So a family from Bangladesh opens a french bistro in Little Italy and names it after an English naturalist. That’s Darwin. OK…allow me to put it into perspective. The owners did hire a french chef and even though it’s in Little Italy, it joins the onslaught of non-Mediterranean restaurants (Bar Isabel, Bestellen and Woodlot for example) which has opened in the area. Finally, according to the owners, the name pays homage to a man who adhered to a philosophy of “survival of the fittest”, a saying which is especially pertinent in the restaurant business.
I took one look at the menu and was intrigued to check it out. In essence, it’s primarily a French menu with some international flare at very reasonable prices. For example, most appetizers and cocktails are under $10 bucks and the 12 oz steak and frites comes in at $25.
Unfortunately, I picked the night of the great flood of 2013 to venture out. Thinking it was a good thing that humans evolved from fish, I waded down College St., umbrella in hand and found my destination at College and Grace. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy although a table of four older ladies was keeping the place alive. The decor is modern, a fusion of a traditional bistro and a trattoria. It’s a narrow space with a full wall mirror on one side and brick wall on the other (so it looks a bit bigger) that ends suddenly at a largish wooden bar that matches the rustic accented tables (although the legs are central so I did the stupid almost tip the table over thing a couple of times). There was one waiter who was a pleasant and knowledgeable guy with 15 years in the business who was most insightful and attentive during the evening.
An interesting twist on the classic drink, I started with a maple old fashioned made with Crown Royal in conjunction with the traditional ingredients and a touch of maple syrup. It was a pleasant blend and without abundant sweetness.
I opted for the shrimp cocktail ($10) which was also a spin on the original. The shrimp were spiced, cooked and served warm on a bed of creamed avocado. The menu promised mango as well, but I find the tiny cubes were few and far between, adding little to the dish. The avocado was fresh and simple and lacked the additional flavours present in guacamole and other popular dips and spreads. The shrimp was a little salty and swam in an excessive amount of green but there was a balance which made it pretty good.
The moules and frites ($12) were another classic dish presented with a twist. The broth was reminiscent of a tom yum soup, bursting with south asian flavours. It was served with a spoon, an addition the very helpful waiter admitted was an afterthought after numerous requests. I found myself lapping the broth up as well. The frites were delicately done, fried “just to done” and seasoned with perfect amounts salt and rosemary. I would have loved a half a french baguette (for authenticity you know) to soak up all the remaining broth.
I shied away from the steak frites and instead went for the sauteed chicken on aligot mashed potato, a classic french dish. The chicken was moist although a bit underseasoned. The potatoes were surprisingly light and swam in a pool of tasty sauce. Overall, it was a decent dish and came in at an impressive $18. I paired it with a glass of Domaine de Joy “Cuvee Etolle” Blanc from France at a very reasonable $9.
On another note, I love sorrel and each of the dishes was garnished with this delightful and underutilized herb. It has a great taste, a mix of earthy, acid and sweet which complements most dishes quite nicely.
Although there is no formal dessert menu, there are a few choices which include a rum, banana bread pudding and homemade lemon tart. I opted for the former. It’s prepared individually in a ceramic dish and doused with chocolate sauce. I’m normally not a fan of chocolate in general, especially on bread pudding but this sauce was stunning, a perfect balance of sweet and bitter. In general, the dessert was not sickly sweet and the cloud-like bread mixed with the smooth sauce and small scoop of ice cream was textural bliss. The accompanying cappuccino was not great, but maybe we will leave that one to the Italians.
This place reminds me that good food can still be served at a reasonable price, a near forgotten philosophy that has kept many restaurants in business for decades. Not only was Darwin known for his belief in “survival of the fittest” ( by the way, for Jeopardy fans the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin), he was obviously known for his theory of evolution, another concept important in the survival of a restaurant. Darwin has plans…big plans. The waiter offered a quick tour of the large back patio which will be a stellar hangout once it is licensed. The idea is to have a raw bar and grill given the fact that the kitchen is quite small and would have difficulty handling more than the 35 or so seats in the main dining room. The menu is also under constant revision. Recently, the duck breast has been replaced with confit; the trout with salmon.
Darwin has a fresh decor and a decent menu with refreshing pricing. There are a number of cocktails and appetizers under $10 and no entrees for more than $25. Despite the prices, there is no compromise when it came to quality. The highlights were the moules (sneak in a baguette) and the bread pudding. The key to success will be an adherence to the foundations of the french menu without the standard pretension and pricing of other bistros coupled with an evolutionary philosophy and a damn good back patio…and maybe some help from Noah’s Ark on night’s like this..but wait…it is called Darwin afterall.