their own stock.” He learned basic skills, and his passion for food and cooking led him to enroll at George Brown, a decision he wasn’t entirely happy with in retrospect. “I learned a lot,” he admits, “but it would have been better to just start working.”

Vallins’ resume supports that claim; with restaurants like the 360MonsoonSplendidoMistura and beerbistro to his credit, he had chefs like Massimo Capra and David Lee to count as mentors.

“David is an amazing chef,” Vallins says of Splendido’s David Lee. “Working with him was a real eye-opener – coming from the CN Tower where it was big production and you worked fast, David was like, hey slow down, do that right.”

Vallins knew Trevor Wilkinson through a mutual friend, and they hit it off right away. “It was good timing, and I came on board as a sous chef to Josh Wolfe,” he explains. When Wolfe left in 2007 and headed to Vancouver to run Coast, the move to Chef de Cuisine was a natural one for Vallins. “It’s pretty much the best job I’ve ever had.”

“Trevor and I get along really well. I do most of the menu, [although] Trevor definitely has his input,” says Vallins, explaining that Wilkinson has stepped back from running the kitchen to focus on his family.

The menu at Trevor is a card full of what can best be described as decadent comfort food. Seasonally-based, with four big changes each year and then adjustments through each three-month period to take advantage of whatever is in season (there’s currently fiddleheads, ramps and asparagus showing up in the side dishes), the menu also has a few items that are so popular they’re perennial favourites.

“There are things we can’t change, like the mac & cheese and kobe burgers,” Vallins tells us. “I wouldn’t want to change those, they’re fantastic and I wish I had  thought of them. Those are Trevor’s things from [his time at] Lobby. Those are two things we do really well – if we took them off the menu there would be riots.”

Also popular is the selection of foie gras, offered as a daily dish, atop the macaroni and cheese, or with truffled goat cheese poutine. Vallins is sheepish on this last one, admitting that it may seem as if they’re copying the use of foie gras at Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, but the customers seem to love this incredibly rich dish, so it stays.

Vallins’ background in butchery is also evident when perusing the menu. Besides the foie gras offerings, there’s pork belly, suckling pig, beef carpaccio and a lamb striploin with braised lamb shoulder (which even won this die-hard lamb hater over to the other side). Each dish is executed with an eye to flavour combinations and presentation – a style Vallins refers to as “good, tasty food with a sense of fun.”

That sense of fun is evident in dishes such as the BLT consommé we’re served as an amuse (yep, made with lettuce, tomato and smoky bacon) right through to the dessert. Listed on the menu as “pies a la mode”, we assume it’s a choice of various pies – instead we’re presented with a beautifully-arranged selection of little sable pastry tarts created by pastry chef Karen Clark (who also makes all of the bread for the restaurant each day), ranging in flavour from lemon meringue with milk chocolate to pecan with dulce de leche and quenelles of housemade vanilla ice cream.

Also fun is the variety of options available. Offering separate menus for the dining room and lounge, as well as a 3 course prix fixe menu at $39, and a variety of “flights of food” snack menus starting at $19, guests can get a real sense of the combination of great food and fun that Vallins alludes to.

As we talk further, Vallins makes it clear that taste is of utmost importance to him when determining what goes on his menu. “I like to cook seasonally,” he says. “I like to buy Canadian as well, but I’m not a locavore.” He explains that while the lamb and other ingredients are from Ontario, the Kobe beef is brought in from Nebraska. “We like to buy local whenever possible… within reason.”

However, Vallins may be more dedicated to the local food scene than he realizes, as I point out the wall of preserves that runs behind one side of the chef’s table. He and sous chef Sean Voddon spent last fall pickling and preserving everything from apples to onions, and the preserves accompany many of the dishes on the menu.

While first impressions of Trevor might be intimidating, anyone who ventures in will be rewarded with a meal that is both elegant and whimsical. From the toadstool sculptures under the stairs to the wall of shining jars dedicated to preserving the harvest, Trevor serves up decadent comfort food and a hearty dose of fun. Chef Vallins wouldn’t have it any other way.