Published on Friday January 25, 2013
(out of 4) GOOD
Address: 555 Dundas St. E. (at Sackville St.), 647-748-0555, paintboxbistro.ca
Chef: Randy Farthing
Hours: Lunch, Monday to Friday, 11: 30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, seven days, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $80
Paintbox Bistro is unlike anything in Toronto.
This is a good thing.
Its employees are new to the hospitality industry. They get on-the-job training, college courses, competitive salaries and an equal share of tips.
Such nurturing, thankfully, isn’t unique to our restaurants. Students run The Chefs’ House at George Brown College and queer youth train at Fabarnak in the The 519 Church Street Community Centre.
But Paintbox goes further. It hires people on welfare. It draws from marginalized communities across the city. It aims to make a profit. And it is helping to revitalize Regent Park, one scrumptious roasted heirloom carrot at a time.
The social-housing project that is Regent Park has never been a dining destination. Now, it is drawing residents of nearby Cabbagetown and the Gay Village. Rosedale will be next.
Why? Because Paintbox Bistro is a good place to dine. It’s creative, technically proficient and offers good value. Factor in the social mission and Paintbox is amazing.
The space is tall and modern, the casually set tables occupied by what appear to be fellow visitors to Regent Park. Paint brushes and palettes on the walls bring to life the painting theme, which continues to the menu categories of “primers” (appetizers), “grand strokes” (entrées) and “finishing touches” (desserts).
Since its September opening, the restaurant has undergone big changes. Its first executive chef Matt Cowan left in October due to the greater-than-anticipated stress of training kitchen staff who’ve never wielded a chef’s knife. His opening menu showed promise: reassuringly thick celeriac soup, properly chewy flank steak and a roasted kabocha squash wedge napped by coconut-milk curry that showed vegetarians some respect.
Sous chef Randy Farthing (ex-Bistro Thuet, Mark McEwan’s One) was promoted after Cowan’s departure. He fulfills Paintbox’s potential with a Mediterranean bistro menu torqued by a whimsical presentation.
Take those carrots ($8). Coloured roots — purple, orange and yellow — arrive at the table in a glass meatloaf pan. It is homey but oh-so painterly, with streaks of vivid orange squash purée up the sides and a tangle of cumin-dressed arugula on top.
The cornish hen ($17) is even more unexpected, both for being served on a wooden cutting board and for the skill in preparation. The kitchen cooks it the smart way, separating the dark and white meat. The leg is confited until the flesh practically melts; the skin is admirably crisp. The breast, meanwhile, is roasted to a turn. With it comes soft polenta, braised cippollini onions as sweet as candy balanced by the faint bitterness of crumpled dandelion greens.
A sea bream fillet ($18) looks more blackened than seared, truth be told. It is served with cloves of roasted garlic pungent enough to bring Edward Cullen to his knees. Underneath, a thin disc of rosti makes a surprise appearance, thanks to a menu that doesn’t list every last garnish. It’s a welcome one, as is the softly poached egg inviting us to let the yolk flow.
Paintbox is committed to providing even the so-called extras, like making springy sourdough bread and a sharp and exotically spiced ketchup. The ketchup goes with a tumble of fried cheddar cheese curds in crunchy tempura batter ($6) from the bar menu. Too bad the kitchen tends to undermine its worthy efforts by oversalting the food.
Another fault is the repetition of presentation at dessert ($7), when a humongous crème brûlée is served in the same type of glass pan as the carrots.
Paintbox reverts to a blank canvas only when it comes to table service.
Soft-spoken waiters won’t make you feel cheap for choosing unlimited sparkling water for $3 instead of a $33 bottle of Creekside Sauvignon Blanc from the all-Ontario wine list.
But there’s no question these folk are new to the job. It shows in their stiffness, their uncertainty about when and how to clear plates.
It’s also there in the moment when, after putting down our main courses and realizing we don’t have cutlery, the server asks, “Do you need a fork?”
I overhear the manager explaining the economics of running a restaurant to trainees hanging on every word. They learn to serve and to cook, including in the burgeoning catering department.
From this unlikely recipe for social change also comes a chance to heal what Paintbox director Chris Klugman calls the “broken” restaurant industry.
“I hear a lot of angst about the paradigms in this business,” says Klugman, a chef for 32 years.
“That kind of horrifying Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay yelling exists. You can’t yell at marginalized people.”
We’ll call it the quiet food revolution.