My first taste of chef Trish Donaldson’s food at the Black Cat Café came as a trio of freebies: a slice of her wonderful “angry bread” (reddened with chillies and paprika); a dish of her spicy orange-infused olives; and a buttery nugget of monkfish, dredged in Indian spices on a perky, sandy Bolognese with dill and saffron oil in green dribs and orange drabs on the plate. She called it her “surf and turf” amuse bouche.
We call it fun. And very tasty.
Which sums up dinner here.
Donaldson’s dishes start with solid ingredients and into their assembly is injected innovation, inspiration and an impish sense of humour. The flavour combinations are solid and the presentation is stylish.
Donaldson worked under René Rodriguez at the Black Cat until he left for the executive chef job at Luxe Bistro (after Derek Benitz left Luxe to open Benitz Bistro.)
Donaldson now runs the kitchen, while the restaurant is managed by sommelier Rémy Urquhart (son of Black Cat owner Richard Urquhart, who first opened the Café on Echo Drive in the nineteen eighties, and who now makes Toronto his home.) The original sign of the original Black Cat Café graces the walls of the Murray Street location, a small, intimate restaurant of pale-wood tables, molded black chairs, and clever, unfussy things on the walls. It is not a formal restaurant. If you are looking for white tablecloths to soften the blow of a sizable bill, you won’t find it here. The atmosphere is very much the sort that permits dropping in for a glass of wine (from a very well managed, interesting list) and a single dish at the bar. (Which in turn reduces the bill.)
If the Senators are playing a home game, that single dish might be chicken wings. Donaldson has her way with wings most Tuesday nights. One such Tuesday we are treated to wings transformed by fat – cooked, cooled and sealed in duck fat – resulting in a silky, rich texture, the flavour enhanced with aromatic tea, and set on a bed of wide rice noodles perfumed with lime and black sesame seeds. They are as deliciously decadent as they come.
She likes tea, Trish does. Order scallops as a starter and they come with a cup of apple-cinnamon tea, deeply perfumed, meant to be enjoyed (and we do) with the seared scallops and the smooth apple butter on which they perch.
Tuna comes balanced on a skewer, crusted with coriander and sesame seed, set on a delicious miso-coconut mash strewn with coconut chips and served with a crunchy apple-celery root salad studded with black sesame seeds.
Noodles come in a wide bowl with a mess of good stuff: roasted red peppers, zucchini, eggplant, crunchy peanuts, shredded lime leaves, soft squares of tofu and chunks of steamed halibut. Pork medallions are paired with cumin-scented pickled apricots and sour cream blinis, served with a tiny celeriac salad. Thick, rare slabs of impeccable beef are set on a parsnip puré and come with a Yorkshire pudding with pulled oxtail and a wild mushroom in its hollow. Monkfish comes wrapped in bacon, set on wilted spinach and bathed in a foie gras broth. But my favourite main dish is the mint-infused pasta pouches (brilliant, perfectly cooked) filled with pulled lamb of deep lamb flavour, softened with ricotta cheese and braised carrots.
The trio of tuna both delights and disappoints. The tuna sashimi, cured in sake is terrific, set on an elaborate banana leaf canopy, and the clever canning jar of tuna confit with potato and pickled plums, is also quite good. The tuna hand rolls, however, suffer from mushy, glutinous rice, and somehow we missed the fact this was an all-cold dish. Didn’t seem quite right for a main course in February. Where was the tea?
For dessert, we tuck into homemade doughnuts and Vietnamese coffee ice cream; warm rice pudding “brulée” with a passion fruit coulis; and fiendishly good handmade truffles, with coconut sorbet served in a banana leaf “box”. Another night we enjoy cheeses in fine condition, served with smoked walnuts, apple butter and homemade breadsticks.
The choice of wines by the glass is not long, but Urquhart is a master of matching this food to his wines. Everything he suggests delights us. Dad should be proud.