Monday, November 21, 2016

This Nightingale Needs a Little Nursing...

It's difficult not to have high expectations when you know that David Hawksworth is the owner of this fairly new restaurant.  I had hoped that the mixed reviews were just the result of the operation needing a little "working-out-the-kinks" time.  I figured there could also have been some unreasonable expectations involved.  I figured the negative reviews would act as alarm calls, and the restaurant would scurry about to fix the offending issues.

Well, I think it needs more love.  Here are my impressions of my dinner there.  In short, I wouldn't mind dining there again should an occasion call for it, but I'm not going to be rushing over again for now.  Mostly very tasty food with a couple of misses, mediocre service for this price point, and a pretty room but not terribly cosy on the bottom floor just doesn't add up to justifying the cost for me.

I dined with two other people, and we managed to make a good dent into the menu, sharing all items.

The roasted maitake mushroom with pecorino, brown butter, hazelnut ($12) was one of my favourites.  Fairly simple, but delicious.  Very nutty with the hazelnuts and the browned butter.  I also liked the fact that there were so many vegetable dishes on the menu.  

This cocktail was the Haddonfield ($15...didn't really pay attention to this at the time), and was very pleasant, balanced, and worth having again.  Bourbon, Calvados, PX sherry, green chartreuse, Angostura bitters.

The meatballs ($16 - there were three of them) were a miss.  Specifically, braised meatballs, San Marzano, parmesan, pine nut, basil, chili.  One of us, a meatball aficionado of Italian descent, found it too dry, as if they had been sitting out for too long.  I agreed and I was also disappointed in the weak flavour.  However, the pine nuts included were a good addition.  The sauce was fine otherwise, but not too memorable. 

The grilled Pacific rockfish, fresh ginger, scallion, black pepper ($14) was very tasty, but I couldn't help but think that I could go to a Chinese restaurant and get almost an entire delicious fish with similar flavours for the price of this slice.  I did know going in that this meal was going to be pricey, and this is in the "small" section of the menu, so it wasn't really a surprise, but it was just so similar to a Chinese fish dish, it naturally ignited my Chinese thriftiness.

This Pacific octopus with blistered caper, parsley, fermented child, vinegar ($19) was one of my favourites.  It was meaty, tasty and interesting (mostly because it isn't found like this commonly in restaurant here).

This grilled merguez sausage ($17) was spicy and flavourful, and the baba ghanouj was great with it.  I didn't get a shishito pepper (I think there were two on the plate).  Also, to be honest, I don't remember the mint and only remember the cilantro.  If I could go back in time, I'd keep this dish, but skip the meatballs.

The brussel sprouts, dried plum, chili, chardonnay vinegar was also delicious, and I will try to remember to add sliced prunes the next time I roast brussel sprouts.  I had never had that combination before, and the sweet dried fruit went so well with the brusssel sprouts.

This pizza ($17) was also very nice.  Cooked new potatoes on pizza is great. It also had roasted mushrooms, garlic confit and fontina.  The crust had great texture, with the centre being very thin yet structurally stable, and a nice level of chewiness.

Here we come to dessert, and I've included a photo of the menu because it is not on the website.  Each dessert has a pairing, and so my hopes were high that they were well thought out, and with a chef owner of this calibre, I assumed that going to the effort of putting pairings on their dessert menu indicated that each pair would be remarkable with each other.  I chose the salted caramel pot de crème, whipped crème fraîche, butterscotch, vanilla breton ($12), which was paired with NV Taylor Fledge 20 year old tawny port, douro, prt ($17).  Suffice it to say that when I tried them together, I did not understand why they were paired, and nothing remarkable happened apart or taken together.  The dessert was recommended by my server and it was good, but served too cold for my taste.  I wouldn't bother having the port again, at least not for $17 a glass.  I should have had a cup of coffee but one of my dinner companions did order a coffee and received one that was too cold.

So the best thing about this place was the food.  Some improvements can still be made there - for example, I would suggest re-evaluating those dessert pairings, and look at what's happening with the meatballs. I'm going to assume the pricing will stay the same, and I guess there are plenty of people around that will pay but I would love to see that just slightly lower, even if it was just a bit shaved off the drinks or larger portions for some of the dishes.  The room was quite busy on a Monday night.

The decor is going to attract a lot of customers and you can tell that a lot was invested in this.  It has a very classy updated retro style. But the real work needed here is in the service.  I've only to Hawksworth once, and there were absolutely no issues with service and it was delightful, so one would think that it might be possible to nearly duplicate that at another location even if it is not the same level of fine dining.  Anyway, I get better service at IHOP at a fifth of the price (shout out to the amazing male server at the Broadway location).  The service at Nightengale wasn't terrible.  It was almost fine.  Let's say a near miss.  Certainly nobody kicked a piece of pizza at my foot like the night Alexandra Gill visited (reading that review made me laugh).  They seemed pretty friendly, but this felt more like a mask covering some general indifference.  So to start, unfortunately a couple of people had cancelled on me and I originally had six people which meant that there was (I presume) a six-top saved for me upstairs in the nice part of the restaurant.  I try to be considerate, so I left a message updating the restaurant that we were only going to be a party of four.  They weren't able to pick up and didn't get a chance to check the voicemail, so they weren't aware of this when I arrived (it's not that often that I call a restaurant during service and can't get through, but they were busy so that's not ideal, but not that big a problem).  So then we wind up getting seated at a table for four right in front of the door.  When I expressed my interest in an upstairs table, I was told it was all full.  I had arrived in front of my guests, so I made sure he understood my preference by politely reiterating by mentioning that I'd appreciate a table upstairs if one opens up before my guests arrived.  He mumbled something about if you want an upstairs table, you need to reserve it ahead of time.  Which of course, I had, but I didn't bother with trying to get into an argument with him since we did only have four people. I did get the feeling that it wasn't quite as full up there as he made it seem.  At least we didn't get a high top table, which I had specifically asked to avoid when I made my original reservation.  The person I spoke to and who seated us wasn't going to be our server for the night, so there was that indifference, with what felt like a fake politeness laid on top.

Then later in the evening, we had trouble flagging our server down a couple of times.  She was fairly friendly though.  We didn't have time to get the cold coffee replaced and it was apparent then that it was difficult to get her attention.  I don't think it was comped when it was mentioned either.  The slight indifference could be sensed again, but she did definitely offer to replace it.  There was a lack of warmth in both people I dealt with that evening.  The food in general did come out quickly though.

I did enjoy the meal with my dining companions, and there were definitely some highlights, and the menu itself is exciting and varied.  I would love to see this place improve.  I am not sure how much motivation they will have to do this, as it is already a very popular spot.  I think the food is interesting enough to make the visit worthwhile if you've got the money to burn.  But if you don't, maybe save up a tiny bit more and head to Hawksworth instead if you want a more polished experience.