On a Tuesday a couple of weeks ago a fellow cured-meat fiend and I found ourselves mutually struck by a strong desire for charcuterie and a beer (or more). Unfortunately, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the two days of the week when Toronto’s temple of terrines (The Black Hoof) is closed. We had both heard good things about the Harbord Room (89 Harbord St.) and decided to give it a shot.
This place is definitely on the small (and popular) side. Even on a Tuesday they’re fully booked so we parked ourselves on two seats at the end of the bar. Luckily, this is our favourite spot for satisfying our people-watching and more to the point food-watching habits.
The menu is organised into small, medium, and large sections and the best course of action is to order without care for these boundaries–we ordered three dishes from the medium section.
A very good and much lauded chicken liver mousse was the highlight of our charcuterie plate with its remarkably smooth texture and perfect hint of booze. I was also impressed by how the black trumpet mushrooms in the pig’s head terrine added textural contrast and highlighted the pork flavour. We liked that the rabbit and pork rillete had a smoother, less-stringy texture and more pleasant taste than usual. The poached and then deep-fried egg is a great eclectic touch and is best split in half and shared or eaten in two bites but would be even more outstanding if we were provided with a bit of salt to season the yolk. The pickle accompaniment was a bit ho-hum, the crostini are crunchier than I prefer and the plate is missing a dry-cured element (but please not more duck “prosciutto”.) One of this city’s best charcuterie plates but not quite good enough to order another, some cheese, and more beer and just forget about dinner.
I know this is getting repetitive but I am always looking for Toronto’s best burger. Yesterday, I said that I was on a break from burgers but this post was already in the works and, besides, everyone is allowed the occasional backslide. The one at the Harbord Room gets a lot of buzz so I thought I would give it a whirl. This is an outstanding hamburger in the New York pub style. The beef is from Kerr Farms, is ground on the coarse side and best-of-all our server (the bartender) didn’t bat an eye when I asked for mine “on the medium-rare side of medium”. Perfect beefy taste (probably some sirloin in the mix) with just enough fat. The Fred’s Bread egg bun is what clinched my “favourite burger” title for the Harbord Room. It knows its job–a rich, yielding delivery mechanism that falls apart in your mouth just before the beef does–and does it perfectly. The burger comes with (excellent) fries and “a little salad”.
My dining companion ordered the duck confit potato gnocchi with pressed ricotta and crispy sage. As soon as my beef-induced moans and eye-rolls had calmed to the point where she was again willing to acknowledge my presence she let me try some. The first forkful had one of the light but earthy gnocchi excellently enriched by the confit sauce and a bit of the fall-appropriate squash and sage. I’m starting to realise that gnocchi is a dish that I should order more of in restaurants and make less often at home. I think I may lack the very fine motor control needed for the rolling-off-of-fork step, but I digress. Realising her omission she then passed me a second forkful with some of the ricotta. As I tasted the pressed ricotta I was struck by its similarity to really good cheese curds just as she asked ”doesn’t it just, you know, squeak as you chew it?” And it struck me: This dish really is poutine for taste-conscious adults. Potatoes, a rich and hearty gravy, and amazingly squeaky cheese. I’m impressed that whoever put the menu together at the Harbord Room left it to us to figure that out.
Beer selection is quite good (if a touch over-priced) and though we didn’t try it the wine list looked excellent with a good number of local wines by the glass. The service was spot on from the time I sat down, was greeted and provided with a (continually refilled) glass of ice water to the fact that we never saw the bottom of our pint glasses without being offered another. Make reservations well in advance or be willing to sit at the bar. The Harbord Room is definitely on my “highly recommended” list.