The Grove is Gonna Be Groovy

Do not adjust your screens. I know I already wrote a preview of The Grove back in November when I attended a pop-up dinner in conjunction with First Drop Canada. At that point, owners Fritz Wahl, Richard Reyes and Chef Ben Heaton were expecting their Dundas Street restaurant to be ready to go before Christmas. As is the case in the restaurant industry, there were a few delays, and when I attended the real sneak preview pop-up dinner last Friday (also hosted by First Drop Canada, and with proceeds going to Greenest City), they were still awaiting their liquor license.

The good news is that everything else is done and that they’ll be holding their grand opening party this Saturday, March 10th from 6pm onwards. The other good news is that, unlike the previous dinner where Heaton was cooking in a makeshift kitchen in a woodshop, this time he was getting a chance to try out his own custom-built space.

The Grove location was formerly a dentist office and the design team of S333 gutted the space to the brick walls with an eye to using modern techniques to make the place look old – something that reflects Heaton’s modern British cuisine. Mismatched furniture mimics the Grove’s signature mismatched plateware, and much of which looks old (a wooden banquette along one wall) is actually new.

Heaton’s kitchen is an entirely new addition, however, and he’s been able to arrange the space exactly as he wants it. And while it was tough for the kitchen team to plate 45 dishes at once, they expect that, for regular service, it will be a dream to work in.

Somewhat shy about his work, Heaton says that he’s doing British cuisine to reflect his British heritage, but he seems almost apologetic about that. He shouldn’t be – he’s doing something really innovative with a cuisine that has a reputation for being stodgy.

If I had to explain it, I’d compare Heaton’s dishes at the Grove to what Matt Blondin is doing at Acadia with Maritime and Louisiana low-country dishes. Both are taking what is traditionally heavy, hearty “comfort” food and giving it a modern twist. Both are presenting dishes that are stand-alone works of art, before you even get into a consideration of whether it tastes good, which it does. And thankfully, both are elevating Toronto’s dining cuisine past the tired, overdone “rustic” without pushing the boundary beyond Torontonians’ relatively low freak-out point.

This is the line that new restaurants (and old restaurants that want to remain contemporary) are going to have to aspire to. Toronto isn’t quite ready to give up its comfort food, but we now want it to be pretty, and light and innovative. We’re tired of pot pies and pork belly, and we’re ready, once again, for food that is a delight for the eyes as well as the palate.

The dishes we tried at The Grove’s sneak preview are expected to appear on the restaurants premiere menu, but Heaton warned us that he will continue to tweak things right up to opening day and beyond. In the glut of recent new restaurant openings, I sincerely hope that Toronto diners make time to check out The Grove. I think they will be duly impressed.

The water glasses are filled with sea buckthorn berries which add a slight tarty/sweetness and occasionally float to the top.

Top image: Second course of new potatoes, leeks, celery and cheddar. Flowers play a big role in Heaton’s presentation and it’s totally amusing to peek into the kitchen to catch a glimpse of a big burly sous chef daintily placing flower petals on a plate.

First course: parsley root soup with snails, bacon and fried bread. Heaton managed to get a whole lot of good stuff into these teacups. I managed to only get a pic with the snail on the spoon with my iPhone and not the regular camera – apologies for the dark shot.

I jokingly called this one the English Country Garden – duck sausage with sunchoke, elderberry and Brussels sprouts. Not shown – the garnish of nasturtium flowers and leaves.

Beef, oyster, radish, samphire. Heaton’s got his own unique take on surf and turf.

Finally, a dessert made up of rhubarb, buttermilk foam, anise sauce and meringue for the prettiest Eton Mess ever. Heaton also joins in the trend toward desserts that are more complex and far less sweet than what we’re traditionally used to.