Saturday, May 3, 2008


Cowbell (1564 Queen St. W, Toronto) is a restaurant devoted to meat -- but it is nothing like a steakhouse. In fact it has a rather esoteric specialty: whole-animal butchering. They get sides of beef, or whole animals, and butcher them on-site. They are not, they insist, a steakhouse -- and they are right. The emphasis is on pieces of meat not usually found in restaurants, and on combinations of cuts. Very little goes to waste, they say: all the meat finds its way to the table.

It is hard to get into Cowbell, since it is all the rage right now. When you arrive, you find yourself in an unpretentious room (in an unpretentious part of town), evidently done to the owners' taste (no Restaurant Makeover stunts), with an ornate but slightly tatty plush covering on the benches, and bare wood on the chairs. They claim it looks like a French bistro -- and Joanne Kates seemed to agree in her September 15th review. Maybe it does look like some examples of that genre, but where's the zinc on the ceiling? And there were no shiny, floury, boozy sauces either -- the meat is embellished by natural broths, reduced but not thickened, and enhanced by the flavour of very fresh vegetables.

The table that's closest on the left was a party of very loud louts who caused us to ask to be moved. You might think that restaurants would either install sound deadening ceilings (though that wouldn't have helped with this crowd) or get people to quiet down when they are over-exuberant (read: drunk).

Anyway, I went there with a friend I hadn't seen since we were undergraduates together.

He ordered a plate of greens ("Soiled Reputation Greens") and a plate of pork, which had sausage, belly (I think), and a bit of ear. I ordered duck soup and a hot pot, which is Lancashire style. We were too busy catching up, and too distracted by the louts, for me to do any serious tasting or photography. The quick impression is that the duck soup was Chinese-influenced -- a clear and non-fatty broth with a good taste of mushroom and pepper, all fat taken out. The hotpot is a large piece of brisket in another rich broth -- beautifully tender and rich tasting.

This is a great restaurant -- it's Toronto's shot at Chez Panisse, though not quite in the same league -- and it deserves another, more serious visit. It's run by enthusiasts: Michael Cutrara, the chef, dropped by to chat -- wow he's serious. Like Bill Buford, he apprenticed as a butcher half-way through his (still young) career -- worked at the Healthy Butcher.

It cost 120 for two including two glasses of wine each. More later.

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