When a few girlfriends asked me to join them at The Grove, Macleans’ voted “Best New Restaurant in Canada” on Tuesday night, I can’t say I was hard convinced.
On my way over I skimmed a quick review on Toronto Life and Urban Spoon, as I always do before dining out, mostly to get amped up about what I am about to experience and to check recommendations for others’ favorite dishes. Maybe it was that my streetcar took an unscheduled detour or that I was speed walking in the rain, either way I only retained a quick gist of “pub/contemporary English cuisine/casual/fun/$10-$20 mains/. Perfect. Glass of wine, bustling atmosphere, different take on pub food, my ladies, I’m down.
The atmosphere was lovely; dim and romantic once you pass the bar in the narrow entryway, with candlelit seating stretched along opposing brick walls in a simple, clean decor.
I ordered a glass of their house Riesling to start, which tasted like 4 more, and was a perfect palate teaser as we passed around the small cardstock menu. I was taken aback to see that my original learning of $10-$20 mains was a bold faced lie, and the menu was set up as prix fixe starting at $40 for 3 courses. Still, the dishes were intriguing and boasted elements I can strongly say I’ve never seen made into a dish…if you take a look at the menu below you’ll know I mean hedgehogs. Rye porridge stretches that line for me too.
Parsley root soup, snails, bacon, fried bread
Beef tartare, Marmite, celery, onion
Scallop, black pudding, apple, brown butter
Rainbow trout, cauliflower, grapes, almonds
Ling cod, nettles, hedgehogs, fiddleheads
Rye porridge, sunflower, egg, mushroom
Sturgeon, mussels, cider, cabbage, picked walnut
Lamb, fennel, Cumberland, goat curd
Caramelized white chocolate, granola, cinnamon cream
Rhubarb, goat cheese, fennel
3 courses $40 5 courses $50 7 courses $65
I decided on the Sturgeon, Lamb and the Rhubarb dessert. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Our female server will go unnamed, rather under pseudonym “Frumpy” since she gave off the impression that she’d rather be somewhere else. Frumpy, I understand you are working, and suck as it may, you are paid to be pleasant at minimum.
Frumpy started off on the wrong foot altogether. In a busy, noisy restaurant, discussing the menu in a hushed voice at one end of the table is not the best option. The girls on the other end had to repeatedly request that she speak up, which was met with a noticeable sigh and .001 decibel increase in volume. Brushed off, we were excited to receive our first course after a bit of a lengthy wait and 4 empty wine glasses. I had to stifle a laugh when I saw D’s plate which was a tiny, single scallop, garnished, and arranged atop a smear of brown butter. Nice display, but it should have come with its own set of miniature utensils. Size aside D reported it delicious and was a real lady while carving off tiny morsels.
K’s Parsley Soup arrived as an empty bowl aside for 3 breaded snails nestled at the bottom. A unique concept I guess, except that the poor guys sat there cooling in the bowl in the time it took the server to bring over a soup-filled creamer. I tasted the finished product and it was a completely new flavour, bold and creamy with a powerful herb aroma that filled your mouth.
My tiny Sturgeon was cooked very well. Fish is completely ruined for me when it is cooked past the flaky, fall-apart-with-a-touch-of-your-fork texture, so I was content. I kept trying to remind myself of the flavours I was supposed to be looking for, but I couldn’t taste much other than a slightly off- mushroom (ok, moldy) flavour in the fish. Rest assured this dish did have mushrooms in it that night; if it didn’t I would be worried.
I still get a little rattled when I think back to how long we waited for our second course. In total, we were seated for over two hours having only had our 1st course. I won’t lie to you- us 26 year-olds are now starting to glance at our watches thinking, ” 9:45?? I should be in bed by now! Plus I still haven’t downloaded the new Game of Thrones..”. Soon after a male server came by and began setting plates on our table which identically matched our first course. Upon our correction he swiftly took the plates back to the kitchen- no apology, no follow-up. We realized the kitchen must have made a mistake as the plates did not make it back out, and left us wondering how long it would take to remake everything. I finally brought the news over to our server and she cut me off twice, clearly annoyed and insisting ours would be the next one out. Again, an apology would have been nice Frumpy.
When the dishes did come out the food was only moderately warm. We ate quickly, hunger surpassed, and I noted that while the itty bitty lamb was not the most tender I’ve ever had, the goat curd was a novel prize. Upon request we were served dessert almost immediately and all agreed we could have ordered 3 more of D’s Carmalized White Chocolate. The flavours of sweet, salty and savoury were married so well here that even lady D scraped her bowl clean. I can’t say anything great about the Rhubarb dish- there was a very potent medicine flavour that I couldn’t comprehend (I’m Italian, we eat fennel by the stick, trust me it wasn’t the fennel).
Now I’m pretty tolerant when it comes to service during busy seatings. As a former server I know first-hand that a restaurant is a machine of moving parts and minor setbacks can throw service off the rails. I am also a firm believer that even the smallest curtesies can rectify a negative experience into one you will always recommend. Things like a complimentary drink, a sincere apology from your server accompanied by realistic updates, or tasty little je ne sais quoi compliments of the chef in the meantime. Bring a shot glass with a fancy garnish and a dollop of sour cream in it. Seriously, I don’t care what it is, just show that you are aware of the inconvenience and you care about us. Unfortunately we didn’t receive any of that here. Not even an apology, or thank-you for your patience. Not something I would expect from a ‘Best New in Canada’ status.
In summary I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying out the Grove. Evidently people have been experiencing great things or this place wouldn’t have the reputation that it does. Maybe I was there on an off night- it happens. So, go, be merry and eat.
*Note, I understand the importance of showing images for all food referenced here. I apologize for the lack-thereof, my foresight needs work.