AGO's Frank aka Martha Wright found
was strolling the new AGO (still very much under construction and unfortunately not all that exciting sans access to the secret rendezvous stairwell) and decided that this was an opportune moment to solo-dine as i hadn't done it in a while. it was quite fortunate because after i was seated i noticed a familiar name as chef de cuisine, martha wright.
before i divulge a few details about martha, i've got a few words to write about the space though i'll try not to get into how i feel about ghery's work. the cafe is on the concourse level but has access to the restaurant via a central staircase leading up and also a 2-storey opening. the use of only hard surfaces, i suspect, will lead to a lot of noise issues between the two dining areas and makes it a bit sterile. it seems that there is a second and potentially larger space on the other side of a major dividing wall which i assume will mostly be used for private functions. i did not get a look at this space but it is saved from any cafe noise. the long wall with the gift shop entrance is primed with a repetitive metal structure just begging for bottles and bottles of wine. but as the bar area near this display wasn't ready yet, it may be a while before it's filled. i am not a fan of the open space separated by low walls, it reminds me of dining at acqua and being in the middle of a mall.
onto the food. no wine list was provided and i was told by the host that the server would discuss the options with me. a pounding headache prevented me from imbibing so unfortunately i don't have much to report on that.
bread - didn't pay too much attention as it wasn't very special, but really liked the oyster shell full of flaky maldon salt as an additional topping along with room temp butter.
iles-de-la-madeleine scallops in shell with quebec foie gras - covered with a sabayon (at least that's how they described it though my understanding is that it is usually a dessert) and on top of finely diced shallots sunken to the bottom of the foie gras oil, the scallops were barely seared and were very tender and just a bit sweet. the richness of the creamy "sabayon" plus the unctuous seared foie was a bit overwhelming for the scallop and had to be eaten separately to fully appreciate their flavour. the foie was quite adequate for quebec origin and appeared as nicely seared cubes. no matter though, i cleaned up every bit of the remaining liquid and sauce with the variety of bread provided ($16, member pricing)
pickerel - perfection. the squash sauce pooled at the bottom of the plate was very tangy (server suggested wine, i think perhaps a touch of vinegar) and a bit sweet, so i wasn't sure that it would complement anything else in the dish. i was wrong, it was fantastic with the crispy skinned and perfectly cooked fish that flaked easily but was very moist and exuded freshness. i was a little confused as to why they would pan fry the side of romanesco (takes away from its aesthetics, which is the only thing going for it), but it certainly tastes much better this way than raw. the creamy sauteed leek was a great rich component to balance out the fish. ($23, member pricing)
quince tart with wildflower honey ice cream - was highly raved about by staff and didn't quite disappoint. did not like the very dense pastry crust for this take on tart tatin and the slathering of honey on the tart itself was initially welcomed but became cloyingly sweet. the quince was lovely and well caramelized but the wildflower honey ice cream stole the show. it was a bit light but really picked out some of the floral notes from the honey and had a nice smooth texture though was possibly a bit too airy. loved the honey comb bit tucked in underneath mostly for it's addition of texture. ($10, member pricing)
martha wright is on the ball and i'm glad she has resurfaced. it was no coincidence that my meal was seafood focused.
service seemed a bit nervous and while generally quite good at not letting water glasses empty nor taking too much time between courses, i was only asked how my dish was after i had dug into dessert and was halfway through. no questions during eating the app nor the main and if they were awful, that would have certainly been no fun for me. they appeared to be scanning the room constantly and so i'm confused as to how they missed this step.
i would undoubtedly go again though the member discount (10%) makes it within a more appropriate pricing range. if you want great fish, and i know a few of you out there are looking for it, the AGO might just be the new place to go.
some finer restaurants pointedly do not ask if "is everything ok?" they assume everything is more than ok and instruct their staff to scan the table, make eye contact with the diner which then allows the diner to tell them if everything is not "ok". every restaurant has a different way of managing quality control. trust me, if you had appeared unhappy or left any food on your place you would have been asked about it.
i don't doubt what you're saying but i felt their lack of asking was more of an extension of the nervousness and hesitation i saw in the servers. if that is indeed the case, which i may have seen only once before, then i'd happily accept this as the norm if possible because it's significantly less intrusive and if i do have a problem at least i've had enough time to nibble.
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no, the food isn't the initial draw but it could be if good enough and priced accordingly. otherwise it could easily fall within the realm of tourist trap. i personally appreciated what martha was putting out at stafish and would gladly return back, though perhaps less frequently if the menu doesn't change, and knew that some people had an interest in her whereabouts and her much hyped skills at the former resto.
i do love the flow of the interior layout, i felt that it directed you quite well naturally. i was just really looking forward to the staircases and the hockey rink shield but access wasn't allowed for either and those. i also think the centre column of space could have been more carte blanche for ghery but failed to leave a significant impact because of all the neutral tones. also, what's with those black trampoline looking seats? they look cheap and flimsy, like they're going to wear out quick! i hope they were temporary.
i agree, the actual physical perching of the resto over the cafe is rather presumptuous and it didn't look like there was all that much space dedicated to the cafe food section, which leads me to believe they may not have much of a selection. but i can't think of anything much better beyond bringing the fine dining section down a few notches into the realm of say local food bistro because sometimes i just want a sandwich i can grab and go with. though perhaps a decent solution might be a take-away/self-serve during the day and table service at night with tablecloths to kick it up a notch during the hours when people are likely less touristy. i just really hate the banishment to the lower levels.
anyhow... the paint fumes were exacerbating my headache so i ran away to have dinner after a half hour run through the new space. did peek into the new members lounge (very old school library type feel and full of my favourite wishbone chairs but also some hideously cheap leather ones) but didn't get a chance to talk to anyone besides at the restaurant due to pounding head.
Went the other day...
Food wise... For main I had the duck confit, which was pretty decent. For desert I had cookies, sadly they were disappointing, they didn't taste fresh and were served cold (out the oven warmth it what makes cookies for desert special in my mind)
Decor/service... It was a little chaotic, didn't look like they'd finished yet. Hard to get a feeling of restaurant when so much is still going on. It's simple and modern, at this point it's not mind blowing. The hostess was nice enough as was our waiter (even if he was noticeably nervous).
I'm going to wait a while to let the place get some rhythm before I return..