If nothing else, the Agricola Street Brasserie is ambitious.
But, luckily, there is some else. The restaurant is really beautiful. The huge main dining room is a scattering of tables within a perimeter set by high, comfortable banquette seating. A long bar runs the margin, a corridor of sorts, that leads to the back room, which features a gleaming open kitchen, where a coterie of cooks buzz around, the sizzles and clangs of action filling the air.
The dining room itself glows warmly, globe- and hourglass-shaped shades made of twined wicker hang in the vast middle distance between the tables and the vaulted, open-beam ceiling. Behind the bar, tall shelves climb into the rafters, bringing a cool graphic element and pops of colour to the space. Industrial design concepts mix with homey elements and modernize what is essentially a classic, comfortable design. It's seriously nice.
I've been to the restaurant a handful of times. The first time I shared a series of small plates. There were a few very good dishes---a flavourful sardine rillette and pillowy gougères---and a few unimpressive ones, like a bland quiche and a shrug of potato wedges. I left with the distinct feeling the restaurant was, to put it simply, fine.
I returned for another dinner. Our service, with appetizers, mains and desserts, took a sluggish three hours. Inconsistent entree sizes---a tiny portion of delicate scallops contrasted with a deep bowl, heavy with rich lamb---was more memorable than the food. (As was the feeling that the slow service was a technique to sell more alcohol.)
I return for a Saturday brunch. We arrive just as the noon gun fires, to an almost empty restaurant. (By the time we leave it's packed.) We decide to order an assortment: quiche ($11), roasted roots and bulbs ($8) Brussels sprouts ($5) and flank steak ($16), along with an Americano ($3) each.
Here's the thing about the food: the ingredients are always great, the plating is generally thoughtful and beautiful and the concepts are interesting. It's all good, but there tends to be something from description to execution keeping it from being excellent.
For instance, the vegetable dish---billed as roasted roots, seeds and bulbs---lacks any of the dark, caramel flavours that roasting coaxes out of vegetables. The dish is served as a room temperature Napoleon-style salad. It has, seemingly, barely been touched by the cooking process: parsnip, fennel and beets are all bright and crisp. Pumpkin and coriander seeds give a nice crunch and a lovely touch of spice, but an overly liberal sprinkling of cumin seeds blows out all of the delicate flavours.
The Brussels sprouts look wonderful, playfully plated in a small cast iron pan. They are beautifully roasted, brown along the edges and tossed in a succulent pile with caramelized onion and chunks of bacon. But they are over-salted, almost puckeringly so.
The smoked salmon quiche has a beautifully made crust, buttery with just the right crisp and crumbly texture. The custard is also well-made, but with salty smoked salmon in the mix, the filling itself also has too much salt. It's clear at this point that someone in the kitchen has a salty palate.
We run into the same thing with the flank steak, which is expertly cooked and heavily salted. I actually like a slightly heavy hand with salt---in fact, I love salt; "Sodium Chloride" is still one of my favourite Plumtree songs---but this has been loosed with a lead shaker. The rest of the plate---the simple green salad and French fries---is nothing special, but it's all good.
Agricola Street Brasserie is basically all good. With all that ambition behind it, one day maybe it'll be great. I hope so.
Agricola Street Brasserie
2540 Agricola Street
Mon, 5:30pm-12am; Tues-Sat, 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30pm-12am; Sun, 10am-3pm
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