I had been anticipating the opening of ēst restaurant for months. It is located at 729 Queen Street East near Broadview in the once-gritty neighbourhood of Riverside. The area is slowly starting to become redeveloped and a plethora of restaurants and shops have recently sprung up. ēst officially opened its doors in September 2019. The young chef, Sean MacDonald, is the former executive chef of one of my most highly recommended restaurants in Canada, Hexagon, in Oakville. I visited for the first time just after it opened in 2017. If I’m going to drive over an hour for a meal it has to be exceptional, and it was. It was rated the 4th Best Restaurant in Toronto Life the following year, and I thought it deserved a higher rating. He actually won the Canadian title for the San Pellegrino Young Chef Competition and he represented Canada in the world championships in Milan, Italy. I think you can see now why I might have been a tad impatient for his new place to open!
Chef Sean MacDonald is the executive chef of the establishment along with his chef de cuisine, Reece MacIsaac.
Open five nights a week for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday (they are planning to eventually also be open Sunday nights), this place is definitely a different vibe than Oakville’s Hexagon. It is a small, casual, narrow dining room that seats twenty-four and an additional six at the bar. The majority of the restaurant is fitted with hard bench banquets (FYI, the felt pads do not do the trick), accompanied by grey chairs, cool lighting fixtures, and a Caesar stone bar. The tables and floors have a blond wood finish, and the walls are painted white, with the brick wall behind the bar whitewashed.
The fastidiously creative menu offers a traditional or vegan six-course tasting at $90 per, as well as bar snacks. The crowd is definitely younger here and I know a lot of vegans who will be thrilled with the innovative offerings. The tasting menu is progressive, but not as upscale as his menu at Hexagon. Instead of a French focused menu, this time around the chef is using as many Canadian grown ingredients as possible. Almost everything you taste is made in house. Also, most of the serving ware, including the ceramic plates are made in Canada, and the presentation materials used for adorning the plates are also locally-sourced, like the twigs, flowers and stones that he uses to present the dishes.
Although many of the dishes were meticulously prepared, they didn’t blow my socks off. Some of my favourites were the playful snacks, especially the corn custard topped with malted and candied buckwheat, with black truffle and basil. I would like to see this in a larger format as one of the six courses. The presentation was both Instagrammable and award-winning worthy. I loved the look of the prawn hotdogs in the mini brioche buns, topped with garlic aioli and chive mustard, however, I found the taste of the prawn was too mild, or overwhelmed by the bun. I did enjoy the fermented red pepper chips topped with a palate-pleasing red pepper relish and cashew sour cream – with this dish I think there is a better interplay and balancing of flavours.
The presentations for the main dishes are interesting. The fresh tomato salad is appealing, but the mushroom (fungus) plate on the vegan menu was not only aesthetically pleasing, it has depth and complexity to it. The green peas and green wasabi course had the right balance of taste, texture and bright vibrant colour. The cod wrapped in zucchini and then encased in cabbage and drizzled with a spiced almond sauce, is moist and mild tasting. The potato dumplings, which look closer to a gnocchi, seemed to be a crowd-pleaser judging by my neighbours. It could be the salted, cultured butter the dumplings were swimming in. When it came to the smoked potatoes in mole sauce, I am not a fan of smoked food, so I’m rather a bad evaluator. The standout dish for both my husband and myself during this visit was the dry-aged sliced duck breast, with whipped sweet potato and a fermented coffee sauce. It was a beautiful composition overall.
Dessert was nothing as spectacular as Chef MacDonald’s past creations, but I guess he is going for less glitz here. The dessert on the traditional tasting menu featured caramelized banana and whey curds topped with a crushed hazelnut praline, and chocolate hazelnut crumb, and a sesame crumb served with vanilla ice cream. It was okay, but this is coming from someone who is jaded. The more interesting choice is on the vegan menu, a nostalgic ode to baking with grandma. It looks like a bowl of leftover batter that you scrape up with a mini rubber spatula. In fact it is a poppy seed rice pudding, maple pecan purée, and coconut water sorbet.
Our enthusiastic server told us they would be changing up the menu 6-8 times a year. I noticed they changed the silverware for every course, a big plus for me. After our first visit, I would say they still have to iron out and polish some service and timing issues – like being seated for 15 minutes with no eye contact. But, the restaurant is still new, so I will give them a free pass this time. I loved the hostess with the dimples, she couldn’t be nicer.
When the food bills itself as top shelf, the choices at the bar should match. I found the selection of liquor on the small side. There are three long shelves behind the bar. Perhaps don’t spread out the glassware so much and add some more premium selections. They also offer an optional wine pairing at $75 for traditional and $110 for premium pours. But, I would like to see some familiar names on this list as well.
Overall the food is well crafted and beautifully presented, but it didn’t seduce me. I am sure as the restaurant grows and progresses we will continue to see the culinary excellence that I have experienced with Chef Macdonald before.