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A Kensington Market wine hotspot resets the bar

A Kensington Market wine hotspot resets the bar

There is always a moment in the best sort of restaurant when manners become beside the point—when you find yourself doing things you would never consider doing in a good or average or even a very good spot. At Grey Gardens, the 16-month-old Kensington Market wine bar from Jen Agg (The Black Hoof, Rhum Corner) and Mitch Bates (Momofuku Shoto), that moment came for me on a Wednesday evening near the end of April, when I leaned toward the table on my left and interrupted their conversation cold.

At the time, we were deep into the house orange wine and eating Mr. Bates’ take on pasta with clams. We’d been mostly minding our own business too, but the minding of our own business had been growing tougher with every sip and bite. This was an experience you wanted to exclaim about.

That wine, a fresh, summery pinot gris with just a hint of orange wine’s usual tannins, was going down easily. The pasta in that dish was thick, square-cut, beautifully chewy noodles, coloured bluish-black with squid ink, tangled around a mess of clams. They came sauced with a ragù of chopped lap cheong sausage and ground, caramelized octopus that had been loosened with herbs and butter, then finished with the fresh citrus blossoms scent of yuzu zest. It tasted like lunch on an Italian yacht, somewhere in the East China Sea.

When the noodles were done, I started picking up the empty clam shells, sucking out the saucy bits. Which is when I overheard a server trying to steer the table to my left toward that pasta. They didn’t sound at all convinced.

“I have to interrupt,” I stammered. “Get that!” I had practically shouted it, I realized once I was done.

They paused for a second. I worried, at least in that moment, that maybe I’d overstepped some bounds. But this sort of interaction happens all the time at Grey Gardens: people laugh together and talk with each other and bask in the easy conviviality of the room—in the fog of wine and food, good music and conversation. That couple ordered the pasta, and soon they were also swooning. By the end of the night, they were tasting the house ice cream off our plates.

Grey Gardens opened in February of 2017 to praise from major US food publications, and varying degrees of disdain from key Toronto press. No matter their take, what most of those reports have missed is how differently the restaurant does things, from the way it’s built its wine and drinks list, to the novel—and remarkably ego-less—way that Mr. Bates conceives his plates. And they’ve missed how rapidly the place is helping to change what it means to dine not merely in Kensington Market, but across the city. Though it’s both a wine bar and a restaurant, Grey Gardens stretches the definition of both those terms.

More than almost any other Toronto restaurant before it, Grey Gardens has elevated the enjoyment of delicious, esoteric, often natural wines, as well as that talk-with-the-neighbours conviviality, to the heart of its mission. (Midfield Wine Bar & Tavern, on Dundas Street West, and the old Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, on Church Street, are among the exceptions.) Sure, you can come here primarily to eat very well, and also to drink a little wine, as many people do. But to experience Grey Gardens at its best, you come first to drink, and then to eat. It is a wine bar, after all.

Grey Gardens’ cellar, stocked by general manager/sommelier Jake Skakun, is impressively deep, and also democratic. You can find excellent bottles starting in the high-$50 range, and magnums of Beaujolais blanc for $112. It’s right on-trend with fashionable, modern, occasionally obscure natural bottlings: with unserious pét-nats and skin-contact whites (they get their own section on the wine list), with gorgeous, low-intervention Canary Island Spaniards, and fresh-faced, small-island Greeks. But this isn’t a natural-or-nothing sort of wine bar either; Grey Gardens also stocks the greats from Burgundy and Northern Italy—the unifying theme is food-friendly balance and deliciousness. Oh, and you can also get $7 pints of Coors Light on draft.

As for Mr. Bates’s cooking, he has taken Grey Gardens’ shared plates mission to heart in a way I’ve never witnessed (in a Western restaurant) in North America. Many of the dishes here come cut up into bite-sized pieces, and spread around the plate, so every forkful is exactly the same. Mr. Bates wants diners to be able to drink and talk and gather around a few dishes, he said, all without having to stop and cut things up, or to search around for the choicest bits.

More interesting, Mr. Bates’ approach in the Grey Gardens kitchen is to cook to the wines, instead of the other way around. “You can’t go too crazy, taste-wise, with too many flavours. You don’t want the food to stomp on the wines,” he said. Rather than overwhelm a plate with several contrasting flavours, he’ll often play with textures instead.

That wine-first approach is rare still, especially in North America. And in Toronto, it’s catching. Since Grey Gardens’ launch, Paris-Paris, on Dundas Street West, has opened with natural wine as its focus, while Wynona, a natural wine and pasta bar, opened a few weeks ago on the east side. The principals behind Canis, the lauded Canadian-themed spot on Queen Street West, are working on their own low-intervention and natural wine bar near Dufferin and Queen. When I asked one of them recently if they planned to put wine before food or food before wine, they said they were still trying to figure that out.

And Grey Gardens has set the bar impressively high. On a visit in May, a friend and I sat at the kitchen counter as the early evening sun poured in through the room’s front window and Ms. Agg’s crowd-friendly (read: killer) playlist shuffled between classic power pop and indie rock hits. As the room filled with young couples and tourists, multi-generation families and small groups of well turned-out women (note the gold-clasped Chanel clutches on the bar)—the thrill of the place was hard to miss.

