Writing restaurant reviews is hard. I now know that. I wrote one on a short word limit. It's not great. It's kind of annoying. It's fine. Whatever, who cares about me? You know what's not hard? Writing restaurant reviews without resorting to inexplicable and sexist personal attacks. Unless you're Mark Pupo. So, Mark Pupo, let's take a closer look at your recent Grey Gardens "review" cause nothing makes me happier than criticizing critics.
Grey Gardens review: Jen Agg divides opinion, but it’s hard to deny that her new Kensington Market restaurant is a casually sophisticated success.
There’s only room for one Jen Agg.
Fortunately, she’s one person. Unfortunately, there’s room for more than one bad restaurant critic in Toronto.
In an industry that runs on big personalities, she’s the biggest.
I don’t know, that Guy Fieri guy is pretty out there. Ok, though, I’ll give you a chance...
This month, she released I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, a memoir that’s equal parts score-settling and self-congratulation for her own success as a trend-setting restaurateur.
Whereas this “review” will clearly be 100% score-settling. For some non-existent score?
She first cemented her meanie reputation in 2013 when, annoyed by the customers at the Black Hoof, her flagship, she tweeted, “Dear (almost) everyone in here right now. Please, please stop being such a douche.”
That tweet is kind of funny. Meanies are so scary. I hear she’s a real meanie. Sad!
She reminds me of a hard-bitten diner owner in a ’40s detective movie—the kind who doesn’t appreciate your tough questions and makes a show of spitting in your coffee. I steel myself before entering an Agg restaurant. Partly it’s the pressure to be cool enough to deserve a seat; mostly it’s induced by Agg herself.
You’re a profile in courage. Also, I’ve been to Rhum Corner, possibly the “coolest” of the meanie’s spots in Toronto, with some very uncool people. I’m also not cool. Agg was there. We had a great time. One time, the bartender even agreed to mix the two frozen drinks together for my friend even though he wasn’t supposed to. He didn’t spit in it. The meanie didn’t fire him. As far as I can tell, she has a supremely loyal staff.
Agg hasn’t shared the spotlight—not since she fell out with Grant van Gameren, her former chef at the Black Hoof and now her arch-nemesis, inasmuch as he’s her one true competitor for the hipster restaurant dollar.
Huh? Her nemesis, except not nemesis at all, except maybe he is because there’s only room for one Jen Agg? Oh, and everyone who likes Agg’s many successful restaurants is a hipster. All of Grant’s customers? Also hipsters. Toronto is all hipsters. #6ipsters
So I was caught off guard when she announced last year that she’d partnered up with Mitchell Bates, the founding chef at Shōtō, the tasting-menu room in the Momofuku complex, to open a new Kensington Market restaurant called Grey Gardens. When Shōtō opened in 2013, I named it the city’s best new restaurant; years later, I still yearn for one dish: an extravagant bowl of spaghetti, roe and deep-fried sardines. That’s all Bates.
I can’t believe this successful restaurateur partnered with a chef I like. This combination of two talented people with complementary skills in the same line of business is shocking. She is evil, he is innocence personified. There is ROOM FOR ONLY ONE.
He’s the exact opposite of Agg, rarely tweeting and never bragging. In all my times at Shōtō, I never witnessed him speak to his staff above a whisper, which confirmed a pet theory that the quietest chefs are always the most serious talents.
The EXACT opposite. Jen Agg: she tweets, she brags, she now allegedly SCREAMS at her staff(?), she clearly is not a serious talent. I have some pet theories about you. Spoiler alert: they’re not flattering.
Bates and Agg’s joint project started off modest. They talked about opening a cider bar, or maybe it would be a wine bar. There’d be snacks. But then they dropped hints of something far more ambitious and grand. Bates was bringing along his Shōtō chef de cuisine, Peter Jensen. Agg shared photos of the renovations and of the staff tastings and trial runs. The countdown was excruciating.
Oh no, I’m sorry it was so painful for you to have to wait to write this dumb sexist personal attack. That’s what you meant by excruciating, right?
Grey Gardens, like everything involving Agg, was shaping up to be a truly big deal. The day they began taking reservations, the online system overloaded.
It’s almost like she’s good at her job and people like her restaurants.
Agg says they didn’t name Grey Gardens after the Maysles documentary. She simply likes the colour and decorated the new place with grey bentwood chairs and a mural of grey-toned foliage.
I don’t know, the foliage is green and blue. It’s in a picture right below this paragraph in the original review. In fact, there’s a lot more mint green and light wood going on in the restaurant than grey, but your inability to see green is less problematic than your inability to see strong successful women. That dress was white and gold by the way.
There’s nonetheless an off-kilterness to Agg’s version of Grey Gardens that would remind the batty, shut-in Bouviers of home. It’s in the weathered, hard-to-see signage and the decorative security gate pulled across the street-facing windows, as if there’s no one home. It’s in the hoarder’s collection of flea-market curios and the pots of plastic greenery (possibly ironic) decorating a stairwell. It’s in the box of anti-nausea pills I found discarded, like an omen, on the floor of a bathroom one night.
You guys, someone threw something on the floor of a restaurant bathroom. The horror.
I half expected a family of raccoons to drop from the ceiling.
Again, a guest missed the trash can. Maybe cause they were having fun and drinking good wine and wanted to get back to their friends even though the bathrooms are lovely. Call the health department, suddenly raccoons are falling from the oh so grey skies!
