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In Paris Paris’s kitchen, a prodigious young talent regains his groove

In Paris Paris’s kitchen, a prodigious young talent regains his groove

Jonathan Poon emerged as a talent to watch at Chantecler, in Parkdale, when he ran the restaurant’s kitchen. This was around 2012, at a time when trying to sell an interesting menu on farthest Queen Street West verged on small business suicide.

Though the young chef’s crew was known for its family-style lettuce wraps and crispy, sweet-sour squid, on weekends he also offered extraordinary Hong Kong Chinese and French-inflected tasting menus, available to only eight diners each night. He served buttermilk-poached shrimp, oysters with XO sauce, fresh silken tofu and rice-smoked duck. They were conceived and executed deliciously enough that sitting at the chef’s cramped kitchen bar and tasting that food felt like witnessing something diners rarely see. It felt like watching a star being formed.

Yet within a few years, Mr. Poon sold his share in Chantecler in favour of less labour-intensive cooking. At Bar Fancy, which he opened in 2014 with co-chef Jesse Fader, his signature dish was fried chicken on Wonder Bread. Their next project, a pizza shop called Superpoint, on Ossington Avenue, is by all accounts a very good spot, but I’ve never been—I couldn’t bring myself to see a chef of Mr. Poon’s talent slinging pizza pies.

So I resisted Mr. Poon’s latest, called Paris Paris, for as long as I could, until one steamy Friday early this summer, when I wandered in off Dundas Street West. To my surprise, I had him all wrong: his ambition and vision and bright-burning talent hadn’t fizzled at all. I guess he’d been storing them up for when the right project came along.

Paris Paris, which Mr. Poon runs with Mr. Fader and general manager/wine director Krysta Oben, is a contemporary French bistro and bar-à-vin, but disguised as a DIY snackbar. The decor is mostly empty wine bottles and hanging plants and the walls are bare brick; Mr. Poon designed and built much of the oak plywood furniture himself. But the room, which opened in February, is also cheerful and bright—even elegant when the sun streams in—and the lighting is warm. And that slightly down-at-the-heels design, once you get to know the place, seems intended to send a message: this bistro is something fresher and more ambitious than your Piaf-scored nostalgia trip of old.

Rather than being a hoary-eyed time-warp, Paris Paris is exactly the sort of modern bistro you find in France today: it blends new ideas with older ones, international with classically French.

In place of gristly steak frites, Mr. Poon’s kitchen serves sliced, rosy-centred, char-grilled hanger steak with seared morel mushrooms and fat fresh peas over punchy-tasting chimichurri. The carrots on the plate are cut in perfect cubes, as a wink and a nod to freezer aisle veg.

The mussels at Paris Paris come peppered with tiny, candy-sweet red peppers, and moistened with the kitchen’s house-made play on Clamato juice. And a dish as seemingly straightahead as pan-seared pork chops becomes a marvel in Mr. Poon’s and chef de cuisine Nick Morra’s hands: the chefs season thin-cut chops hard with white turmeric and spice and sear them hot so they sweeten and colour and char where it counts. That white turmeric lends them a mysteriously Chinese-tasting edge. They come stacked, with grilled rapini, in a fatty, sweet-spicy-porky triple-decker sandwich of sorts that’s also gently bitter. It’s the kind of dish that can turn a table of otherwise civilized grownups into an Animal Planet clip.

Just as important, Paris Paris’s wine list and service, though deep and intelligent, never veer from unpretentious. Ms. Oben and her team patrol the room with condensation-sweaty magnums, willing interested customers to try what’s good. The wines are affordable, a lot of them, and the list is focused on fun, fashionable and largely natural drink. (A nice touch: the wine menu’s first by-the-glass option, at $9, is simply, “A little glass of sparkling while you think.”) Ms. Oben’s mission, she said, is to bring the sorts of bottles that wine geeks and sommeliers drink in their off-hours to ordinary, non-industry folks.

One evening recently, Nicole Campbell, who is a star on Canada’s wine scene (she grew up in Lifford Wine & Spirits, a fine wine distributor her father founded; she also runs her own natural wine firm) worked the room with a rare magnum of Rosewood Estate’s juicy, high-acid passetoutgrains—a blend of gamay and pinot noir. It was cold and cloudy and wicked-delicious, especially alongside that plate of rapini and chops. She simply shrugged and smiled as we raved about it, in a knowing way that seemed to signal, Mais oui, c’est clair. “It’s a party wine,” she said.

