We review Jen Agg’s new Kensington hot spot, Grey Gardens
Restaurateur Jen Agg’s brand new Kensington hot spot delivers on all levels
When Jen Agg — the diva of the Black Hoof and Rhum Corner — opens a new restaurant, the whole world (at least the Toronto food world) takes notice. And for good reason. Ms. Agg, while neither chef nor server, is the muse, the talent scout, who dreams up a new restaurant and pulls it all together, with more pizzazz in her little finger than most of her competitors have in their whole body.
Her new oeuvre, Grey Gardens, reminds me of the Black Hoof in its early years. She hired a supertalented young guy as chef and we have no idea what transpired between them. Did Ms. Agg simply give Grant van Gameren his head? Or was her artistic input part of what made meat magic?
Same deal at Grey Gardens. There is a ferocious fast-moving army of young cooks behind the open kitchen. Their output is more than dazzling, simultaneously light and assertive, loaded with flavour and backstopped with brilliant textures. This is wow food. Good luck getting a res, ’cause too many people know it already. Our dinner starts with sweet fat slices of impeccable raw sea bass spiked with star-shaped cut-outs of raw green apple with ultra-thin celery shavings and pickled jalapeños for jazz. We go on to raw sweet shrimp with long thin curls of compressed watermelon radish — the sweet and the puckery, the soft and the crunchy combined. Then cometh al dente sous vide rutabaga with scatters of deep-fried shallot, Belgian endive shreds and PEI cheddar. A clever play of textures and flavours, sweet, salty, soft, crunchy.
Then there is uber-sensual ravioli stuffed with creamed squash and roofed with black truffles, awash in the lightest possible butter sauce flecked with baby chives. On the side, for dipping, two fabulous dollops: burnt applesauce and 20 per cent cream.
Of course Ms. Agg’s team could never settle for the post-prandial prosaic. Hence their dessert homage to spring: there are small cubes of pink poached rhubarb looking cute with discrete delicious dots of pistachio mousse, tiny celery fragments and celery sprouts for savoury, buttery crumble for sweet, small cubes of mochi rice cakes for soft, and house-made yogurt ice cream for creamy bite.
The room is like the dessert — carefully curated, it’s a grey on grey tone poem, not fancy but pretty. Thoughtful. Noisy, thanks to being incessantly full, with tables turning on a dime. Attention to detail abounds: the wine glasses are monogrammed, and the napkins and the shiny formica tables sound different colour notes, all variations on greyish.
Ms. Agg prowls the room. She doesn’t serve and only clears the occasional plate. So what, one wonders, is she doing? Aha, it’s the aesthetic she’s ensuring. For Jen Agg is a visionary. She dreams up restaurants and then builds a team to make it happen. As for the grit to make it happen night after night, that’s the invisible work she’s doing as she prowls Grey Gardens. Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine.
Clockwise from left: it’s all in the details; restaurateur Jen Agg; the poached rhubarb dessert