In the final gasps of 2016 I had one of the best meals of the year at the little Bank Street restaurant called Clover.
I had written about the noon time pleasures of Clover Food & Drink back in 2014, when it first opened. Run by West De Castro, lately sous chef of the (late) vegan restaurant ZenKitchen, her downtown restaurant launched with lunch service. It began offering evening meals on the weekends not too long thereafter.
Today, it’s open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday, and if you haven’t checked out its evening fare, it’s time you did. Clover may lack the fine trappings of a dressy dining room, but chef West de Castro is plating some of the most interesting, creative, and polished food in the city. And dishing it up at pretty democratic prices.
You don’t come for the glitz. The long, narrow room is spartan, though Jennifer Barnaby’s lovely food photography brightens the walls. Pendant lighting is soft and fun (filament bulbs caged in industrial mixer whisks). Chairs are hard and fun (school room plain). Bare wood tables are set with white linen napkins and amber coloured glassware.
So you come for the food: it is delightful and delicious. That December dinner was too late in the month to include in my piece on the Best Plates of the Year. (Had I gone a week earlier, the savoy cabbage roll with chestnut purée, roasted eryngii mushrooms, charred shallots, and puffed wild rice would have been it.) There aren’t many chefs who can nail a vegan dish with such style and understanding and dish up a kick-ass burger riddled with beefy flavour.
Clover’s burgers are loosely-packed, house-ground, grass-fed beef, tucked in a soft sesame bun and topped with the day’s inspiration. An avocado cream one lunch visit. A mound of carrot and radish kimchi topped with a fried egg another. The burgers come with wedge fries and a cup of slaw, or you can sub out the spuds in favour of the house salad or the day’s soup, which we did.
There is sweet crunch and crack and unexpected acidic pleasure in the salad, punched with a preserved lemon vinaigrette. That same command of texture is evident in the soups: a broccoli purée is scented with sage, perked with the sweet and sour of a malt vinegar gastrique and topped with a nutty gremolata, where kale stands in for parsley.
One dinner began with popcorn. It tasted just-burst, salty and sweet with a warm curry bite. You munch that while examining the all-Ontario wine and craft beer list. Consider the chicken liver pate as a next move, as smooth and rich and unctuously delicious as that classic will ever be, served with slices of green apple, haskap jelly and toasties. A nubbly white bean spread shares a board with pickled asparagus, olives, and dukkah-dusted flatbread. Good sharing starters, both.
Much consideration and thoughtfulness goes into the vegetarian dishes at Clover. If you can get over the maggot-look of the puffed wild rice, the Christmas cabbage roll with chestnut purée is proof of that. Also worthy, a pasta dish that unites perfectly chewy bucatini with a dark, deep tomato compote, crunchy-herby breadcrumbs, navy beans, wisps of softened kale, and loads of parmesan.
But the kitchen also nails meat. The burger is ridiculously delicious. Mariposa duck arrives crisp skinned, the fat mostly rendered, the ruby meat sweetened with a port-cherry sauce. The old-school fondant potato has the right creamy richness within a brown buttery crust, flavoured with the stock in which it is poached, and generously seasoned.
There is a very pretty vegan chocolate cake with shiny pink peppercorn crackle, that seems a bit throat-clearingly dry, until you add the fruit – spiced plums and pears – and the red wine gelée. I admired it more than loved it. What I loved was the crème brulée, orange scented, and topped with a gooey pull of Clover honeycomb.
Service is cheery and attentive, and knows the menu well.