Chef Ben Heaton has a pristine resume, having completed stints at acclaimed eateries Globe Bistro, Colborne Lane, and ONE, and run his own restaurant, the Grove. His heart of him, however, hankered for the Française. He wanted to try cooking for a French boite — but without what he calls “stuffiness.” So, this summer, he became a partner and executive chef at Lapinou, the buzzy King West neo-bistro, with a few fun (gi) ideas secreted away under his chef whites.
First, though: what, exactly, is a neo-bistro? “We offer cuisine reminiscent of culinary Français, but more innovative in its approach. Not being bound to the classics and using ingredients from other cuisines and regions. A casual environment, no stuffiness. Pared back, thoughtful food. This to me is the definition of neo-bistro,” Heaton says. “We don’t follow classic French cuisine. (So), we have more freedom with our cooking, but definitely keep it in the simplistic ‘bistro’ approach. I believe this sets us apart from the more traditional French restaurants in the city. More fun, punchy, acidic, yet definitely ‘French’ food.”
That translates into a menu that changes frequently, and rich showstoppers like Iberico pork presa with truffles, cabbage and yuzu; beef tartare with anchoYoade, green peppercorn and crispy shallots; and foie gras parfait with crabapple, hazelnuts and fennel crackers.
Now he’s celebrating fall — and the impending arrival of winter — with another decadent delight: a limited-edition five-course truffle tasting menu, being served now through Dec. 31. “Truffles are the sign of the season changing to colder weather. The aroma and flavor are so fall and winter to me,” he says. “They are such a rare and fleeting ingredient, with a taste like no other.” This year, he says, the Alba whites and the perigords have been especially extraordinary.
Truffles manifest in different ways throughout the Lapinou tasting experience. “Being a chef, it’s always enjoyable to work with such elegant ingredients. Truffles have always brought joy to cooking for myself,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite flavors, and the fact that they can enhance so many dishes is amazing. I am versatile.” There’s a truffle ponzu gracing the yellowtail amberjack second course (“this dish exemplifies the cuisine at Lapinou: simple, punchy, acidic and delicious”), and the starter of cured duck pairs perfectly with black truffle. The Rhode Island Red Chicken main? Finished with a to-die-for truffle jus gras. (Even the dessert fits the theme: an Alba white truffle ice cream with Villa Manodori balsamic, picholine olive oil, and sea salt.) “All the dishes are very simple, which kind of defines me as a person and chef — less is more ,” Heaton says. “Each dish is created to let the fine nuances of the truffle shine.”
Heaton is well-known for favoring local producers, and Ontario’s bounty fills this menu as well. Joyfully Organic Farms in Stouffville and Wooler’s Footstep Organic Farms provide most of the veggies, while local Conestoga eggs power the hand-cut egg yolk tagliatelle pasta dough. Einkorn flour, milled locally, fills the first-course bread, and all Lapinou’s dairy comes from Hewitts, Sterling, and Sheldon Creek. The chicken and duck hail from a small producer in Elora (“They champion heritage breeds and are simply amazing”).
All of them come together to spotlight the true star: the truffle. “Truffles enhance ingredients and perform well on their own,” according to Heaton. Plus, a hint of truffle can make any meal feel a little fancier. “They bring a sense of celebration, of festive dining. That’s why they bring joy,” he says. “And they are also delicious!”
If you’ve got a taste for truffles, Heaton suggests you try the following dishes.
Taste 501’s Mafalde Ai Funghi, 501 King St.E.
“It’s my favorite extruded pasta shape, and has a velvety truffle sauce tossed with mushrooms. My family and I enjoy this dish immensely, as it speaks of colder weather so well. It’s an earthy, robust dish that makes you feel warm, and has the perfect truffle flavour. Also fills you up! The long, ribbon noodles hold the sauce so well, and are great for slurping.”
Parallel’s Truffle Hummus, 217 Geary Ave.
“I love Middle Eastern Cuisine: I worked in the Middle East, and really enjoyed the flavors of the food. This hummus is creamy, smooth and well-balanced. They make their own tahini in house, which adds a wonderful sesame flavor to the hummus. The toppings are zingy and bountiful. Add in a few pitas, and it’s a meal in itself. It’s also around the corner from my house! Definitely an oft-eaten dish for myself.”
Giulietta’s Tartare di Manzo, 972 College St.
“Both of their restaurants are amazing, and this dish is a perfectly balanced plate of raw beef with sharp pecorino, creamy egg yolk and truffle. I love beef tartare, and always order it if I see it on a menu. The simplicity of this dish lets the truffle shine. Nice layer of acidity shines through. It’s a great way to start a meal.”
Byblos’ Truffle Asks, 11 Duncan St.
“I ran the Byblos brand in the past, and this pide (Turkish flat bread) of theirs is my favourite. I love the cheesy gooey filling, with a prominent truffle flavour. Anything cooked in a wood-fired oven is a winner.”
LOUIX LOUIS’s Whole Organic Truffle Chicken, 325 Bay St.
“A decadent, over-the-top chicken dish amped up with truffle flavour. I adore chicken, and love that I can have it roasted and fried.”
(Now craving something sweet? Check out this list of top places to for cookies in Toronto!)
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