Saturday, August 17, 2013

Restaurant Review – The North Restaurant

This is the fanciest dining restaurant in Barrie and, yes, probably the most expensive. Naturally that made it irresistible to try, even in my financial position.  But I justify it in that I hardly ever eat out so, when I do, I can spend more on that dining experience.  In fact, over my stay in Barrie, I ate twice at the North, and I think the differences between the two experiences, as well as what was common to both events, say something about the restaurant.

I ate at the North at the end of last December, and again in mid-April, as I was getting ready to leave Barrie.  On both occasions I opted for the 7-course tasting menu as, in a high-end restaurant with a top-caliber chef, the tasting menu is the best way to see what a chef truly has to offer and to try the most variety off the menu.  As far as I can tell, the North is the only Barrie restaurant with a true tasting menu.  Other places may have something they call a tasting menu, but is usually a “table d’hote”, a fixed price specials menu, that is often lower priced than the a la carte menu.  The price, at $70, may be steep for a restaurant meal for one but is actually quite a reasonable price for a 7-course menu, as long as the food is sufficiently elevated and the portions are of appropriate size.  In Toronto, you would expect to pay quite a bit more for a chef’s tasting menu.  The two tasting menus I tried of course were different, as the menu changes seasonally and a tasting menu changes often on a nightly basis.

The first menu, in late December, could be best characterized by (almost) flawless execution, excellent flavours, but lacking in cohesion, both within each course, and in the flow of courses.  The first course was bits of beef tenderloin with asparagus.  It was somewhat of an odd choice as a first course and, while good, was not especially memorable.  Next came a trio of carpaccios.  I believe the meats involved were kangaroo (?), bison and kobe beef.  The kangaroo, if that is what it was (it has been a while) was the best and very well suited to both the carpaccio preparation and the garnishes, with the kobe unfortunately being the weakest element.  The third course was a trio of shrimp, each with their own sauce.  The only one that sticks out for me today was the one with a coconut milk and lemongrass sauce, probably the best single bite of the entire evening.  All the shrimp were perfectly cooked, but only that one was accompanied with a truly great sauce.  Up to this point, all courses were very small – only a few bites.  Now tasting menu portions should always be small since you have more of them (we’ll talk more about this later), but to have not increased portion size slightly by the third course is a bit problematic.  The fourth course though certainly was a bit larger.  This was at least the size of a full appetizer (if not a bit larger) and was a sea bass rolled around shrimp and lobster puree, served on lobster risotto.  The bass was very nice and the skin was especially tasty.  I’m not sure the lobster was necessary here, as the shrimp overpowered it, but everything was correctly cooked and was very flavourful. 

 The fifth course was the intermezzo, a small palate cleanser, most often a sorbet, that prepares you for the main course.  In this case it was an apricot sorbet, which I am pretty sure was made on premises.  It was an extremely good sorbet, but not sure it was the most appropriate for the purpose.  Having chunks of fruit in a sorbet is great for a sorbet served for dessert and makes the overall product much better, but may not be the best choice for cleansing ones palate.  Finally the main course was a full size main course, which was necessary given the small size of most of the other plates.  This was beef tenderloin with veal sweetbreads.  The beef was cut a bit strangely, which did not make for the most even cooking, but the sweetbreads were good and the sauce was very tasty.  Finally the dessert was actually quite memorable.  This was banana sushi.  Yes, banana sushi.  This was a cold preparation with nori wrapped rice with banana in it.  There was also a thick chocolate sauce smearing the plate which was a good match, but what made the dish was a small sprinkling of sesame seeds, which reinforced the sushi aspect and actually did match with the chocolate and banana (a classic pairing on its own).  

 This was a Sunday night the day before New Year’s Eve, so the chef was off that night and the sous-chef was in charge.  I did get a chance to meet the sous-chef and talk with him for a bit.  I discussed my impressions of the menu and mentioned in particular the apparent lack of a clear progression to the meal – there should be a logical flow from course to course that makes the entire tasting menu a cohesive meal.  Another issue I had with the entire meal was a noticeable overuse of reduced balsamic vinegar.  This intense sweet and sour syrup made by boiling down balsamic vinegar and (usually) adding sugar is meant to be an inexpensive substitute for true aged balsamic, which ages for decades and reduces naturally through evaporation.  Since the taste can liven up many things, and it looks striking when squiggled on a plate, chefs have been known to overuse the stuff.  This had clearly happened here.  It showed up in places it had no business being, like the carpaccio dish, even a few dots on the plate on that shrimp dish.  And in a dish where it was appropriate, like the main course, they used a substantial amount, probably too much.  This was another issue I discussed with the sous-chef.

If I were to have written the review based on this dining experience alone, I’m pretty sure the impression I would have left would be somewhat negative, which is unfair as I actually did like the food very much.  By most standards this is an excellent, sophisticated restaurant with exceptional food.  However, since they offer a full tasting menu, I judge them by considerably higher standards, as they are now placing themselves in direct comparison with top restaurants in Montreal and Toronto.  So on my last evening in Barrie before coming back home, I returned to the North.  This was a Saturday night in April, and both the chef and sous-chef were in the kitchen.  This time the experience was quite different.  These descriptions will be more detailed as this was more recent.  Starting with the first course, right away the portions were larger.  While I did feel the portions last time were slightly small, they may have gone too far in the other direction. 

 The first course was prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with pesto and a napa cabbage slaw, which worked very well, especially considering wrapping seafood in prosciutto can make it difficult to eat, but that was not the case here.  Like my previous visit, very well executed – but this time there was something noticeably lacking from my earlier visit: a logical progression to the meal.  Lighter courses were served before heavier ones.  I do not recall precisely the second course (possibly scallops? – I took pictures throughout this meal.  They have served nicely as a memory aid after all this time but I forgot to take a picture of this one). 

Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with napa slaw

 The third course was something I feel is almost an essential for a top tasting menu – seared foie gras.  Foie gras is often paired with something sweet, like dried fruit.  The pairing this time was a bit more unusual but still very effective.  It was served on a base of lobster risotto and topped with caramelized onions.  A little excessive to be pairing rich with rich but somehow it worked.  The peas in the risotto were especially helpful providing that necessary sweet element.  Next came the fish course, sea bass served over citrusy lentils, with asparagus.  Once again, the bass was expertly cooked, but the citrus flavours actually made the lentils the star of the dish, playing perfectly off the fish. 

Seared Foie Gras with lobster risotto
Sea Bass with citrusy lentils

 As before, the fifth course was the intermezzo, that same beautifully made apricot sorbet, this time served on a plate drizzled with fruit coulis topped with dusted cocoa powder.  While fruit coulis would not normally be smart for an intermezzo (too sweet) the bitterness of the cocoa powder cancelled that and actually contributed to cleansing the palate.  The one improvement would have been if the earlier courses were a little smaller.  As you can see, this fish course was pretty much a full serving.  The result was that, by the time the main course arrived, I was pretty much full.  This was quite unfortunate as the main was, for me, a real prize.  This was a wagyu beef striploin steak (wagyu is the breed of cattle used to produce kobe beef – the difference is these cattle are raised in North America and do not get quite the same over-the-top treatment as in Japan.  And in keeping with the large portions this was a full main course size.  As one would expect, this steak had a lot of fat in it, but the beauty of this type of beef is that it doesn’t taste like you’re eating fat; it tastes like an explosion of juices and richness.  If I had not been as full, I would have been able to finish it all at this perfect state of doneness.  Still, I was able to take it home and it made quite the decadent breakfast the next day.   

Wagyu striploin - so good!

After taking some time, I was however able to finish dessert, though I didn’t think I would be able to.  This was helped somewhat by the fact the dessert was on the lighter side, mostly mousse and custard based.  There was a mini banana cream pie (they like bananas here!) served in a crispy phyllo cup topped with bruleed banana (very good).  In the middle was their version of tiramisu.  The coffee-infused whipped cream was very nice but overall that did not quite work in its miniature format.  But the biggest problem with this element was the pulled sugar garnish.  Sugar decorations should be delicate and brittle, but this had the texture almost of taffy – it had probably been sitting around in the humid kitchen for some time after being made, reintroducing moisture.    Though somewhat heavier, the best of all was a spiced fudge cake.  Very rich and smooth with the spice provided a much needed lift.

left to right:  fudge cake, tiramisu, banana cream pie

Once again, execution was again very close to perfect and the flavour combinations were well thought out, exciting and bold.  I was also impressed to see the use of the previously ubiquitous balsamic reduction was much more restrained; it was only used on those dishes that could genuinely benefit from its presence.  The same sous-chef was there again that evening but, this being a Saturday night, the chef/owner was there as well, though he was not in the kitchen the whole time.  He spent part of the time entertaining some friends and/or colleagues and part of the time supervising the kitchen staff.  His presence likely meant he had set the tasting menu, whereas it was probably up to the sous-chef last time, and the difference showed in the thoughtfulness of the progression.

Though the food is the centre of the dining experience here, the other aspects should be addressed as well.  When dining alone, I often sit at the bar.  This is what most restaurants prefer as any of the tables can accommodate at least two people and seating a single diner there represents loss of revenue.  I like to do this anyway as it allows for more observation of the service, since ordering stations are often in the area and servers have to go to the bar to get their drink orders.  At the North there is an additional benefit, as the bar is next to the kitchen, which is open on the side adjoining the bar, so I have not just a view into the kitchen but also an unobstructed view to the line, the actual cooking space.  

 The overall ambience is refined and very nice as well.  It used to have a corner lot in a somewhat bad area of town.  They had recently moved (though only to next door) onto the intersecting residential street into what probably used to be a (possibly) historic house.  Their old premises are still standing and I think they use it for storage and it is clear the atmosphere there was less refined than their current surroundings.  Even the move of just a hundred metres or so took them off the main street and thus reducing the perception of a “bad area”.  A refined restaurant must have refined service.  On my first visit service was very friendly but slightly lacking in polish, especially on the part of the bussers (the person who most often brings the plate to your table – if it is not your server it is not a waiter at all).  Yes this was a tasting menu which changes daily and it was a slow night, but the busser could not fully explain the elements on the plate, a must for complicated presentations with unusual combinations.  I even asked what fish was used on the fish course (the primary item on the plate) and she had to go back to the kitchen to ask.  She was probably inexperienced and, since I had no such issues on the second visit, this was either an isolated instance, or an issue that has since been resolved.  The wine list is fairly good with a reasonably wide selection of wines by the glass, both imported and local (by which I mean from Niagara.  There are no vineyards in the Barrie area).

While I have discussed many things that could be improved and found fault with several things, I want to stress that overall I was very pleased with my experience and would recommend this restaurant without hesitation.  It is just that this is a high end restaurant which, for me, comes with some more demanding expectations.  And given that they come close to the quality of a big-city restaurant tasting menu, $70 is exceptional value for money, especially in a menu that features foie gras and wagyu steak.  Also, I shared my criticisms with the kitchen on my first visit and noticed a marked improvement on the return visit, so likely they will continue to improve and already great restaurant over time.

The North Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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