That sense of ease and fun—but backed by real skill—are integral to what Paris Paris does. It’s clear in a dish as direct and unfussy as the fava bean and fennel plate they’ve been running lately. The fennel is shaved in long, crunchy, anise-edged ribbons, while freshly shucked and blanched favas and green asparagus are a reminder that spring has barely passed. On top, Mr. Poon’s kitchen has set a thin slice of seeded rye, made in-house by baker Patti Robinson, as well as a slice of Valdeón, a blue cheese from Spain’s northwest. Thanks to the bread and that cheese and the mix of spring vegetables, that dish is nutty and earthy, while also juicy and fresh and beautifully seasoned; it’s brightened with torrents of lemon juice. It isn’t a hard dish, exactly, but I doubt I’ll ever make it at home (favas are a nightmare to shuck). It’s exactly what I want to eat in a restaurant with a great glass of wine on a steamy evening in July.

I feel much the same way about Paris Paris’s battered fried smelts, which come hot and sweet like a church supper fish fry. They’re dusted, heavily, with a powder of dehydrated ramps; it tastes like mellow allium edge and colours those fish to finest-jade green.

Seafood is a strength here. You should not miss the kitchen’s combination of scarlet shrimp and scallops cooked en papillote. There’s scallion, bay and fresh tomato inside the parchment packet, as well as lime butter and onion, and chilis that stain the broth red. In any case, the seafood is cooked perfectly (which is to say, barely at all); the smell when you open that packet at the table is nearly as intoxicating as a first summer crush.

But then so too is the smell of Paris Paris’s char-broiled squid, which come on a smoky red pool of roasted pepper-based romesco sauce. The squid on that plate are some of the most tender I’ve had (they use baby squid here; it’s the veal of the sea); it all comes studded with chopped macadamia nuts.

There were weaker dishes also: that mussels and Clamato concoction was peppered with grit when I tried it one night, and while it didn’t taste unfresh, exactly, I’ve had plumper, fresher-tasting mussels. This isn’t something you ever want to think when eating a mussels dish you didn’t prepare yourself.

And the seasoning on the kitchen’s play on Portuguese chicken was over-the-top salty the night I tried it, most likely from too much brining; its predominant flavour was of boxed, iodized salt. Which is a shame, because the ideas behind the dish struck me as brilliant (or at least, perhaps, like a night in Macao): while the roasting tasted like churrasqueria, the sauce on the plate was a chili-forward XO. Mr. Poon had made it not with the usual dried shellfish, but with dehydrated shiitake mushrooms instead.

Paris Paris’s seasoning in general hovers right at the edge; while I’m generally a fan of heavy seasoning, more salt-sensitive palates might not be as impressed. (“My mother would drop dead of a stroke after the first course,” said one of my friends.)

Apart from those two dishes, though—the chicken and the mussels—I didn’t eat anything at Paris Paris that fell far short of excellent. I loved the kitchen’s beef tongue tonnato, and its beautifully balanced beef tartare, and its oyster shots dressed with quail yolks and house-fermented chili sauce. And I loved Paris Paris’s grilled vegetable escabeche: all dark, smoky, fire-kissed summer crunch and chlorophyll, brightened to the edge of wincing (a good thing, in my book) with vinegar, a whisp of garlic and good oil. Like so much here, it tasted both gorgeous and effortless; you could almost picture the nonchalant shrugging as you chewed.

The last time I ate there, Mr. Poon had installed new front windows a few days before; for only the second night ever, the floor staff opened the front of the restaurant wide to Dundas Street West. As we drank more wine (quite a bit of it) and ate our desserts (an excellent, liquid-centred cherry and chocolate bombe that came, for no good reason—which was a very good reason—with a blazing sparkler) the weather outside switched from steamy to soaking. The street was soon engulfed in a summer evening storm.

The staff and guests stared out that window happily while a few sopping customers straggled in, accessorized with big smiles. I found myself feeling strangely jealous that their evenings were only about to start here, while ours were coming to an end.

Paris Paris

Cuisine: French, Canadian

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Atmosphere: There are two rooms here: one facing Dundas Street West, and with skylights overhead, and another in the back that’s built around the kitchen. Both are friendly and simple, outfitted with DIY furniture. The window seats (the sun streams through in the evenings) and the bar, though, are the places you probably want to be.

Sound: Energetic, but not oppressive.

Prices: Small plates from $5 to $28 (they average in the mid-teens). They’re reasonable, for the most part, for what you get.

Wine and drinks: The wine list is deep, excellent and has a decent selection of bottles in the $45 to $50 range; it’s focused mostly on trendy and natural wines.

What to eat: Fava beans and fennel, crispy smelts, beef tongue tonnato, char-broiled squid, grilled steak with morels, shrimp and scallops, French fries (they come with kewpie mayo), the cherry bombe dessert. NB: the menu changes frequently.

What the symbols mean:

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Vegetarian options available

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Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible

Critic's Pick

Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.

1 star

One star (out of four). A good restaurant. Recommended.

Two stars (out of four). A very good restaurant.

Three stars (out of four). An excellent restaurant.

Four stars (out of four). An extraordinary restaurant.

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.