When it arrived on the table we both noticed. It was just so pretty. Not in a contrived sort of way. Not architecturally awesome, and certainly not a prissy plate, but thoughtful, delicate.
My husband – who has had his share of good-looking dishes dropped in front of him over the years – commented on its comeliness when our server delivered it to him. “Well, we’ve got a girl in the kitchen,” she explained, “and she likes things pretty.”
I’d been a bit nervous about reviewing Patricia Larkin’s food at the Black Cat Bistro. She has been invited to compete at Gold Medal Plates on Nov. 14 – the Canadian Olympic Foundation charity event that features a culinary competition among 10 of the city’s top chefs – and I hadn’t wanted to run the risk of having a lousy meal just weeks before the event I have the pleasure of judging. Would I then question her right to be a contender? Didn’t want to risk it. But I found myself at BCB anyway – a guest at a birthday party for a friend – and the food was so charming, I damned the torpedoes and returned for a proper review. I was certainly due: my last review of Black Cat was during the tenure of Steve Vardy, now in Newfoundland. Back then, Larkin was his sous chef. Trained at Domus and Beckta before her move here, she has been in charge of the BCB kitchen for over a year.
The Black Cat has reinvented itself a few times over its 30-year history – changing locations, surname, even trying out a period of studied eccentricity when it became, for a time, an Asian noodle soup sort of place – and chefs have certainly come and gone, their stamp imprinted on a restaurant whose cooking has always been sure-handed and creative. Under Larkin, the Black Cat purrs contentedly on a French bistro track, the menu a nice, short balance between comfort food specials and traditional French faves.
Possibly, arguably, and if I had more confidence in the sharpness of my brain’s recall, I’d say the best starter of the year goes to this dark trumpet of octopus, smoked, then charred, surrounded with things that crunched, and things that were soft and fruity – delicate slivers of fennel, olives, croutons, a dollop of smoked paprika mayo and a cup of spicy yuzu vinaigrette. Good, too, a corn bisque with sweet roasted flavours and a lovely spread of bison carpaccio, more flavourful than its cow cousin, the raw meat moistened and adorned with all the right stuff.
Sweetbreads were featured one night. With the demise of French restaurants in this region, you see them less and less, so must nab them when they’re offered. These were good – seared and soft, paired with grilled Eryngii mushrooms and beet greens.
A vegetarian dish, house-made pasta with “local, seasonal vegetables,” sounded like it could be rather dull, but this was a terrific plate of flavour, the wide noodles on a bed of squash purée, with Le Coprin’s marvellous mushrooms, roasted corn and the gently bitter threads of arugula each lending a smack to the dish.
Is it the quality of the steak-frites or the roast chicken that separates the decent bistro from the great one? I lean more toward the fowl, believing any idiot can slap a hunk of meat on a grill for a few minutes. But you can tell more, I think, about a chef’s standards and artistry by the care that she or he takes with the humble, boring bird. Larkin lemons hers, that’s obvious, and there’s a delicate truffle aroma and a more assertive garlic smell; and certainly the bird tastes like it comes from a loving home, but whatever it is she does to keep this flesh so moist, this skin so crisp, I do not know. I only know she does, and then she puts around the bird exactly what you want around a bird – potatoes, mushrooms, corn, carrots, green beans.
Desserts include a vanilla-mint crème brûlée, with no discernible minty-ness, but otherwise lovely; a totally first-class lemon tart; and a hazelnut financier with brown sugar ice cream that ended up being the lump most fought over. And that’s saying a lot.