Daniel Boulud isn’t one to compromise.
When his first Toronto restaurant opens Friday, in Toronto’s new Four Seasons Hotel, it will have his famous Yankee and Frenchie burgers on the menu, but won’t have a Canuck one. Boulud, widely considered North America’s finest French chef, would never cook down to us.
He likes us — and knows us well. “I have been cooking for Torontonians for 25 years in my restaurants in New York,” he says, cheekily. “I hope they like what I do here now!”
For Boulud, good food is good food, no matter where it is made. Café Boulud — a restaurant that seems to floats above the sparkling hotel lobby on a cloud of glass and marble — and dbar, the chic, 63-seat lounge below it, will be no exception.
Boulud’s goal is to create a go-to haunt, not a Michelin-starred, special occasion place, explains Hani Roustom, the restaurant’s general manager. Mere mention of the restaurant rating system prompts a swift reaction. “No!” Roustom says, hand at his bosom as if offended. “This is not fine dining.”
There are no white linens. Except for a communal table at the front of the 150-seat dining room, and the 10-seat private room, the tables are small and adorned only with woven placemats. The chairs are brown leather. Even the vistas, through the hotel’s sweeping glass walls, make the diner feel part of the pedestrian scene outside at Bay St. and Yorkville Ave.
Dinner for two, including wine, will cost around $200, lunch for two around $80, and breakfast for one about $35. Pricey, but a far cry from the $200 per-head meals at many of Boulud’s other establishments.
Boulud’s first experience as a fine dining restaurateur in Canada ended badly in 2011 when the Vancouver restaurant he took over from another celebrity chef flopped, closing after only two years, along with a more casual boîte he owned.
Last Monday, the restaurant was lively. Family and friends of the hotel and restaurant staff are throwing back drinks and chatting over food, in the name of training. A waiter drops a plate, picks it up quickly and anxiously looks around. It’s four days before the ribbon cutting, and the excitement is palpable.
Boulud reclines on a silver banquette in his almost-ready dining room, his graying hair perfectly coiffed. He is surprisingly calm for someone who just opened a restaurant in Montreal — Maison Boulud in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel — and is about to shake up another culinary scene.
The hands-on Boulud plans to stay in town briefly to make sure everything runs smoothly. Then he’s off to run the rest of his 14-restaurant, global empire.
He’ll be back frequently, but he’s also confident in his 120-strong army of staff. It includes wine director Drew Walker, who grew up in Niagara, mixologist Albert Kirby, from Manitoba, and chef de cuisine Tyler Shedden, originally from the West Coast but plucked from Daniel, Boulud’s flagship restaurant in Manhattan.
Some dishes are familiar favourites, like the Beef Duo or Black Cod, but with slightly different flavour palates. Others are unique, like the Poulet Au Vinaigre, and Octopus à la Plancha with Marcona Almonds.
Downstairs, at the dbar, there’s less formal fare such as the Frenchie burger, confit pork belly and morbier on a peppered brioche bun, the Yankee burger, and cured Spanish anchovies with shaved fennel and crispy socca.
Aside from some fish, like Nova Scotia halibut that will be flown in, most of the food will be local: Cumbrae’s for meat, Petite Thuet for bread and Monforte Dairy for cheese.
For now, there’s no tasting menu, but there will be eventually, he says. And there’s no trademark DB burger, intricately composed, the top sirloin patty is stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffles. But that may come too.
“I like spontaneity and abundance and diversity,” says Boulud.
He knows Torontonians do, too. He has seen the evidence while dining at Ursa and Grand Electric on Queen St. W. and King St. W.’s Buca, where pasta with blood sausage appears on the menu. He’s also influenced Toronto’s culinary landscape by training two of our hottest chefs, Patrick Kriss of Acadia and Carl Heinrich of Richmond Station, opening soon.
For now, Boulud is waiting to see how his restaurant will be received. He pauses when asked what the top selling dishes might be, but stops short of answering.
“You have to come back at least five times to taste everything,” he says. “I hope this restaurant becomes a Toronto institution. We’ll see. Right now I’ve proved nothing!”