The Gist: Perhaps Toronto’s most talked about restaurant over the last five years, the offal-centric The Black Hoof on Dundas is the brain child of Grant van Gameren and Jen Agg. Celebrated for a daring collection of small plates featuring off cuts ranging from house made charcuterie to raw horse to tongue sandwiches plus unique cocktails in a casual no-reservations atmosphere there had been some talk that the restaurant had fallen off since van Gameren had departed to pursue other ventures, but in the capable hands of Chef Brandon Olsen the restaurant had seemingly again picked up steam as new creations, largely local and seasonal, rounded out the already strong menu.
The Why: Obviously the substantial praise heaped on a space serving small plates and charcuterie caught my attention, particularly as my prior experiences with such places had been largely positive. As an added bonus, I was meeting a dear friend for dinner at Splendido and what better way to pass the time before dinner than with good drinks, good food, and good conversation at a place that won’t break the bank?
The Reservation: As stated above, The Black Hoof does not take reservations, and given its acclaim, small floor space, and the fact that the bar dominates much of the room I’ve heard rumors of 1-2 hour waits not being uncommon on weekends. Obviously with dinner plans for later and no interest in waiting in line we showed up shortly after 6pm to find the space largely empty, but due to fill to capacity by 7:00.
The Space: I think the best way to describe The Black Hoof is “intimate yet unassuming,” an effect no doubt created by the long and narrow room with dim lighting, heavy woods, and close quartered seating. With walls largely unadorned save for two chalkboards – one featuring foods and the other cocktails – plus a row of mirrors the diner is faced with two options, to focus on their dining partner or the action in the open kitchen and with an eclectic selection of music ranging from the 50s to the early 80s playing overhead the mood is lively without being “loud.”
The Service: Better than it needs to be, to say the least. Friendly, efficient, and very knowledgeable regarding everything from ingredient sourcing to plate composition we were never left wanting anything during the 75 minute duration of our meal and with the chalkboard menu not particularly descriptive I was personally very appreciative of the enthusiastic recommendations, even if I’d pretty much made my decisions before our server even filled our water, as well as the timely spacing between each dish.
The Food and Drink: 3 plates. 1 cocktail. 1 glass of wine.
Tea and Sympathy with Earl Grey Infused Gin, Sherry, Honey, Lemon, Jasmine Bitters: $8. My cocktail selection and a rather stiff pour given the modest price. Generally not a gin drinker but sold on this option as our server described it as “sweet but not too sweet, and really complex” the description would prove spot on as the overall flavor was somewhat akin to iced tea with honey and lemon while the boozy notes hit mostly on the tongue while the floral aromatics permeated the palate.
Spicy Horse Tartare: $16. Oddly ordered by Heather (though with good reason) despite the fact that she fancies horses this would be the first time either of us had knowingly eaten horse and although I generally suspected the flavor to be quite similar to other lean grass-fed game meats such as venison or buffalo nothing could have prepared me for quite how good this presentation was. Beginning first with the horse itself, lean and smooth with a texture not unlike tuna but a flavor more akin to beef, Chef Olsen took this dish up a notch by adding a significant degree of heat from both black pepper and pimento pepper before leveling it off with rich dollops of hollandaise atop a bed of fried potato threads, onions, greens. An inspired plate both in terms of taste and texture I instantly understood why this dish has gotten so much attention and would certainly consider it a “must order” not only for the novelty, but because it is delicious.
Peking Duck Neck: $16. With such a minimalist description on the chalkboard it is hard for me to believe that many diners would opt for this dish but given my predisposition to ordering fowl in any form I didn’t even inquire about the preparation before placing my order and much like the horse before it the dish exceeded expectations. Presented as what appeared to simply be a large sausage served over shredded iceberg lettuce, what actually arrived was locally sourced confit of duck breast, leg, and skin shredded and stuffed inside the duck’s neck before a quick pan sear and drizzle of hoisin sauce with the end result a crispy external layer not dissimilar to Peking Duck giving way to an interior of tender meat flecked with more bits of crispy skin. Intense and savory but well balanced by the sweet hoisin this would prove to be the best duck preparation I’ve had thus far this year.
Foie and Nutella: $25. Heather told me she wasn’t going to try any of this dish and although I generally try to accommodate my fellow diners I ordered it anyways. Heather lied. Featuring a perfectly caramelized slice of liver weighing in at easily 4oz and drizzled with caramel sauce plus hazelnut crumble the dish could have easily stopped here and been quite successful but similar to the other dishes on the menu this plate went above and beyond by placing this texturally complex amalgam atop not only a sizable smear of house made nutella, but also a slice of warm banana pain perdu. Call it breakfast, call it dessert, call it anything you like – it was so impressive that not only did my friend taste it, she tasted it multiple times and was seen recommending it to patrons on our way out the door.
The Verdict: Walking out the door with a bill well under $100 after tax and tip my only regret at the time was that we had not ordered more (in retrospect a very good thing considering what would happen less than an hour later at Splendido) and although I generally target small plates and charcuterie spots for lunches, snacks, or pre-dinner bites I can say without hesitation that The Black Hoof is a special place well worth the price of admission and that it is every bit on par with places like Los Angeles’ Animal or Chicago’s Publican in terms of creativity, service, and quality. While I probably would not return for a full “dinner,” I’d absolutely return under similar circumstances to this visit to try more of the menu – or to order the same things once more as each of them was truly exceptional.