You must be sick of anniversary talk. I promise, this will be the last you hear of it. The Beast brought me home flowers and a beautiful broach. I tried to buy him a book he’d been eyeing only to find out that he’d purchased it himself.
We met Tuesday night at The Local Kitchen for our special dinner. It’s a tiny restaurant that’s opened up in our neighbourhood and the initial reviews have been warm, most notably from Joanne Kates of the Globe and Mail. Thank goodness I arrived early, at 6:15pm, to secure us one of only a handful of tables because by the time the Beast joined me, at 6:45pm, the place was packed with a line-up. I had a Negroni cocktail while I waited and eavesdropped and people-watched. It also gave me a chance to peruse the wine list with descriptions written by Mark Sangregoria, the Local Kitchen’s co-owner who’s in charge of the front of the house. It read like a first person narrative and was both warm and entertaining, except for the $55 bottle of Feudi di San Marzano Primitivo, ’05–OUCH! (The Italian restaurant where I work sold the ’06 for $35.) Finally, the Beast came in from the cold.
Foodie: I am so happy about our decision to come here! Look at this menu! It’s like they knew we were coming! How do you feel about me ordering for the two of us?
Beast: I love that idea.
To start, I decided on Ontario burrata (Mom, burrata is an Italian cheese that’s a mozzaralla di bufala on the outside and is mozzarella AND cream on the inside), and a platter of co-owner and chef Fabio Bondi’s homemade maple cured and smoked Berkshire pancetta. The Beast would have the meat-stuffed tortelli pasta with bone marrow, mushroom & lemon zest and I’d have the gnocchi with rapini & taleggio cheese. I’d finish with the pan-seared white fish with guanciale & brussel sprouts and the Beast would have the quail egg-topped pork belly with lentils and parsnip. I settled on a bottle of Aglianico from Puglia to keep us warm.
Beast: How’s your Negroni?
Foodie: It’s good–I prefer them with more Campari and less gin though. Want a sip?
Beast: No way (he hates bitter Campari) but I think I’ll have a glass of white wine.
Beast: Did you smell something funny when you walked in?
Foodie: Yes! You know what it reminded me of? My first job when I was 13 at Gifford’s farm market where there was a deli in the back and their walk-in cooler had all these meats in there and sometimes I’d sneak in to steal these pepperoni sticks and it smells like that walk-in! There’s even the four inch-wide plastic panels hanging from the door, like the cooler had! What did you smell?
Beast: I can’t remember now.
Our capable and delightful server delivered us our burrata and shortly after that, the maple-cured smoked pancetta.
Foodie: Oh I wish we had some salt on the table.
Beast: And olive oil.
Foodie: Do you like it?
Beast: Well, I thought the burrata would come whole. It just looks like cottage cheese, and you’re right about the salt. Normally you’re wrong about salt.
Foodie: Thanks I think. I must say, I sort of wish we ordered the assorted salumi plate because this pancetta isn’t doing much for me: It tastes like thinly sliced cold Canadian bacon. I mean, all the trouble they went to, to take a gorgeous product and turn it into something so, so average. I only ordered it because the table beside us was swooning over theirs and I’d read about how good it was.
Beast: So far the best part is the bread.
After we’d finished, a server came over and politely asked us if we’d mind moving over to the next table so that the restaurant could accommodate a group of four.
Foodie: Of course we will! I was actually going to offer so don’t you worry.
Server: Thank you so much, and my apologies.
Beast (once the server had left): What do you mean you were going to offer to move?
Foodie: Listen, when you’ve been in the business as long as–
Beast: Oh boy…
Foodie: As long as I’ve been, you see things. And I saw that there were two empty deuces–that means a table for two–on either side of us and I saw that group of four who’d been waiting for about 45 minutes. So I was going to suggest that we move over so they could sit down. It’s hard for me sometimes to relax in restaurants because I can feel the anxiety of the staff.
Beast: Like a horse whisperer.
Our pastas arrived at our new table for two.
Foodie: Wow, these look gorgeous!
Foodie: How’s yours?
