Sunday, November 22, 2009

Amateur Night at The Chefs' House

The Restaurant Club's second dinner brought us to The Chefs' House; George Brown's real-time classroom restaurant, staffed by students from several different programs in their Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts school.  There are no shortage of bodies; I walk in and am greeted by three staff, each equally eager to tend to my needs.  I zone in on one of them and say, "we have a reservation - Huggins, party of 10"  She happily motions towards the table that's set for us, and tells me I can hang up my coat on the rack.  Though it's only a few feet away, she doesn't take us to the table and so we show ourselves to our seats and settle in.

The Chefs' House works this way: it's a prix fixe menu of 3 or 4 courses for the totally reasonable price of either $39 or $45.  The wine selection is decent, mostly Ontario, and is equally affordable.  Once we're seated and have our menus, the service gong show begins.

I have to preface the rest of my post by saying I think it's an entirely necessary and important task George Brown has set out to do: real-time learning in an actual restaurant.  How else will Toronto's future culinary stars truly perfect their craft?  The 'on-the-job' learning is definitely the right way to go.  It's just that, well, when it comes to the wait staff, they need some ... uh ... serious training.

Each person who waits on us is enthusiastic and sweet and smiling.  But they are also equal parts clueless, deer-in-headlights, and awkward.  It starts when our low-talking server introduces himself and starts to take drink orders.  I interject as he's talking to my friend, suggesting we go for a bottle over the glass she's ordering.  Our server seems anxious by our decision-making, and says "I'll just start at the other end of the table" and leaves.  It was a 20 second decision, but OK.  We get in our orders and seem to be off and running.

Next comes the food ordering.  It's obvious you select either 3 or 4 courses, but it's unclear if you can decide which 3 courses you want (starter, main, cheese or dessert).  Faux pas number 2: explain briefly at the onset how your menu works.  We all get on the same page and orders are placed.

As we wait for our first course, the team swoops in with an amuse bouche: ratatouille on crostini with a pepper sauce.  One young chef comes to the table to inform us of the dish we're about to eat.  Check.  He's a little nervous and stumbles a bit, but he did alright.  The dish was a nice burst of flavour - just want an amuse is designed to do.

First courses arrive, and for the most part, everyone is pleased.  My fish & chips with minted mushy peas is a favourite.  The smoked salmon, though plating is a bit juvenile, is tender & tasty.  The mushroom soup is simple and lacks a bit of body; the beet salad could use some added texture; overall the dishes were enjoyed.  The servers missed topping up wine glasses, and one man comes to the table with a glass of water in hand, stands there (thoroughly confused), decides the glass of water isn't needed (which it was not), mumbles something and shrinks away.

Next arrives a surprise additional course: pork belly with octopus.  It's a thoughtful gesture and always enjoyable when the chef decides to take creative liberty with a complimentary dish.  But, we have 2 vegetarians and one person allergic to seafood.  The servers apologetically remove the dishes, and in about 7 minutes the three guests have a replacement dish (one with just pork belly, one with just octopus, and one with a small mushroom soup).  I ask one of the servers, "this is the same cut as bacon, yes?" to which he replies, "I don't know"  Right.  Uh, "could you please find out?" and he says "oh, sure".  He comes back: yes.

Our mains arrive shortly thereafter.  The barley risotto with roasted butternut squash was cooked nicely and properly seasoned.  The farm trout with fingerling potatoes and sherry brown butter sauce was met with mixed reviews: one felt the lemon flavour was overpowering, another thought the seasoning was off and it was dry.  For a third dish, though the vegetables were overcooked, the broth in the lemongrass & ginger seafood stew was amazingly flavourful.  The ribeye was inconsistent - one with a chewy cut, another was done perfectly.  The leeks were overcooked, mushy and flavourless.  Another miss: servers didn't bring steak knives.

To finish, our third courses arrive.  Most of us opted for the cheese, while others went for the apple tart or the banana chocolate bread pudding.  I ask my server, "what are the cheeses?" and she says "uh, one is Ontario and one is Quebec".  Right.  I politely respond, "thank you, but what kind of cheese is it?".  She tells me she needs to go check, and comes back to report "Niagara Gold and Benedectin Bleu".  The crackers that accompany the cheese are too floury tasting and a bit undercooked.  The apple tart, to my taste, was far too sweet.  Thankfully, those who ordered it enjoyed the massive hit of sugar.

Because this is a class, the restaurant closes at 10pm.  Shortly before 10, we ask for our bill.  I provide the server instructions to put X amount on two credit cards, and Y amount on the other.  "$28 on this one?", "no, $128" ... "okay, $28" ... "no, $128" ... "OK".  My card comes back.  $28.  Sigh.  He's trying.

So here's the skinny: The Chefs' House is great value.  The food is, for the most part, quite enjoyable.  It's not earth-shattering, but let's not forget they're learning.  The decor is actually very modern and a slick space.  The staff are all eager and friendly, but incredibly green.  This, in my opinion, is where they need to place the greatest focus: front of the house.  Despite our frustrations, I think it's worth going: to support the school, to support its students, and to get a good meal at a very reasonable price.

1 comment: