[REVIEW] Hawthorne Food & Drink Toronto Restaurant Review
So knowing that Saturday would be a day of noodles and Asian delights (at #SlurpTO v.2) and that I would either be going to be Thai at my regular dietitian gossip-fest Saturday evening, I thought some good Canadian comfort food would fill some weekend culinary gaps. Obviously, there are lots of options for that right now in the city, but I was interested in trying something new. With SlurpTO on my mind, I was reminded that I had meant to check out Hawthorne after meeting then-Executive-chef Eric Wood at the first Slurp installment. Not so long after, I got a press release email informing me that Mr. Wood, the visionary behind the Richmond St. E. restaurant, was leaving for other projects, and that his sous-chef, Bihn An Nguyen, was going to be taking his place. While it was of course regrettable I never got to check out Hawthorne while Wood was in house, I was definitely still curious about the overall restaurant concept and how Nguyen was throwin’ things down.
Like Wood’s previous establishment, Fabarnak, which trained gay youth on the job, Hawthorne isn’t designed as just a typical restaurant. Rather, its mission is to empower and educate hospitality workers in the city. The restaurant was built in a downtown co-op building owned by the hospitality union, UNITE HERE Local 75, who worked alongside major hotels to create a paid internship program. So other than serving up high quality fare to paying patrons, Hawthorne aims to rigorously train food industry interns for a career in the cut-throat restaurant world so that they can later move up the ranks.
To help facilitate this hands-on training, the restaurant is open to the public for lunch and dinner six days a week. They even accept reservations, which of course is a huge plus for me- a good first sign of Hawthorne’s hospitality before even stepping through their door.
Put together by Squarefood Design, Hawthorne seats as many as 42 diners, both in tables and at the bar. The windows span from ceiling to floor all along the wall, casting light on the beautiful preserved mason jars that occupy various shelves throughout the room. I know that this whole pickle-container thing is a little overplayed in restaurants right now, but I still really love the look. A far cry from the popular “eclectic” look most restaurants are going for, the light wood tables and chairs are a little IKEA-esque, but are surprisingly comfortable for sitting none-the-less. So, no, the Hawthorne may not be the most sexy of dining rooms, but even with the lights dimmed, it feels organic, cheerful and bright. It likely appeals more to the lunch crowd than to a romantic date night out, which is the only reason I can find for it being only half full on a Friday night.
Having said that, unlike so many other “hot” spots in the city who sport the aforementioned sexy decor, the Hawthorne lends itself fairly well to a date night in other aspects of its atmosphere. The level of music in the room is at a moderate volume- just loud enough to catch a buzz, but not to distract one from an intimate conversation. And the tables (particularly the deuce booths we were sat in) seem spaced far enough apart that I don't have to worry someone’s going to be listening in. I also found the temperature quite nicely controlled- all the more reason to bust out a little sassy leg or maybe even a pre-mature shoulder-action, G-d forbid.
Complementing the comfortable setting, the service was pleasant and professional. Being stuck in the middle of the worst bout of allergies I have ever encountered to date (where I have practically lost my voice and choke after more than 10 words of talking), I really appreciated our adorable servers’ attention to my water glass. The cutlery was also consistently replenished, and the whole meal moved at a comfortable and appropriate pace-in and hour in 1 ½ hours. While our server was certainly knowledgeable about the food and drink offerings, I appreciated that she brought in the bartender for some of our more detailed requests. And let me tell you, that bartender knows her s*it. Just listening to her describe different bourbons’ tasting notes made me wish I could just stay all night to drink, drink, drink- but sadly, we had choices to make.
At the Hawthorne one can choose from the all-Ontario beer list, a more globally inspired short wine selection (all $10-11/glass), and of course their housemade cocktails. The cocktail list was extensive and tempting, to say the least. Honestly, I hadn’t eaten or drank a thing before I had decided I needed to return- there are just too many delicious and gorgeous concoctions waiting to reach my liver! But for those whose livers need a rest (and let’s be honest, we all have those morning/afternoons/nights), the Hawthorne actually makes a solid effort to make staying sober sexy. Suddenly being the DD isn’t such a burden anymore! Here, they whip up a unique line up of classic sodas in house using only natural ingredients (that’s right folks, no high fructose corn syrup here). Well, as you know, we are drinkers ourselves so over the course of the night opted for.
Twist of Faith (Devils Cut Bourbon, Averna, St. Germain Elderflower, Orange Twist, $12)
All booze, yet remarkably smooth and balanced. Totally his kind of drink.
Just Pluck’d (Vodka, St. Germain Elderflower, House Pear Cardamom Syrup, Rosemary, $10)
I shamelessly tossed this back in two sips it was so easy to drink. Floral but not overwhelmingly sweet.
Baby Strange (Tequila, St. Germain Elderflower, Ginger Lime Cordial, Honey, Lemonade Foam Finish, $12)
I guess I’m starting to notice a theme here, and no we did not purposefully try to choose all the Elderflower drinks in the house. This one was brighter and more acidic than the former, but just as delicious and addictive.
Spiced Ginger Bear Hug (Fresh Ginger, Steamed Milk, Honey, Cinnamon, Green Tea, $5)
A really nice alternative to our usual decaf cappuccinos with dessert, and just the thing I needed whilst battling this wicked allergy bout.
Keeping much in line with Eric Wood’s original offerings, Chef Bihn An Nguyen’s food menu is approachable and fun. There’s a lot of international fusion going on, which keeps things playful and light, but the general preparations seems comfortingly familiar. The menu is broken down into a few small plates comprised mainly of healthy salads and soups, a generous handful of globally-inspired share plates, main courses to accommodate vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, a couple sides and of course, desserts. They’ve also worked in a cheeky “four square meal” that features four small plates (including dessert) served in a plated bento-box like fashion. This was the first time in a long time my partner showed any interest in the food menu, and since everything was calling my name, I let him call most of the shots (well, kind of.. I let him have a say). But with a little input from our server, and some deliberation between us two, we ended up choosing:
Edamame (Wok Charred, Peanut Chili Salt, Sesame, Tamari Molasses, $7)
Yikes- these just might be my new food addiction. Honestly, if anyone was watching us, it probably looked like we hadn’t ate in weeks because we were pounding these puppies back so fast. Unlike the traditional steamed with salt variety, these beans had a nice kiss from a hot pan, a sticky sweet glaze, a touch of aromatic sesame, and a gorgeous hit of crunch from the peanut salt. Sounds like a recipe for a mess, no? Well, thankfully, the folks at Hawthorne had our back, bringing us a little bowl of warm lemon water for removing any of the sticky evidence.
Fish & Chips (Crispy Smelts, Kennebec Fries, Malt Vinegar, Preserved Lemon Aioli, $9)
Another killer dish. The smelts had a light and airy batter with an impossibly tender and moist flesh. Similarly, the fries were some of the best I’ve had in a while- perfectly golden and crispy with a fluffy potato filling. Both of the fried items were further brought to life by the generous accompaniments- the creamy bright aioli, the sweet tangy ketchup, and the little dusting of seasoned salt across the plate. The Hawthorne managed to make one of my all-time-favourite grease-fests feel remarkably elegant, refined, and light.
Tandoori BBQ Short Rib (Hen of the Woods, Fava Beans, Sauteed Nettles, Celery Root Puree, Evening Special)
Super tender beef made even more luscious with a generous slab of bone marrow butter melting on top (swoon). The mushrooms were meaty and earthy, the favas and celery root lent a little sweetness, and the nettles delivered a good hit of grassy freshness to cut through the richness above. My only criticism really was that it was just a touch above luke warm by the time we got it. But then, let’s be honest- I’m a food blogger. At this point, I’m used to eating cold food.
Peking Duck Pho (Confit Leg, Rare Duck Breast, Pickled Pumpkin, Glass Noodle, Seven Spice Broth, $18)
Another really successful dish- and I’m typing this after having eaten an entire days worth of noodles at Saturday’s Slurp Noodlefest. The noodles were cooked perfectly, and served with a generous portion of succulent duck leg, and medium-rare breast with crispy skin. I also adored the pickled pumpkin, which was tangy with an underlying sweetness to counterbalance the fatty meat. With all the congestion I’ve got going on right now, that broth was the best medicine I could have hoped for, even if, like the short rib, was a little tepid.
ELVIS (Grilled Banana Bread, Candied Bacon, House-Made PB&J, $7)
When I read this description, I let out a little squee inside- banana, peanut butter and bacon are my all time favourite foods! And while the flavours were spot on, the texture was a tad too dry. See, while I appreciated that the grilling action on the banana bread added a satisfying smokiness, it left it without it’s characteristic sticky, sweet moist qualities (side note, just say the word moist. Sexy eh? It’s my all time favourite word). It also didn’t really help that the PB was served dehydrated, and that the PB:J ratio left the jam with no chance to off-set the dryness. Had there been two or three times as much jelly, this would have been a much more balanced dish from a texture perspective. Having said that, the “brittle”, as I will call it, came fully loaded with bacon with banana chips. Um, yes, please! I don’t know why I’ve never thought to do this before, but it’s definitely making an appearance on the next dinner party menu. Thanks Hawthorne for the inspiration.
Thing One & Thing Two (Earl Grey Crème Brulee, Powdered Sugar Beignet, $7)
The bartender told us they’d named the dessert after the popular Dr. Seuss tale because when you say “Earl Grey Crème Brulee, Powdered Sugar Beignet”, it sounds as if you’re reciting a rhyme. Well, they could have called it “Your Ex-Boyfriends Toe-Jam” and if it tasted this good, I would have ordered two. Thing one succeeded the crème brulee test (it took a few determined spoon taps to break through), and was as smooth as satin within. I appreciated that the tea flavour was not obnoxious but lent just enough mild bitterness to balance out the sugar. Thing two, the ethereal beignet, was served piping hot, so moist and light it could only exist a mere second on my tongue before dissolving into a state of bliss. At our bartenders suggestion, once the beignet had cooled enough for my weathered fingers to handle, I smeared a little custard on the pastry and wiggled in sheer delight.
Apple & Rosemary Jelly (Complementary)
These gorgeous jellies were bright, tangy and herbaceous- a lovely way to end a wonderful meal and cleanse the palate of the big flavours we’d missioned through with dinner.
So for 2 apps, 2 mains, 2 desserts, 3 cocktails and 2 hot toddies, the bill came to $162 including tax and tip- in my opinion, excellent value for the quality of what we’d enjoyed. I admit I’m quite intrigued by the social-mission concept at Hawthorne, and fully want to support local initiatives that provide training to passionate Toronto hospitality workers. And while that alone would likely stand in as reason for me to return, the food here speaks for itself. Actually, my partner said it was one of the best casual dining meals he’s ever had to-date. I’d say those are pretty big words coming from a man who is rarely impressed by Toronto dining (other than what I make him obviously). But it wasn’t just the food- The Hawthorne may be a good 15 minute cab ride away, but its welcoming hospitality just makes me feel like I’m at home. There’s no pretense, no attitude, nothing that might make me flip into business or dress-to-impress mode. Nope. There are times I want to just feel comfortable, and the Hawthorne is the ideal place. So thank you to the hardworking staff and interns- I hope you take this feedback and give yourselves all a big pat on the ‘ol back. I hope to be blogging specifically about all of you and your incredible endeavours one day, too.