Leslieville has a new core: the heart of a neighbourhood and the reflection of its community. The culmination of careers in hotels and restaurants, Core Restaurant is imbued with the personality and expertise of its owner and partner, H (Hyun Jung) Kim and Mark Moffatt.
SW: I don’t know what the secret ingredient is that makes a new restaurant effortlessly hot, but I am sure it has something to do with the restaurateur’s style. Following a lifelong career as a sommelier, balance and refined taste are clearly in Moffatt’s psyche. There is not a hint of clutter, and yet, wherever the eye falls there is pleasing artwork and a dash of colour. I, too, am of the school that prefers understated décor to over-the-top. No detail in this restaurant has been left to chance. From the table settings to the paintings on the walls, it’s as if the breezes of good taste have blown in and swept away everything superfluous.
AW: There’s free parking on the street after 6pm! Auspicious beginnings… Inside they seem to have tended to every detail from polished silverware to Riedel glassware, and soft jazzy cover tunes of classic rock songs. Brick and wood is just touched with artful colour as deliberately and precisely as the table settings. The stage is set. The centerpiece is the bar at the long wall, and it’s sure to become a favorite roost for locals. Reading through the wine list, it’s clear that the selections have been carefully chosen by a master sommelier.
SW: Taking responsibility that every morsel served is the finest quality; the kitchen makes everything from scratch. I could live on this bread, rye and whole wheat, fresh from the oven; to spread with their home made butter and a sprinkle of Maldon salt crystals. And there are wine recommendations for each course of the chefs five course-tasting menu. It brings to mind the perfection of simplicity in Omar Khayyam’s poem: A loaf of bread, a jug of wine…
AW: We begin with a refreshing bright glass of Fiol Prosecco NV Veneto, Italy. On it’s own, it’s a lovely palate opener, and yet it also pairs perfectly with our appetizers. Spanish mackerel is not something I would usually order, but I feel I can trust this menu, and step outside my comfort zone to try something new. The presentation is impeccable. This is a beautifully cooked mackerel with a crisp sear. Each bite is something new: delicate broccoli florets, pickled pearl onions and crunchy pop-in-your-mouth puffed quinoa. Every ingredient is thoughtfully plated to showcase individual notes and yet work together mellifluously. I could eat more, but I don’t need to.
SW: I appreciate the subtlety of the warm mushroom salad, splashed with Sherry vinaigrette, and flirting with velvety smooth parsnip puree. It is underscored by the earthiness of black garlic and the surprise of crisp parsnip chips. I wish they would package these crisps and sell them for us to take home.
AW: This scallop crudo is a master class in composition. Each ingredient seems freshly plucked from source and sliced for optimal texture and flavour. The scallops themselves are like silk. The mélange of apple batons, slivered radishes, garden-fresh mint and pickled mustard seeds is so clean and pretty, and such care has been taken, that when the plate is presented you just want to eat everything. Mark has suggested the Charles Baker ‘B Side’ Riesling 2016. He knows this Riesling well, and that it immediately elicits the accents of the apple; and it’s complimentary acidity softens and rounds out the dish.
SW: The prep done before plating is an important focal point in this kitchen. Chef Lewis Robinson employs his Michelin-star kitchen experience with extreme attention to the minutia of details. Steelhead trout, a delicate pink, freshwater fish is snatched from the pan at the second before doneness and set on pearl barley risotto sparked with the surprise of pickled mussels. A roasted heirloom carrot is draped on the fish. This dish, like all the others, is so on point, so in tune with exactly the way we want to eat today, it’s almost uncanny.
AW: Ricotta Gnocchi, once again shows the skill of the chef, and the elegant palate of the sommelier-turned-restaurateur. Firm little pillows of gnocchi luxuriate on a velvety squash puree. With a drizzle of bay leaf oil, sprinkling of pumpkin seeds, touch of Grana Padano, generous jaunty cap of duck confit, and pairing of Nicholas Pearce ‘Crew Sauvage ‘ Pinot Noir 2016, each ingredient sings harmoniously, and creates an enthusiastic medley in the mouth.
It cannot be overstated what a difference a sommelier of Mark Moffatt’s calibre makes to a meal. The wine can be as necessary an ingredient as any other in that course. It’s not about merely recommending a glass of wine that, in theory, should match with the ingredients on the plate. It’s about being intimately involved in the menu, understanding the preparation of dishes, how ingredients coalesce, and what contributes to, and enhances, their balance. A really good sommelier can elevate the experience to the extant that, without that exact pairing, the dish would not have reached that height.
SW: I almost hesitate to order dessert, so happy am I with the residual effects of my dinner, but a five-course chef’s tasting menu must include dessert. Almond Financier combines all the flavours I like: layers of dense yellow cake with almond crumble and orange satisfy every corner of my sweet tooth. House-made ice cream, the natural partner of cake, rounds out the perfection of this dish.
AW: Just before dessert arrived, Mark offered a glass of 1987 Toro Albala PX. “This sherry,” he tells me, “is like a rich chocolate cake.” Oh my God, yes! It’s a sexy ambrosia of luscious medjool dates draping my palate and beckoning to be sipped slowly. I would come back here if only for this, sit alone at the bar and be happy.
The chocolate gateau could just as easily be called Adam Waxman. This is what I like. A chocolate bomb with an espresso crémeux in its centre, resting on a chocolate crumble, and accompanied by a creamy scoop of espresso ice cream made in-house. The chocolate is not overly sweet, but so rich and dense, and the espresso ice cream is simply seductive.
What I find interesting is that at first glance, the portions do not seem large, and yet I am totally full.
SW: There’s a reason for that. The portions were perfect because each mouthful had so much delicious flavour, and with each mouthful there was some other interesting texture too. If you eat a whole pot of mashed potatoes, you eat one more spoonful, and one more spoonful, looking for that elusive wonderful flavour that you can never get, and so you just eat the whole pot full. Well, then you’ll be full, but you will not have satisfied your palate. There was very high flavour quotient here, and so it is very satisfying.
Core has only been open for a few weeks, and yet, I am struck by the synchronicity of it all. From our charming server, Alex, who has the good manners to ask, “How are you enjoying the flavours?”—A phrase I wish could be passed on to servers nationwide—to the elegant and clean balance of each dish; to the intensity of flavour increments with each ensuing course; to the comfortable lighting; to the low decibel of music which invites us to have an intimate conversation. Good taste is the Plat du Jour at Core Restaurant.
AW: At the core is the heart from which all else emanates: the care, the purpose, the principle; the subtleties; what you put in and what you give out. You can’t cut corners; and you certainly can’t fake it. This is a team of pros, from Chefs Lewis Robinson and Andrew Chung to Chef/owner H (Hyun Jung) Kim and GM and partner Mark Moffatt. It’s as though they want to show us: “This is how it’s done folks.”
Core Restaurant, 416-519-8101, 896 Queen Street East
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.