Food and Wine

Best Restaurants of 2011: #1 Black Cat Bistro

Black Cat’s smoked and charred octopus with olives, parmesan, smoked-paprika mayo, tomatoes, and spicy yuzu vinaigrette. Photo by photoluxstudio.com/Christian Lalonde.

Steve Vardy may no longer preside here, but his ideas live on in many of our trendiest restaurant kitchens. His unique flare for pairing pretty proteins with elegant flashes of deep, natural flavour seems to have had a lasting impact on the brigade of young chefs who are cooking their hearts out around town these days.

As mentors go, it makes sense. He had a knack for putting restaurants on the culinary map, ruling the range at Beckta and The Whalesbone before becoming the Cat’s inaugural chef on Preston Street in 2008 (Black Cat Café had existed for the previous decade in the market).

When Vardy left, a young and inexperienced cook, Patricia Larkin, was promoted to executive chef. The boss, Richard Urquhart, turned over the reins, leaving Larkin free to develop her own menu. Unlike many of her peers, she is no copycat.

Larkin has a mind and style of her own. My most recent dinner featured a filet of wild salmon that demonstrated such quiet confidence and harmony that it stopped me in my tracks. What struck me most was that it was a meal, not a concept. The flavours and textures were already expertly layered, without my having to do the work of dabbing and assembling all sorts of dips, foams, and frills. It was just earthy mushrooms and firm, buttery fingerling potatoes set against the crispy skin and meaty flesh of the fish. Capers added a slight zing to a mischievous brown butter sauce that gently moistened, seasoned, and wrapped itself around every delicious bite. Might this be a case of the student outshining the teacher?

428 Preston St., 613-569-9998, www.blackcatbistro.ca.

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