Hawthorne recently opened in downtown with a bit of a mysterious aura. It has no website and relays all its information, including its menu, through its facebook page. The about tab describes the food as:
It takes up the street level corner of 60 Richmond St which sits about a block southeast of the Eaton Centre. It has the layout out of a old school diner but with chic furniture, shelves of mason jars full of colourful pickled vegetables and on-table dessert menus held up with used wine corks. The menu is highlighted by a signature foursquare tasting meal offering small plates (literally presented on a single square plate) featuring fresh and seasonal ingredients.
Beef brisket is available everywhere and Hawthorne’s offering ($13) competes with some of the best southern joints in the city. Sliced a tad thinner than most, the abundant use of whiskey BBQ sauce and the fattiness of the cut made the sandwich rich and moist and the brioche bun was able to withstand the drippy-goodness. The fries were cut slightly thick and served hot. The homemade ketchup was tasty although quite unorthodox, highlighted by a predominant smoky flavour.
I’m a sucker for homemade soda and was pleased to see the Hawthorne offering. I opted for pear-cardamom and quite enjoyed its delicate and refreshing taste. It was not sickly sweet and was as refreshing a a cold Steamwhistle pilsner, the only other drink I’ve ever been served in a glass boot. A shot of gin from the well stocked bar would have made it a neat spin on a gin and tonic if I was in the mood and position for a potent potable.
The soup of the day was the unique combination of collard green and lentil which was served in a clear glass pot. Although it was a bit thick, it had consistent texture and a freshness reminding me that the phenols would do their best to protect me from cardiac assault of the upcoming brisket.
I was intrigued by the paella bombs which were described as crispy rice cake, sausage, crab and tomato pepper relish. They were presented beautifully but were covered with mussels and clams which I found odd given the description on the menu.The flavours were great although it taste more like a jambalaya or a pot of mussels and less like a paella. The biggest issue is they were presented cold. I addressed this with the waitress who checked with the kitchen and confirmed they should have been hot. She did offer to heat them up but by then I was almost done.
I was told the menu was new so I can understand a few items being lost in translation. However, mussels and clams on a paella is a pretty significant oversight. In addition, the menu indicated that the brisket came with housemade pickles. As a diner who will sometimes order an entree to get such pickles, I was irritated to see their absence. At first the waitress ensured me they were on the sandwich. A surgical dissection of the brisket confirmed otherwise and she went to the kitchen to inquire. The explanation was a typo on the menu and her peace offering was a rather dismal display of a few pickled carrots and sunchokes despite the wide array of options surrounding me.
There are obvious execution errors (temperature and menu descriptions) and waitstaff who seem a bit uninformed and disorganized. Both should be ironed out with time and practice. That said, the food is tasty and the environment is fresh and vibrant. I left generally satisfied despite a minor case of pickle envy.
Hawthorne is a bit confusing to the point where it lacks identity. It is designed like a high-end diner. The staff are dressed in foodie plaid. Some of the dishes are presented in fine dining style. The location (Richmond and Church) would mainly appeal to business folk and downtown dwellers. It’s a place that a larger group may all be alright with but you wouldn’t choose for any particular reason.
A famous author once wrote:
“Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world , individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever”.
Although I’m quite sure this 19th century quote was not meant to predict the Toronto dining scene in 2013, I think there are certain elements which are highly applicable. Today’s restaurants cannot be everything to everybody. You can’t be farm to table, nose to tail, organic, foodie-friendly, fine dining and a speakeasy (mentioned on their twitter account and a term coined in 1889 referring to an illegal alcohol establishment) all in one. If you don’t identify who you are, you will be forgettable amongst the many eateries lining the surrounding streets. Hawthorne’s success will hinge on its ability to fit in, without confusion, to a diverse and finicky Toronto dining crowd, a concept ironically penned in 1835 by American author and namesake Nathaniel Hawthorne.