Story by Janine MacLean
Vacay.ca Food Columnist
TORONTO, ONTARIO — Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and one of the best ways to experience this is through the city’s food. You can find restaurants from nearly every country in the world, from Nicaragua to Mongolia. Torontonians, in fact, are so spoiled by the endless supply of ethnic restaurants in their city that they rarely get the chance, or even think about, trying something from a little closer to home — like, say, Nova Scotia?
The city’s dining scene is now more complete since Hopgood’s Foodliner opened in town earlier this year. The eatery in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood in the west end has even made news recently for a celebrity sighting, when Torontonian Ryan Gosling dined with Eva Mendes earlier this week. Opened by Chef Geoff Hopgood (formerly of the Hoof Café, an offshoot of The Black Hoof), Hopgood’s specializes in cuisine close to the chef’s heart — that is, cuisine inspired by his native Maritime province.
“I like to cook things that I care about,” the chef explains while busily plating food.
I know what you’re thinking, and if you go to Hopgood’s looking for fish and chips you will be disappointed. This man is a chef first and a Bluenoser (not-too-far) second, as is evident from his inventive menu.
Over the two nights we visited Hopgood’s we were spoiled with specials. Buttery lobster rolls with a light crust of smashed potato chips crumbling over the top, foie gras with pickled ramps and maple syrup (disappointingly but not surprisingly sold out), a tremendous seafood tower and pig’s head broth are only a few of the items our well-trained servers named off in exquisite detail.
The a la carte menu offers Hopgood’s signature Nova Scotia-inspired fare with plenty of seafood and downhome favourites (snow crab anyone?).
The back dining room greets guests with stacked boxes of Triscuits lining the shelves. Interesting choice of décor, but when you see that Triscuits, a Nova Scotia favourite, actually feature on the menu it makes more sense. The ambience is great: vinyl records play over the sound system and the cool-blue interior is instantly relaxing. The airy front dining room features rustic wooden floors and a comfy bar.
Perhaps the most pleasant feature of Hopgood’s is the fact that the background music doesn’t blare. The patrons do not have to converse in shouts. I can sit back and sip my Moulin-a-Vent Beaujolais ($13 a glass) and still hear what my dining companions are talking about.
The menu is small and to the point. It’s also very creative with dishes like house smoked mackerel served on homemade oatcakes (both Nova Scotian staples, but never, in my experience, served together, $10).
Our starters include a mixture of simple Nova Scotia nostalgia and beautifully plated haute cuisine. The Halifax Donairs ($14) are the best I’ve tasted outside of Halifax — and are something I’ll be coming back for. Hopgood’s mother’s homemade crab dip recipe ($15) comes served with Triscuits. The dip is creamy, nicely herbed and irresistibly spreadable with lots of fresh crab meat folded in.
Another favourite is the fresh asparagus salad ($12). It features shaved asparagus (lightly blanched) tossed in a lemon-egg yolk emulsion with lots of salty cheese sprinkled over top — a perfect summer salad.
I’m impressed with our server. Well schooled in the evening’s specials and the menu in general, you can tell Hopgood has trained his staff well in East Coast hospitality. As a guest, I never felt forgotten, and a plate is never placed in front of us without a full explanation as to what we were about to eat.
DIVINE NOVA SCOTIA CUISINE ARRIVES IN TORONTO
To start, our table enjoyed an array of oysters from both coasts — always a great way to begin a Maritime-inspired meal. With nothing but a squeeze of lemon, some horseradish and a bit of tabasco, we dove right in.
Tearing through the donairs, Nova Scotian halibut ($15) thinly shaved and marinated in preserved lemon, then served with fresh foraged greens, and, of course, the much-anticipated smoked mackerel on oatcakes, we ate ourselves into oblivion and we hadn’t even gotten to our main courses.
The smoked mackerel — beautiful — sat atop a very traditional Nova Scotia oatcake and was topped with pickled shallot and a dollop of crème fraiche. If I took the top three components off the oatcake and ate them together it would have been a perfect appetizer, but this Nova Scotian had a hard time eating smoked fish with an oatcake. Everyone else at the table loved it. It’s my problem, not yours, chef Hopgood.
I feel that this menu reads almost autobiographically. The way the courses start from being served plainly on a paper bag to the beautifully plated mains, then back again to the comforting desserts makes me think of Hopgood’s journey from down home Nova Scotia to high-end Toronto restaurants to this: His own idea of what good food and dining out should be. He says I’m not far from the mark.
“I love what I do, but I don’t want to get too carried away with the whole fine dining thing. People come in for dinner, and a lot of them say it’s fun to eat here. That’s what I want to promote in my food: a bit of cheekiness, nothing too serious.”
Our mains come out almost as soon as our appetizer plates are cleared. It’s hard to choose a clear favourite as each dish is so very unique.
For our first sitting the Digby scallops were served with a not-so-traditional Irish colcannon — the result being a creamy, saucy base for the scallops mixed with kale as opposed to a pile of mashed potatoes with cabbage. The second time around they are served with mushy peas, bacon and truffle oil, which, while being more seasonally appropriate, is also just plain delicious.
The ultra rare tuna ($24) sits in a delicately flavoured broth made from Nova Scotian seaweed. It is perfectly seared and seasoned. The braised pork cheeks ($26) are beautifully tender and come with three small house-made sausages — a combination of ground pork, hot sauce, molasses and thyme — and are served on a bed of wilted swiss char with a ladle of reduced braising liquid for good measure.
While each dish is beautifully presented, it still tastes like home. Comforting, decently portioned and well executed, Hopgood’s delivers on what he is trying to produce, and he’s putting the fun back into good eating. His desserts are equally intriguing.
The crispy toffee chocolate bar ($8) is covered in dark chocolate and comes to the table wrapped up in brown paper. Very yummy indeed, but for me dessert is all about the maple square ($8). A perfect Maritime dessert, this could easily end a winter meal on my auntie’s farm back east. Served warm, crisp on the bottom and gooey on top, cool cream is poured over the square tableside. It is heavenly and so very nostalgic, but being a winter dish it was not featured on the menu during our second visit.
Fortunately, something just as delicious was on the menu that time. The baked vanilla/rhubarb pudding ($8) was served in a mason jar, showing off the layers of this luscious pudding perfectly. On the bottom was a sweet and creamy vanilla pudding, covered with a sprinkling of sweet crumbs and stewed rhubarb. The top layer is a lightly torched marshmallowy meringue that gives you one last touch of sweetness to balance out the tart rhubarb. When you manage a bit of each on your spoon it’s like eating a piece of summer.