Once you find the door, the greeting is warm—much warmer than I’ve ever experienced at the Black Hoof, where the staff always seemed resentful of success. Even though the room is as narrow as any downtown business and busy with servers hustling bottles of wine between full tables, it’s airy and placid.
Admittedly a strange point to pick on here, but are all downtown businesses narrow? Is that like a known, true fact?
All that grey does the trick.
The best experience I had was at one of the old-timey doctor’s stools
These are also painted green.
facing the open kitchen, where I had a full view of the effort that Bates, Jensen and their crew bring to every dish.
Those men were so full of effort, they didn’t even have time to tweet. Or golf. Or start World War III. I think I may have strayed off-topic here, but the world is fucking scary right now, ok? Like, for real scary. Not a talented restaurant owner might tweet something funny scary.
The focused menu is divided into small, medium and larger courses, and the idea, now a given, is to share.
Although the menu’s unadorned list of ingredients reads like a Shōtō tasting menu (“beets, stracciatella, lamb bacon, Meyer lemon”), what appears before you looks like those ingredients, not some over-intellectualized composition of foams, jellies and other molecular gastronomical flourishes.
Are actual Shōtō dishes over-intellectualized compositions of foams et al.? No. No, they’re not. So...weird comparison. Besides, you said you loved Shōtō and that description doesn’t sound positive. I’m confused.
Cheese resembles cheese and beets resemble beets.
Snozzberries resemble snozzberries.
I had a few just-okay dishes, like those beets, which had been roasted then compressed in a vacuum machine with a few drops of soy and vinegar, then paired with the sweetly fresh cheese and a garden’s worth of herbs.
This sounds good. Why was it “just-okay”? You know, review the restaurant’s ACTUAL FOOD properly before you get back to bashing its owner. Or maybe don’t bash the owner at all? Why are we bashing the owner? How does this not go without saying? What in here is about her performance as a host in this restaurant? What score are you settling? Are you the crusader for unnamed douches from some four year old tweet? Are you four years old? WHAT IS EVEN GOING ON HERE?
So anyway, those beets. They were kinda just-okay. You know what else was just-okay? My annoyingly short word limit review of Grey Gardens. The one where I didn’t horribly insult the owner due to some unexplained personal vendetta or desire for clicks. Now I’m exploiting you for clicks though. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
But not Agg, because she’s a mean woman. And also because there can only be one.
There’s one dud, a plate of handmade pasta with a sour sauce of cheddar whey and butter seasoned with paprika, plus more cheddar that’s been dehydrated; it made me long for the simplicity of Kraft Dinner. But I also had some incredible inventions, up there with my all-time Bates favourites.
Bad men invented Twitter for scary women to be meanies. (Also, Uber. Bad men invented Uber. That is a known, true fact.) Good man invented some ravioli.
His butter-glazed ravioli, stuffed with smoked sweet potato and covered in wafers of black truffle, are a clever cross with pierogi. If you didn’t get the hint, he gives you two dipping options: sour cream and a sauce made from slow-baked-until-supersweet gala apples.
His bowl of ricotta dumplings redefines matzo ball soup, the fluffy white orbs in a broth that out-turkeys every grandma’s turkey stock, laced with kombu, dried shiitake, bonito and a dash of tare.
No, my Passover soup does.
I also loved the disarmingly simple fish dip, made from applewood-smoked Spanish mackerel blended with sour cream, mayo and pickled onions, to be spread on wafer-cut potato chips dusted with caper powder. It’s a perfect after-work snack with a glass from a wine list (this is, after all the hubbub, a wine bar) that leans toward organic and Burgundy, and one night offered two orange wines—in a city where one is noteworthy.
#6ipsters are orange wine 6ippers.
The absolute standout, which you must run and order right now before the season ends or Bates changes his mind, is the duck, butchered Chinese-style and left to dry-age for two weeks.
I had this duck. It’s good. I have no idea what Chinese-style butchery means.
The breast is scored, the fat cap left lusciously thick so the roasted skin turns extra crispy and the meat absorbs all the fatty deliciousness. The remaining duck bits and bones are fuel for a sauce that gets extra tang from Japanese hot mustard. He plates it with a house sauerkraut and wild rice that’s slightly overcooked into fluffiness then tossed in a pan with mirepoix and the duck’s liver—a fancy fried rice. It’s real, albeit casually sophisticated food, much like what they’re serving at La Banane and Brothers Food and Wine. Real food—that’s the best adjective to describe it—is shaping up as the dominant trend of 2017.
Yes, that definitely is the best adjective to describe it. The one you just used. Maybe I spoke too soon when I said this review would be 100% score-settling, and thus wouldn’t be equal parts self-congratulation like Agg’s memoir that you tried to dismiss as part of your restaurant review. Double duty. You’re a real food pro. That was real food sarcasm. Also, “real food” is not an adjective.
I couldn’t figure out why I felt so stress-free at Grey Gardens during those first visits. Then I discovered, checking Twitter, that Agg was thousands of kilometres away, on a Caribbean beach with her husband.
Maybe she did a good job if her staff made you feel welcome when she wasn’t there due to a brief vacation? In the early days of the restaurant no less... No, that can’t be it, for she is evil scary devil meanie woman who sometimes tweets. Sometimes she even tweets angrily in response to sexist bullshit. And general unprofessional bullshit. One day she might even tweet about a bull shitting. Can you imagine?
We were all safe: there was no threat of being called out as a douche.
Ultimately, I’m unqualified to mansplain. Well, too qualified to mansplain. Which is kind of the issue here. But ... I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that by now you discovered, checking Twitter, that she’s not the only one calling you a douche. Not by a longshot.