Beast: Well, I certainly don’t mean to complain about everything but it’s pretty average.
Foodie: Mine too! This gnocchi need salt and everything is rather water-logged.
Beast: Mine is, I don’t know….chewy.
Foodie: Let me try. Oh I think I know what’s happened here: they’ve over-cooked the tortelli so that the meat-filling pulls away from the actual pasta encasing and the meat is chewy and the pasta is hard-ish around the edges. I’ll have to ask Gio though to see if my theory is accurate.
Beast: You know what? This is the exact sort of place Toronto would champion: it’s all show with no results, like Daniel Libeskind’s ROM.
Foodie: I like the ROM! But I think I know what you mean. Everybody’s going nuts for this place. Maybe something’s wrong with us.
Beast: Nope. I don’t mean to pull the Italy card out here but–
Foodie: What’s the Italy card?
Beast: You know when people have spent two days in Florence and all of a sudden they’re an expert on all things Italian?
Foodie: Oh right.
Beast: But nearly every meal we had there was so dead simple but it tasted like something I don’t think I could replicate at home. And in the end, I think that’s what you crave when you go out to eat–to taste things that you couldn’t otherwise recreate with any ease in your own kitchen. What I mean to say is that I can imagine you cooking everything we’ve had so far better at home.
Foodie: Wow! Happy anniversary to me!
Of course when the server took away our plates and asked how everything was we batted our eyelashes and told her all was well. We were all show and no go. I think the Beast may have given up hope when our mains arrived, but I hadn’t. I was certain that my gorgeous little plate would erase any memory of average food consumption.
Beast: I can’t imagine fucking up pork belly. It’s fucking fat. How do you fuck up fat? I should not have to be straining to cut this over-cooked little piece of $2 fat with a knife and a fork. How much does this cost?
Foodie: I can’t remember. Maybe $18.
Beast: Wow. How’s yours?
Foodie: Well, it’s good. I like it. I like the crispy bits of guanciale the best.
Beast: You know what? Ten years ago, when Asian fusion cooking was all the rage, this must have been what it was like to go to one of the hundred restaurants trying to pull that off. Now, it’s this type of place: all cheap and cheerful with taxidermied animals hanging on the wall, ironic chairs, chandeliers, chacuterie plates and little plates and everything comes from a local farm and you know the name of the pig you’re about to eat.
Foodie: You’re being very entertaining tonight, and a little too harsh, no?
Beast: I don’t think so.
We still had Nigella’s Guinness chocolate cake to eat at home so I just asked for the bill when we’d finished.
Beast: What’s that look for?
Foodie: Oh nothing.
Beast: Is it really expensive?
Foodie: No, it’s exactly what I thought it would be. It’s just that, and I don’t mean to sound crass here, but they asked us to move tables in the middle of our meal. I only do that in moments of extreme panic and if I do there’s usually a small gesture of appreciation that’s extended to the patron.
Beast: Like what?
Foodie: Nothing over the top–maybe I’d take their espressos off the bill.
Beast: But we didn’t have espresssos.
Foodie: That’s a good point. Maybe then I’d offer them a touch of amaro, like an Averna or a Montenegro or something. Or maybe I’m being overly sensitive here. After all, they thanked us for moving more than once.
Beast: You just want a free drink.
Foodie: No I don’t! Okay maybe. Or yes, probably. Yes.
I like that the Local Kitchen is around the corner from us. And I like what they’re trying to do, which is, I presume, to serve regional Italian dishes using locally-sourced ingredients, and to make as much as they can–from handmade pastas to salumi–on their premise. I just wish everything–save for that crispy guanciale in my fish dish–had a bit more of a “wow” factor. And a bit more salt. As for the Beast, I’ve never seen him so full of opinions over a dinner out on the town! At first I thought he was turning into a real jaded piece of prick. But then he begged me to take an illegal photo at the Power Plant of a Michael Snow video installation that was projecting in real time what was happening in the parking lot. He ran outside while I waited for him to come into frame (that’s him hanging onto the Stop sign.) Last time I checked, jaded pieces of pricks don’t insert themselves into contemporary art.