07/12 Update: Chef Matthew Carmichael has left Social
Ever since my two (delicious) dinners at the new vegan restaurant Zen Kitchen, I’ve been on a carnivorous bender.
So it was without much ruminating, and with encouragement from Social server “Peter M.” (“it’s my absolute fave”), that I jumped on the steak-frites last week. It might have been the promised boozy brown-butter sauce that clinched it, or the frosty nip in the night air that made a pot of fries and a bloody steak seem necessary. Whatever. It was simple, well executed, and very fine.
Restaurant E18teen chef Matthew Carmichael has been overseeing the kitchen at Social since Steve Mitton left to open Murray Street in 2008. It’s a nifty trick, overseeing two restaurants simultaneously, and I was curious to taste how Social was making out post-Mitton, with an executive chef who must split his attention. Fortunately, the dash between restaurants is short and Carmichael is nimble, for there is no evidence that Social is suffering.
Nor does it seem to suffer the ravages of time. Social is turning 10, and it remains unwaveringly lovely on the surface: elegant, contemporary, stylish. Its assets include limestone walls, big windows with nice views, soaring ceilings, great bolts of timeless colour and sensible lighting.
And Social has also been the beneficiary of a succession of solid chefs. In Carmichael’s hand, the menu is a comforting modern-Canadian document – a short list of well-made, simple-with-treats dishes that makes the most of the mission of sourcing locally and buying the best when the best is at its best.
There were some missteps – a dull pasta dish one night (though terrific shrimp atop) and too much cheese on the pork another – but they’re far outweighed by starters like local mushrooms in a lusciously rich veal jus, piled on Art-is-in toast, or seared B.C. albacore tuna artfully presented with NiÃ§oise mates. Or by mains like dark-surfaced, ruby-rare venison with a lovely rhubarb compote.
Fun, standby food like calamari has a tasty twist: cumin in the coating, and a mayonnaise dip fashioned with pickled milkweed pods.
Starters are called Small Plates and they can spike a Social bill. You should pay attention to the notion these are not necessarily meant to precede dinner. Or at least that they could be shared before moving on. The mushrooms on toast, for instance, could easily make a meal. Same with the tuna starter.
Despite the old cheddar that’s too bossy, the Berkshire pork tenderloin is pink and juicy and full of piggy flavour. It comes with perfect fingerling potatoes and a seedy mustard sauce. Halibut is polished white and melting on wilted arugula, with a gentle smoked tomato vinaigrette.
Vegetables are not afterthoughts. On every plate, we find them perfectly cooked, snapping fresh and fussed over, whether a pile of meaty mushrooms, rapini, beets, fresh beans or peas.
There is crÃ¨me brulÃ©e and it is fine, served with fresh berries, and there is a dark chocolate torte, with quality ice cream and an espresso caramel sauce that seems to me $9 well spent. There are many martinis, champagne cocktails on the drinks menu and a half dozen beer on tap. I have friends who go just for the mojitos.
Social can be loud (especially when filled with mojito drinkers). And in the service department, this seven-day-a-week operation has some strong servers who are as knowledgeable as if they’d done the cooking themselves, and others who are weaker.
But overall, Social remains a restaurant that offers lots of environmental advantages, and with a strong, well-intentioned kitchen helmed by Carmichael, the eating is very satisfying.