Enter Mark Cutrara, a leader in the local/organic movement in the Toronto restaurant scene. His restaurant Cowbell, 1564 Queen Street West, serves nothing that comes from beyond the borders of Ontario. Everything is organic. He bakes his own bread and churns his own butter. House made salumi hang in his basement and veggies grow in his roof top garden. He probably has a pet duck and if God would allow he would be making his own cows. Cutrara may be a carnivore but has no less respect for the animal as a vegan does.
I have been trying to get to Cowbell since its’ opening almost two years ago. Although I hit my head on the bell on my way in, I entered smiling. It is a welcoming spot. Smallish with only thirty seats but it still manages to feel fresh and open. Rustic banquettes paired with sturdy wood chairs and big wooden tables make you feel as though you are dining at a farm house (a chic farm house). It flows and you immediately get the sense that someone had a plan.
The menu changes based on what is fresh and available. It is June and what is in season is asparagus. The stalks were cut into discs and simply tossed in lemon and olive oil with tangy goat cheese. The big deal was the crispness of the veg and the freshness of the cheese. A lovely start.
A constant on Cutrara’s card are the soiled reputation greens ($8). Named after its’ supplier it is an interesting mix that, barely dressed, was bursting with earthy flavours. I tasted pepper but there was no arugula. I tasted spice, was there horseradish? I will admit to not knowing what I was eating but you know, I find pleasure in little culinary mysteries.
Another win was the duck and boar terrine ($13). A terrine is a terrine and I love them but how often do you see the gherkins and onions inside the pate instead of alongside it? I wager never but am glad Cutrara took on the practice. Although the meat bordered on bland, it was super fun.
The charcuterie ($16) was another experiment in amusement. Elk, venison, duck, boar, bison and pig are just some of the animals that make an appearance here. All taste as though the animals live in the back alley but are served a little too ‘at room temperature’ and the result was some sweaty cold cuts. Bring the temp down, add a little more mustard and we’re laughing.
Mains include a fish option but last time I checked the restaurant was named cowbell not fish tank. Huron pickerel sat on mushroom risotto with ramp pesto and sea asparagus($25). It was a nice option for the non meat eaters but if you fall into that category, may I suggest a different restaurant? The risotto missed the mark – it was oily and wet instead of rich and creamy.
Rachel, our darling server, had built a solid reputation with me and so when she suggested the Muscovy duck confit ($30), I didn’t question it.
It was everything you’d expect from a duck leg that has bathed in its’ own fat for hours – moist, stringy meat clinging safely to a crispy and flavourful skin. A lack of grease made me feel good about eating it. Sliced almonds took the crunch factor to the next level and although the green beans were dehydrated they tasted like butter and that’s never a bad thing.
The Red Angus steak and tortiere ($30) was a true testament to the kitchen’s talents. The steak was rare but forcing it to rest meant that not a drop of blood dirtied the plate. The Quebec style tortiere with its’ sweetly seasoned beef and buttery pastry had a candied flavour that made me feel like a kid again.
Some Ontarians have never had an Ontarian meal. Many of us may have never tasted organic meat or produce. We eat tomatoes from Mexico and fish from Vietnam while we have our own farms, our own green houses and our own lakes. If you want to know what home tastes like then head to Cowbell. You are guaranteed to have an unpretentious meal that was made with heart.