Flop into allium on a sleety Monday night, hungry, weary and with little more than a couple of twenty-dollar bills, and you’ll find yourself revived in no time, and likely with change in your pocket when you flop out.
This Holland Avenue restaurant (I know, I know, yet another Holland Avenue restaurant) reopened late this summer after a fire at the eatery above it (Les Grillades – I miss their chicken). Soggy and smoky, allium was forced to shut down for three months.
It used the time well. On freshly painted caramel walls, a platoon of plus-size art featuring the kinetic work of local artist Rachel Laratta. Booths have been built into an elevated back section and a new row (I think new) of bar-height café tables now parallels the long bar. But it is essentially the same looking space – a casual, comfortable, unaffected room of bare tables, dark wood, big mirrors and vibrant art.
The real difference comes from the kitchen. There seems to me a mature confidence, a renewed vigour in the cooking of chef Arup Jana. The food that emerges has serious smack.
Take the tapas available on this Monday night. From a list of about 20 small plates and a few things skewered – as well as a couple of cheese plates and half portions of desserts – we nibble our way through a wealth of not-so-smallish dishes (price tags start at $2 and climb to $6) and waddle out quite satisfied and with a pocket jingling of meter money. Not a bad start to the week.
Three seared scallops on a warm corn salad puts us back $5. Wedges of beer battered halibut with a mitt full of fries and a dollop of homemade tartare sauce is tasty greasy stuff, again for $5. Other good Monday things: crab cakes with a warm potato salad, duck and foie gras pate with a pea shoot salad and an apple chutney, Mac and cheese anointed with truffle oil, and Quebec cheeses served in ripe condition. I find the sautéed calamari floats in an overly exuberant garlic sauce, the duck skewers are a bit flabby and the roasted beet salad is marred somewhat with under-roasted beets. But on the whole, these are yummy bites of affordable food, generously served, designed to fill seats on a slow, wretched night.
I had a thoroughly delicious vegetarian meal at allium later in the week. It began with a potato and parmesan soup that wore a thatch of deep fried potato sticks and then a very handsome tower of well grilled vegetables – eggplant, yellow zucchini, green zucchini, squash, profoundly caramelized onion, layered with herbed “polenta” fashioned with quinoa and studded with artichokes and, among the layers, fat chunks of La Sauvagine (an award winning soft rind cheese from Quebec), served with a tomato salsa with some clout and a peak of deep fried leek.
On another night beef, duck and bison. The bison first as a starter in two arrangements: the meat threaded on skewers, marinated and grilled to rare, served with an orange and cucumber salad; and also as a tartare, balanced with pickled red onions and a spicy aioli. Bison as main dish arrived in a surf and turf arrangement with polenta and an herb salad, and also with salmon (perfectly wet, served with a crunchy salsa and roast tomatoes.)
Duck arrives tender fleshed and crisp-skinned, grilled to rare, sweetened with a maple jus scented with thyme. A November medley of roasted mushrooms, apples, red cabbage and bacon is the welcome side. Beef one night – with a pear-onion jam and spiced beets – is quite perfect. Another night, it is a terrifically terrible chew. The strip loin- from a Mariposa Farms Black Angus steer – seemed in need of more aging.
Desserts are designed to delight – an excellent lemon tart boasts very fresh shortcrust pastry and a puckering filling, served with a ball of raspberry sorbet. The classic vanilla bean crème brulée comes with a crumbly shortbread cookie. Both rock.
Service can be uber casual. They could bump it up a notch. It would suit the food better.
Welcome back from the flames, allium.