I was surprised and appalled to read Amy Pataki’s vile and vindictive review in the Toronto Star on Grey Gardens. It felt like I was reading a hate letter to owner, Jen Agg. I am also guilty of telling it like it is, but was Grey Gardens deserving of such harsh criticism? Absolutely not, there are many things still to admire.
Grey Gardens at 199 Augusta Avenue, in the heart of Kensington Market, is owned and operated by well-known and reputed Chef Jen Agg of the Black Hoof, and Rhum Corner. She has partnered with Mitch Bates of Momofuku Shoto. Chef de cuisine is Peter Jensen, also of Momofuku.
Ms. Pataki found the food to be sloppy, the service “smarmy”, and the prices too high. On the contrary, I found Grey Gardens to be cozy, friendly and moderately priced. The restaurant seats 30 plus, with an additional 22 seats at the two bars. One that serves drinks and one that overlooks the open kitchen. The place is non de script and looks like a regular kind of joint from the outside, but once you come in you will be pleasantly surprised at how cute and casual the place is. The space has been totally gutted and refitted. And although it has a rustic vintage feel to it, with concrete floors and exposed copper piping, everything is brand new. There are three sections – the wine bar, the kitchen counter and the dining room. Painted vines cover the walls to give you a garden-like setting, and the colours are done in a soft pastel palette. The room had a light and airy feel to it, a minimal ambiance with a brick wall, marble, wood and copper accents. The food is “new North American”, with a focus on vegetables, fish and seafood. Yes, the portions are small. Our sweet server Kate, suggested five dishes between the two of us to share. This worked out perfectly. The menu is divided into snacks, small, medium, noodles and large dishes. We tried to order one thing from each section.
The grilled bread with butter and schmaltz is a good way to start, and went well with my alcoholic citrus spritz. The scallop dish topped with lemongrass and a chopped fiesta sauce with cream is delicious and had a mixture of great textures. The shrimp and spinach dip with green garlic and turnips is enjoyable too. From the noodle section, we selected the rye orecchiette with morels, bacon and ramps. From the large section, we enjoyed a nice seasonal dish of halibut with green olives, artichokes and fiddleheads. There is also lamb, chicken and steak offered in the large section.
Would I call the food outstandingly mindblowing? No. But I would call it fresh, seasonal and creative. A neighbourhood place where you can drop by for a drink and snacks, or stay for dinner. For dessert, there were a few options. That chocolate dessert that Amy described as dog poop on a plate, was actually not that attractive to me either. It came with an unusual vanilla and truffle ice cream. It almost had a savoury taste to it and the chocolate was not very sweet. A better bet for me was the rhubarb dessert with vanilla ice cream, pistachios, and a celery creme. It was a light selection and rhubarb is just in the prime season. The menu changes according to availability of produce and the season. The wine list had choices from regions in Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, and Austria. Conspicuously missing were selections from the US. There is also a section for ciders, and spritzes.
When I used to think about Kensington Market I used to think of butchers, cheese stores and ethnic grocers, along with a bohemian charm. But over the last several years you can see the area is becoming more eccentric and eclectic. Now there are great restaurants like El Ray, and barbecue, ice cream and taco places. Grey Gardens is a welcome addition, with inventive food and a hip vibe in a casual setting.
Open for dinner only Wednesday through Sunday.