|Location||729 Queen Street East|
|Dinner with two glasses of wine||$300|
When young gun Sean MacDonald, former executive chef of Hexagon, suddenly announced he was leaving the Oakville hotspot, it didn’t take a genius to put deux and deux together.
Fast forward a couple years, and MacDonald is now the chef/owner of ēst which graces Riverside with its presence since September 2019. Located just down the street from the Broadview Hotel, ēst is an immersive tasting menu experience in which diners have the option of either a traditional or vegan six-course menu (plus some standout complimentary bites) for $90. Optional wine pairings (standard or premium) are available for an additional cost.
Leading up to my Saturday night reservation, communication with the restaurant via the reservation platform Tock was impeccable, and that same level of communication was consistent throughout our evening. Upon entrance, the host and server knew who we were and confirmed our previously-noted dietary restrictions and menu selections.
Overall, the space itself was très Scandinavian. It struck the right balance between minimalist and hygge with a white and grey colour palette and accents from light wood. Some potted plants in the window seemed a little out of place, but added une touche de greenery and some literal signs of life to the otherwise sterile space. My seat provided a prime view of the bar, which featured a Caesarstone countertop and seven bar seats for walk-ins, when available.
MacDonald’s experience at restaurants such as Hexagon grounded him in classic culinary techniques while still leaving room to be playful with his creations. MacDonald, together with his chef de cuisine, Reece MacIsaac, used seasonal ingredients, exceptional quality and meticulous technique to both comfort and delight patrons.
A prime example of delight was through the amuse-bouche, which we savoured with a glass of bubbly. Four exquisite plates derived from the land, the sea and from plants captured our attention from a visual point of view and through the story that accompanied them. Par exemple, the sunchoke skin with whipped sunchoke and sunflower seed condiment, cleverly presented in a miniature terra cotta pot with red pepper chips shaped like clay bricks, told the story of the bricklayers and gardeners who used to work in the neighbourhood. Pork cheek with a fish sauce caramel, and the prawn hotdog with chive mustard and brioche were also outstanding, and set the bar high for what was about to unfold.
For the first course, rings of squid were precisely arranged on top of grilled cabbage. A reduction of vegan XO sauce punched up the umami flavours of the whole dish, making it an impressive start.
The umami continued in the next course with the elevated and elegant presentation that was synonymous with MacDonald and his new establishment. A shallow pool of smoked corn broth with delicate pieces of poached lobster and dots of foie mousse sat in front of us. The server encouraged us to be the artistes as we whirled it around to combine the flavours. It did not disappoint.
The third course was MacDonald’s signature dish — the potato dumpling; pillowy pockets drenched in cultured butter and dusted with parmesan and chives. If there was a heaven in food form, c’est ça. Due to a dietary restriction, we also received the parsnip for this course, which was a transplant from the vegan menu. Hues of orange and green from earthy rutabaga, Thai curry and dabs of micro basil on the plate made an impression. Wonderful taste aside, the only mishap with this dish was fumbling with the slippery cubes of rutabaga and trying to place them on my spoon.
One dish that needed refinement beyond its lackluster name was the fish stew. The saucy, under-seasoned mixture of charred tomato and fennel was topped with a chunk of Halibut, a perfectly seared scallop, and a de-shelled mussel. Its thoughtless presentation and lack of cohesiveness felt like a disappointment after the crescendo from the previous courses.
The night we dined at ēst, there were three options for the fifth course: beef short rib, duck confit and pork. We chose beef and duck confit so as to partager les deux.
The beef presented meaty, off-the-bone short rib alongside confit baby king oyster mushrooms, roasted onion core, and bone marrow. No critiques with this dish, and although the ingredients seemed downright traditional, I’m still thinking about it.
The dry aged duck confit leg, on the other hand, was not at the same calibre as the beef, but was executed with skill. Its skin was crisp and absent of any oily residue, and the canard was moist and ever-so-succulent. The accompanying caramelized pumpkin and the gruyere velouté were thoughtful sides which accented seasonal flavours.
Creativity was strong throughout and kicked up a notch when the palate cleanser landed sur la table. No, it wasn’t minty sorbet as one might expect. Instead, sea buckthorn cream soda arrived in two mini glasses — a whimsical burst of fun that added some levity into an otherwise boring part of the meal.
ēst’s dessert certainly helped diners with their daily vegetable intake — a favour to us all! While the dessert was not the sweet ending I’d anticipated, MacDonald’s root vegetable sundae (spelled “Sunday” on the menu) demonstrated his depth and breadth of skill when it came to transforming these below-the-soil root vegetables into an impressive last course. Potato skin ice cream, a dense and chocolaty sweet potato brownie, and a sweet-and-salty parsnip dulce de leche proved that he was willing to push the envelope to deliver one last surprise.
ēst is a special occasion splurge where disappointments are few and far between. Hospitality and service details were polished and professional, and the dining experience was detail-oriented, refreshing and memorable — especially with the orange caramels that arrived with the check.
MacDonald’s passion for culinary arts is overwhelmingly evident in his first restaurant, and I congratulate him on its success thus far — it’s no easy feat opening a restaurant at such a tender age. Although ēst isn’t quite a five-star dans mes yeux, it’s awfully close. ēst is a high caliber establishment that Toronto is fortunate to have, and one that I look forward to revisiting encore et encore.
Mme M. xoxo
La rubrique de Madame Marie
1 étoile – Run. Before you get the runs.
2 étoiles – Mediocre, but nothing you couldn’t make at home.
3 étoiles – C’est bon, with some standout qualities.
4 étoiles – Many memorable qualities and excellent execution. Compliments to the chef.
5 étoiles – Formidable! Michelin Star quality. Book a reservation immediately.