We had a dish of grilled shrimp and spinach with crunchy, puckery bits of the pickled, turmeric-stained turnips that Koreans call danmuji. At the bottom of the dish was a peppery, supercharged sort of kimchi and shellfish broth: savoury, maritime mineral depth against the sweetness of the shrimp and the earthiness of the greens. (With it, a fresh, herbal, naturally made field blend from Cephalonia.)

We had fried green tomatoes, served under perfect salad greens—hot and cold, sour-bitter-sweet, with the kitchen’s butter-smooth duck liver mousse on the plate.

We ate hard-grilled radicchio with spears of green asparagus and sweet red onion crescents, with a wodge of stracciatella, and another dish of house-made, grilled lamb sausage and favas, served with pea leaves and herbs. And then, about an hour into our time there, my dinnermate, looking urgent, whispered, “Chris, Jen Agg is right behind you and she’s staring.”

A minute later, my phone started vibrating. A text, from Ms. Agg. “CHRIS WHY ARE U IGNORING ME,” it read.

This is one of those rare columns where the disclaimer could be nearly as long as the food and wine descriptions. I’ve been writing about Ms. Agg’s restaurants since The Black Hoof opened in 2008, and our relationship has been challenging at times, to put it as mildly as I can. I’ve had drinks at her house (a bottle of wine, on the back patio, after I left my job at The Globe and Mail), am friends(ish) with some of her friends, was the subject of a chapter in her book (Ms. Agg blames my review of Hoof Raw Bar for putting the restaurant out of business), and she introduced me to one of the writers who contributes to this site. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with her and the food writer Corey Mintz to discuss the impact of The Black Hoof on the city’s dining scene, for a podcast Mr. Mintz is producing with Canadaland. I’ve also spent most of the last year trying to ignore Ms. Agg completely, after an unsettling interaction at Grey Gardens, for which she later apologized.

But I also see how readily so much of the city’s restaurant industry and food press are willing to dismiss her work out of personal animosity. Or as she put it when I mentioned, a few days after that dinner in April, that I planned to write about Grey Gardens, “Ya, I figured. A fun approach would be to review my personality!” Another idea: how about I don’t.

Where Grey Gardens has left me cold at times is with its cooking. Some of the dishes are too wine-friendly, too meek, too focused on being shareable to make much of their own impact. This spring, Mr. Bates ran a white asparagus dish dressed with dark-caramelized onions, maitake mushrooms and mustard greens. Alongside bite-sized pieces of white asparagus, he’d arranged jiggly, ethereal chunks of asparagus chawanmushi custard around the bowl. It was tasty enough, and beautifully conceived, but the bits of white asparagus seemed almost beside the point. I couldn’t help wishing for a far simpler stack of that dish’s nominal star, and maybe a little butter or sauce.

Other offerings tasted interesting but poorly calibrated: a squid and snow peas dish, for instance, that came sauced with what our server called Madras hollandaise. That sauce was stiff, like Greek yogurt, instead of runny (it had been stabilized with xantham gum), and its curry powder seasoning hit hot and acrid at the back of your throat. I struggled too, with Grey Gardens’ take on chips and dip: the dip, made from smoked mackerel, sour cream and chives, is a thing of beauty, but the homemade ruffle chips, which come fried and seasoned perfectly, are cut so thin that you can’t scoop without them breaking. They’re frustrating to eat, which chips and dip this great should never be.

Yet those misses are the exception here, and it’s easy to overlook them when so much else about the place works so well. My last time at Grey Gardens, after a parade of excellent wine and food (standout: a fruity, earthy, highly gluggable barbera from Emilia-Romagna), we ate a potato salad, of all things, that I’ll never forget. That salad was the supporting cast for some soy-grilled octopus and charred ramps. If we’re being completely honest, potato salad is generally inoffensive food. It’s nothing you ever dream about for weeks.

Mr. Bates’ kitchen bakes the potatoes in salt, and cuts them small so they’re creamy like risotto, and then dresses them with crème fraîche and butter, herbs and pickled mustard seeds, grilled scallions and bright red dice of cherry bomb peppers that lend it a background heat. It’s not just the best potato salad I’ve ever eaten. It was many multiples better than I’d imagined potato salad could ever be.

I can’t remember precisely what I drank with it, except that it was perfect in that moment, and I didn’t have to think about it at all.

Grey Gardens

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199 Augusta Ave., 647-351-1552, greygardens.ca

Cuisine: Canadian

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Atmosphere: A bright, beautiful Kensington Market wine bar and restaurant with welcoming staff, where every physical detail has been been calibrated to put customers at ease.

Sound: Energetic, but rarely overwhelming

Prices: Small to medium plates from $5 to $34. They do add up.

Drinks: One of the best wine and cider lists in the city. (The cocktails and spritzes are also excellent.) The pro move here is to put yourself in the service staff’s hands.

What to eat: Alkaline pasta, shrimp and spinach, lamb sausage, octopus, monkfish with fresh hummus. NB: the menu changes frequently.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Taster’s editor-in-chief and founder. He’s worked as food editor, chief critic and dining columnist at Toronto Life, restaurant critic for enRoute (he wrote the magazine’s celebrated Canada’s Best New Restaurant list in 2009), and more recently, national food reporter and Toronto restaurants columnist for The Globe and Mail. Nuttall-Smith’s writing on food, drink and other subjects has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, New York magazine, Toro and Lucky Peach. He’s also a resident judge on Top Chef Canada.