El Meson…” I wrote in a review of it in 2007, “is an old-fashioned neighbourhood restaurant, gracious, comfortably-kitschy, and largely unchanged in all the years I’ve known it.”
I suppose I’d known it for the twenty-some years José Alves ran it (with neighbourly care, dressed in traditional penguin suit). The food was Iberian – Spanish and Portuguese – and though not what you’d call exciting, it was steady and reliable, and the wine cellar was well stocked.
Well, it’s largely changed now! The stewardship of this heritage house-restaurant with its rich woodwork, rounded veranda and third floor turret, passed to André Cloutier in 2013. (Cloutier first made his mark on Beechwood Avenue with Arturo’s. He then opened, in 2014, the Beechwood Gastropub, found a few blocks closer to the river.)
Last summer, El Meson closed for a facelift. When it reopened it was renamed.
‘Clarkstown’ was the name given this bit of Vanier village in the latter part of the 1800s, settled by early French Canadian pioneers prior to amalgamation in the early 1900s. The history of the region is reinforced on the smart navy walls in historical photographs – men tearing up the streetcar lines, among others – and cool survey maps. The space looks brighter and smarter; it’s stripped of some of its knick-knacks; it’s service, led by Cloutier, is caring and much less buttoned-down.
Chef Tom Moore has been in the El Meson kitchen since 1996 and he’s in there still, having reworked the menu to suit a more democratic style of dining. It’s certainly a more anything-goes kind of dining – from Vietnamese noodle soup with lemongrass scented sausages to a jerk pork chop with peach chutney, to a ginger veggie stir fry (with pork, cilantro, citrus sausage) to paella.
Yes, paella. Clarkstown has kept “the famous paella” (as our server describes it at all my visits), but it seems to be the only tailgate dish from the El Meson days.
The menu’s feature is now house-made sausages, which have their own section and are priced and served as lunch-sized mains, or small suppers or shareable starters. There’s a bit called Bits ‘N Bites (yucca fries, crisped smelts, patatas fritas, baked oysters). You can order a ‘Whole Roasted Hog’ (72 hours notice please) for the whole table if you’d like, and there are six rather traditional starters (soup of day, mussels, mixed greens…) and six mains.
Meals have been mixed over three visits, but ended on a higher note with the final taste. Snug and happy at the bar, I am feeling as though the kitchen is possibly finding its groove.
Almost full marks for the sausages. Four on offer; I’ve tried three, all assertively flavoured, judiciously seasoned, moist and lean in equal measure and prettily served. Top marks especially, to the short rib and orange sausage, served on spaetzli with rapini and fried onion. Not all the sausage mates worked. The tabbouleh salad (with freekeh) came too cold, with that musty flavour of having been in the fridge too long, and its pairing with the sausages and a beet tzatziki amounted to many colliding flavours on one small plate. The vegetables beneath some of the other sausages could have used a trim (the rapini was lots of work!), a bit more seasoning, or further grilling.
It’s rare I am struck by a simple green salad, but this one was perfectly judged, with bouncy greens, a lovely citrus vinaigrette, and crunch from a pepita granola with just the right amount of sweet.
Curiously, the profound disappointment was the paella. For this dish to work, it must rely on seafood in top form and lightly cooked, and for the rice to be beautifully flavoured and perfectly balanced. The problem was the Clarkstown’s mussels, shrimp and clams weren’t that, and the saffron (if there was any) was overwhelmed by the taste of raw garlic. The chicken thigh had a ‘stewed’ taste —its skin limp, while rounds of chorizo were hard tack.
A jerk pork chop was thick and generous but overcooked, its jerk flavour M.I.A., its peach and tomato chutney making little impression.
There were baked oysters on our last night and once we dusted off the dusty breadcrumbs on top, we enjoyed them. Octopus was excellent, tender-chewy, smeared with smokey Spanish spices and served with smoked new potatoes. Delicious too was the fish on offer: plaice, perfectly cooked, topped with a tapenade of black olives and lemon confit and curled over a hill of veg and greens, set in a tomato sauce. I’d have that again in a heartbeat.
Dessert left us cold. A butterscotch pudding was unrelentingly sugary, the semi-freddo of lemon seemed weary and missing a lemon punch, served with a cafeteria-like fruit salad of apples in syrup, and the fruit crumble would have been far better served warm. It came straight from the fridge.
To pair with its sausages, the beer list here is long and impressive. The wine list looks first to Portugal and Spain, and if you’re a port fan, the selection of vintage bottles is extensive.
Clarkstown, it seems to me, is still feeling its way. There were some lovely moments and some worrying ones. If the menu were Whoa-Nellied a bit, trimmed down and given more direction, I believe it could be a strength for the street.