Sutherland is the latest venture for chef Warren Sutherland. His four-month is a big, airy, industrial-looking restaurant, with an open kitchen and coffee/cocktail bar, found on the ground level of the Kavanaugh Condominiums on the northern fringes of Beechwood Avenue. It’s a full-service place, open every day for coffee, breakfast, brunch, lunch, tapas, cocktails, dinner and afters. Which means Sutherland’s neighbours living up above need never leave home.
Sutherland, the chef, has had an eclectic career. Born in Jamaica, he trained at the New England Culinary Institute and launched his kitchen work in the States. In this city, he’s cooked Aboriginal cuisine with Caribbean flourishes at the Sweetgrass Café, formerly found on Murray Street. He helped birth The SmoQue Shack on York Street, with its hefty platters of southern barbecue meats; he partnered on a pizza project on Elgin; and he’s part owner of The Piggy Market, a gem of a deli/bakery/butcher shop in Westboro that happens to bake the best Jamaican patties in the city.
This new project is stamped with his name on the marquee, and the menu is stamped with all those assorted experiences. Divided into three sections (Cold, Warm and Hot Plates, “We suggest 2-3 plates per person”) it offers dishes from parts everywhere, from jerk chicken to beef tartare, poke to gnocchi, salt cod fritters to sous vide rabbit, crème caramel to sticky toffee pud. Mostly, this is simple fare made special. No pizza, though. That inclination seems to be gone. Fine with me.
The food is good. Some of it is very good. In fact, I’d slap the year-thus-far’s blue ribbon on a stunning oxtail ragout. It was a terrific plate of refined comfort, the soft, fragrant meat piled on a delicate potato pavé, ringed with a dark berry coulis and snow-showered with horseradish.
The coffee and morning pastries are very fine. Indeed, all the baked goods, including desserts at dinner (carrot cake, sticky toffee pudding, a pear galette on a base of churro served with pistachio ice cream and a pear-vanilla syrup), have been delicious. A noon visit starts with a thick beet soup, the colour of my high school prom dress, not shy of beet flavour, whitened with a dollop of crème fraiche. It’s followed by a terrific smoked brisket sandwich.
We start one night with a plate of octopus, two limbs yielding and grill-marked, set on a Nicoise-like salad of fingerlings and frisée, threaded with sundried tomato. Simple and well done. Duck is all rosy and right, the meat clinging to a thin layer of its fat, set on a black bed of Chinese rice and Canadian lentils. Around it, roasted things – baby onions, Brussels – and a golf ball of the leg meat, confit-ed, pulled, panko-crusted and fried. Puddles of duck jus perfumed with cardamom, cinnamon and honey finish the plate.
It took a few visits before I could be talked into the jerk chicken. To me, boneless breast is always and ever dull, and certainly not the bit of bird to be jerked. But this meat was cooked sous vide, and the result was juicy and tender, infused with warming spices. The skin was rubbed with mild jerk seasoning (more broody-sweet and fragrant than Scotch Bonnet-burning), the breast sliced and propped on a red bean stew, with compressed cubes of chayote. Not your roadside Jamaican jerk…
In a winning nod to Mr. McGregor’s garden, there’s rabbit, prepared three ways – the loin juicy and pink, a chewy-good sausage and a croquette of the leg meat – surrounded with a farmer’s field of rabbit treats. Here a few dobs of red cabbage whirled into a purple purée; there carrots, juiced and fashioned into brittle rice crisps, everywhere dainty sprigs of microgreens. Charming, really. And tasty. I would just prefer to eat it with a candle on my table and the lights turned down, delivered by a server who knows her stuff.
And there are my issues with Sutherland. There’s fine dining, there’s casual fine dining and then there’s uncomfortably casual fine dining. This is the last. There’s a disconnect between the refined style of cuisine here, the obvious attention paid to plating, and a dining room that feels like a modern cafeteria. It works well in the daylight with the sun pouring in through big ole windows, lighting up our lattes, pastries and soups. At night, we want our coffee shop to morph into a restaurant proper. We want mood. Lights lower, candles lit, service knowing. With one notable exception, the men and women who have served my table over a number of visits have had only a rudimentary knowledge of the menu. They struggle to answer questions about its details (or try to fudge their way through.) “I haven’t tried that dish yet” is no excuse for not knowing about the rabbit. Or the fish. And no, tagliatelle is not a salad green no matter how often you insist it is. The back of house needs to speak to the front.
There’s a short list of well-made cocktails at Sutherland (I adored the sake-based ‘Spa Water,’ with cucumber, elderflower, citrus and mint) and worthy choices for beer and wines. Noise can be an issue – hard surfaces, high ceiling and the open concept contribute to the echo when the main room is busy. Try to snag a table at the smaller, more intimate side room on the south side of Sutherland if it’s peace you seek.
All in all, Sutherland’s a solid addition to the east end’s dining out. Pleasurable food, well executed… just a few tweaks away from fine.