Sometime after a chef has achieved his first successful restaurant – packed room, critical acclaim, maybe the spotlight of a Gold Medal Plates award – opening a second place is an idea oft toyed with. And it’s increasingly the way of it in this town. To wit: the Beckta crew, The Whalesbone Group, the Matthew Carmichael/Jordan Holley team, the Fraser brothers, John Taylor (back to one). And now chef Jon Svazas, of Fauna restaurant on Bank Street, has birthed a sibling restaurant for his first born.
Bar Laurel is in the Hintonburg space vacated by the Back Lane Café. Very little of the reclaimed enthusiasm (salvaged timber, antique windows, ornate archways) of Back Lane remains. The room has been modernized – the lines are straighter, the walls darker, and a flock of lights, reminiscent of those at Fauna, pretties up the middle. Banquettes run down the east-west walls, from the bar to the etched windows, where they turn to curve around two corner booths. Bring a few friends if you want those nooks.
The other place to perch is at the bar. It’s where I spent a couple of evenings, sampling pintxos (Basque style bar snacks) and sipping impeccable cocktails crafted by the slim Scotsman in the bunnet. Matt (“May I offer you a wee taste?”) Millard, is of the ‘let’s get this right’ school of bartending. He shares the drinks role with Bar Laurel sommelier and manager Eryn Huskins. These two are much the pleasure of the place.
A further star of the bar (this one edible) is the black-hooved beast, still sporting its DNA certification tag. Jamón ibérico de bellota, aged 42 months, is the most prized ham on the planet. It comes from the thin-legged, fat-bodied, acorn-chomping pigs, the pata negra, of Spain. A small plate of the stuff, thinly sliced, served with excellent hearth bread, will set your heart racing. It will also cost you 25 bucks, and I doubt Bar Laurel’s making any profit. One evening, a woman at the table next to mine was surgically removing the ribbons of fat from her bellota ham, before nibbling away on the dark-red meat that was left. It was horrifying to watch. And all I could do not to reach over and pinch her fat.
There are other dishes that re-enforce (for a price) luxury Spanish ingredients. A section of the one page menu called ‘Conservas’ includes such treats as baby squid in ink, prized sardines, and razor clams, served with crostini and garnishes. You could begin with that prized ham, or the imported conservas, or spend the evening snacking on Bar Laurel’s pintxos. Or the pintxos morunos (spiced and skewered pork, lamb, or halloumi/veg, cooked in the wood fired oven, served with a preserved lemon gelée) before heading, if you’re still hungry, for the two sharing platos, dished up to serve a few of you.
Yes, a plan of attack is required. And my sense, after three visits, is that Bar Laurel works better once you get to know it. The room is lovely, the vibe is fun, the food is delicious, but how much you will need to order, and how much you will need to spend to feel you’ve truly supped, is a matter of practice. Servers are getting better at describing dishes not only in terms of what’s on them, but also how much each will fill you up.
Certainly the sharing platters will do the job. I have not attacked the dry-aged ribeye, but the wood-oven roasted chicken is a standout. It comes crisp-skinned and sweet-fleshed, rimmed with salsa rosa and nestled on a rich polenta, with grilled chanterelles and zucchini, a smooth mushroom purée and sweet little onions, the lot slathered with a dark and delectable jus.
There’s an octopus dish – newly on the menu – that’s worth ordering. The fish is fantastically tender and juicy at its fat end, tapering to crisp. It was well seasoned and well charred, set on a warm fingerling salad flecked with earthy chunks of morcilla – Spanish blood sausage studded with pinenuts – and fried kale that shatters in the mouth. Lingering with fish, cured king salmon, so pale and luscious, arrives on a stretched crostini, covered with caperberries, pickled shallots, dobs of crème fraiche, all spiced with flakes of pink peppercorn.
Slabs of perfect tuna are anointed with oil, their sidekicks pickled shallots, radish and cucumber, sweetened with orange sections. Squid is stuffed with merguez sausage, roasted and set in a chunky sofrito sauce (tomato, onion, peppers, garlic) drizzled delectably with an orange butter. For crunch, opt for the delicious croquetas di iberico, ham croquettes, served with a tangy salsa verde.
Vegetables are given their due. A study of carrots proves to be the star dish one night – some roasted, some pickled, all bursting with flavour, they will turn any vegetable resister into a kneeler at the altar of the humble root. They come with other pleasures – a manchego crisp, a goat cheese crema and golden raisins soused with sherry.
Grilled zucchini and pattypan squash are anchored to the plate with hummus, seasoned with smoked salt, fennel fronds, and dobs of an orange gelée. A bit of crumbled chorizo and manchego cheese, sneak into the stuffed piquillo peppers, tempura coated, fried and dotted with a paprika aioli.
And then one dish that didn’t work as well: Eggplant – the short, squat variety, tempura-ed and tossed in oil, then cut in sections, such that it opened like petals at the touch of a fork. It sat pretty in a rich, tangy yoghurt sauce, but drizzled with (too much) honey it came disconcertingly close to dessert.
Still in need of a sweet ending, the Basque style cheesecake is pretty fantastic. Fired in the wood oven, it arrives warm and rich and charred, served with a hazelnut pastry cream, and three ways with cantaloupe – compressed balls, a carpaccio, and a melon ‘paper’ (which was more cool than yummy). A sprinkling of coconut crumble was the final flourish.
Other than the small honey quibble, none of the dishes failed to please. Bar Laurel is a really good place to eat. It offers a relaxed ambiance, great drinks, and attention-grabbing food, with strong technical elements, prettily plated. Kudos to Svazas and his protégé, chef de cuisine Zachary Reznick.
Now go and get to know it.