Thirtysomething owners, an ambitious young chef, bar snacks, cocktails, increasingly loud music throughout the night: Yours Truly has got the Ossington restaurant formula down.
Imagine the smiles on the faces of first-time restaurateurs Matt Cherkas and Dan Hawkins when a chef with the following resumé responded to their Craigslist job posting:
—Cook at Sydney’s Rockpool (rated one of the world’s best 50 restaurants from 2002 to 2008 by Restaurant Magazine).
—Internship at Chicago’s Alinea, Blackbird and Charlie Trotter’s.
—Internship at Denmark’s Noma (rated best restaurant in the world for the past two years by Restaurant Magazine).
—Cook at New York’s Per Se (a New York Times favourite, where a tasting menu costs $300 a head).
—Chef de cuisine at Toronto’s Scarpetta.
“Halfway through the 14-course dinner he cooked for us during the interview, we knew we had to hire him,” says Cherkas.
Despite 28-year-old Jeff Claudio’s decade-long experience at the world’s best fine-dining establishments, the barely month-old Yours Truly on Ossington has all the requirements of the unassuming, hole-in-the-wall, resto-bar du jour: liberal use of aged wood, dim incandescent bulbs dangling over the bar, a previous incarnation as a dilapidated convenience store. When the food arrives, it’s clear why Yours Truly was an immediate hit with diners and has already been frequented by curious chefs.
Cherkas, Hawkins and a third co-owner, Aleem Jamal-Kabani, initially set out to cater to the cash-strapped, late-night crowd. Indeed, the kitchen is open until 2 a.m. and serves a snack menu of dishes priced between $5 and $7. But when they discovered Claudio, they gave the chef freedom to showcase his talent.
And so, the four-course prix-fixe menu ($45, $35 for the vegetarian option) changes daily. One night, the meal began with a carrot blanched in honey-water, roasted with butter and finished with pickled persimmons and crunchy wheat berries. It’s a full-flavoured dish that exemplifies a movement towards giving vegetables as much respect as meat—here, the carrot is presented like a steak.
Strangely, the house-smoked Kolapore Springs trout arrived at the table in a sealer jar. When opened, a cloud of smoke escaped. Claudio creates the effect by injecting apple-wood smoke into the jar with a handheld smoker. The fish is served with a dollop of silky mashed potato, potato crisps and parsley stems—also inside the jar. “A dish should evoke emotion and I want people to get a sense of fun when they open the jar and see the smoke come out,” says Claudio. You don’t expect jazz hands from a $45 prix fixe.
“We can go to prices like that because it’s all in the preparation and technique,” says Cherkas. “There isn’t a big scoop of foie gras on the carrot—it’s care in the presentation. That’s why we called it Yours Truly. It’s honest, simple and something we’d sign our name to.”
On a grey afternoon, the cooks set out trays of boiled Perth pork skin and salt cod to dry in the dining room (the kitchen is so cramped, Claudio uses the freezer as a table). The pork will be dehydrated and fried for crackling while the salt cod will be mixed with rice before being stuffed in fried tofu pockets to make a Portuguese-influenced inari sushi. Inside the kitchen, pork tails marinate in a mixture of vegetable stock, seaweed, bonito flakes, duck fat and canola oil before being deboned, braised and fried to a crisp.
“I prefer a place like this to the big restaurants,” says Claudio, whose kitchen has as much room as an airplane aisle. “You’re more aware of your surroundings and more in tune with what the team is doing and what’s going out to the diner. It’s perfect.”
229 Ossington Ave., 416-533-2243, yours-truly.ca.