Stephen Beckta has a genius for timing. His first restaurant – the seven-year-old Beckta Dining and Wine – is well liked, critically acclaimed, and widely considered to be among the best restaurants in the city. But it’s not a big place, and there’s only so much wiggle room available to grow a 70-seat restaurant in a Victorian brick.
So it came as no surprise when Beckta announced he was casting about for a location for a sibling restaurant. During the casting about phase, there would have been a dining public still quite willing to spend their private resources on comestibles. Beckta could well have forged ahead with a second Beckta-like place – the standard three course progression of contemporary Canadian cuisine, with high end prices – and have been forgiven for thinking it would have done well.
But the man seems to have sniffed the wind long before the wind changed and the trend for spending a whole lot less jack on things like epic dinners blew in almost overnight. Beckta’s genius is that he didn’t go for more of the same. He went for less.
Play was, from the get-go, designed to be a restaurant that asks much less of us. Less time, less commitment, less money.
He also found a fabulous place on a great corner, with an interior designed from scratch to suit his needs and those of Chef Michael Moffatt. Covering two floors, Play is spacious, airy, light-filled, and painted bravely in the colour of a baby boy’s first bedroom.
Lengths of red silk ripple over parts of the white ceiling. Rows of small, lacquered-pine tables are surrounded by black leather chairs and long black benches. The blue walls are interrupted with big windows to let the outside in.
The “less” bit is also the small plates thing. I know, I know, it’s everywhere. Stifle your yawn. It’s become a trend because it makes sense – what good fun a table laden with starterish things; what relief never having to commit to a main dish. Still hungry? Order some more. Still thirsty? Play with a wine match. In a hurry? Grab a bite or two and go. (The crowd waiting for your table will be delighted.) And Play, for the most part, has nailed the portions – the ratio of gnocchi to loonie seems fair. With some dishes, even generous.
Play has also nailed the atmosphere. There’s a clamour of people at play – the good noise of a full and happy room, along with the noise of chefs labouring at an open kitchen.
Their labours have produced some terrific bites and some disappointing ones. The best was the pickerel – a thick hunk, crusted and browned, snow white and succulent, perched on wilted spinach, surrounded with sautÃ©ed mushrooms (oyster, King Eryngi, brown beech) and topped with strips of lemon confit, their rich oils oozing happily into a pile of carrot chips. The other best thing was the grilled hangar steak. It had great flavour and chew, and came with excellent frites, nicely salted. My third favourite, the foie gras terrine, was studded with chunks of soft beef shank, served with a red wine aspic.
The basic pairings work well – gnuddi with pesto, gnocchi with mushrooms, scallops with bacon, artichokes and polenta. It’s the triplings I find troubling. Salmon gravlax (fine) Micha goat cheese (yes) but the black-eyed peas (other than providing a bit of texture) do nothing for the dish. The chilled cucumber-coconut soup scented with lemongrass is very nice, and the shrimp crusted in cornmeal are OK, but the carrot-ginger salad in the broth detracts. Similarly, the too-sweet hazelnut crunch with the fresh artichokes (unseasoned) and the parmesan polenta (too stiff) made no sense to me. The gnuddi are yummy, cheesy little nuggets, and they float in a deep pool of browned butter and cream into which are dolloped spoons of pesto – but they are wildly, naughtily rich. I’m still recovering.
Some troubles too with the balance of bread to meat. There is too much ‘bun’ to pulled pork, and the slices of grilled panini have a paucity of corned beef in them.
Desserts have been hit and miss. There’s a nice chocolate pate, but the bread pudding is dry and dull. The candied banana with a pineapple-rum sauce is fun, but the raspberry ripple ice cream (at least it tastes like raspberry ripple ice cream) doesn’t belong.
On balance, the dining out scene is better for this place, the Market more vibrant. There’s an infectious feel-good vibe at Play, aided by solid service. And on plate, the quality of the ingredients is unquestionable. It was the combinations that seemed flat to me. Nothing really made my heart sing.
If Play wants to be the Beckta of small plate dining, it’s going to need to take it up a notch.