What happens when two lawyers take a (socially-distanced) walk during the pandemic?
While it may sound like the beginning of a groan-worthy dad joke, the answer to the question stands proudly at the corner of Harbord and Robert Street in the form of an elegant and subtly-opulent French bistro. It is the brainchild of co-owners Daniel Bernstein and Matt Cohen.
Sporting a simple and clean storefront devoid of any flashiness, Parquet attempts to blend into the bustling neighbourhood while still managing to attract the gaze of all passersby, owing to its corner location. It has a muted facade with a charcoal grey finish and orange accents enlightening any onlooker with the restaurant's name.
The understated exterior somehow makes the place stand out even more, given the contrast with the otherwise-vibrant Harbord Street. Emanating quite an alluring aura, the storefront makes one want to step in and continue what promises to be a grand experience.
Carrying on inside, the elegance is only elevated. The interiors are adorned with subtle notes of opulence. One of the key mindsets with which the dining space was created was to pay attention to detail but not have it completely take over the experience. People can have a great time without noticing any of the finer touches, but if and when they do, they can appreciate the thought behind the design.
The first thing you notice is the wood. There is a lot to be found, lending a vibe reminiscent of a French bistro space or even a cozy refuge one might find on a cold and rainy Parisian night.
Accompanying the wood and continuing the warm theme is the use of leather in the space. There are cozy banquettes adorned with plush red leather; and dark green leather on the chairs and high-top seating across the bar. The luxurious theme is complemented by thick, black velvet curtains that contribute to the moodiness and grandeur of the place.
The bar stands by itself to one side with marble countertops and a beautifully lit back bar stocked with all the products needed to whip up classic cocktails. Across from the bar is a mirror that helps elongate the space and give it the illusion of being larger than it is.
The use of leather and the presence of wood everywhere also makes the place emanate a pleasant aroma that can only be experienced and not described — something found in a bottle of high-end cologne.
Everything is crafted to perfection in this space. The greens and the reds; the marble to offset the moody theme; the paintings on the wall for a pop of freshness; and even the ceiling, which was put in by the previous owners, is useful in dampening sound and enhancing the ambiance of the place.
It's a statement piece that happens to serve delectable food. It's a time capsule that takes you to the prohibition era with more glitz and glamour and noticeably less cigar smoke. It's modern. It's eclectic. It's moody. It's sexy. It's regal. It's Parquet.
Given the background of the two owners, Bernstein and Cohen, they travelled a lot and saw a lot of the world and what it has to offer. What they found, much to their chagrin, was that Toronto was lacking in spaces that combined great food, great beverage and great hospitality under one roof.
Jeremy Dennis, the head chef at Parquet, sadly agreed with them, believing that there could be more such restaurants around the city.
I feel like you just don't hit all three of those markers — food, service, beverage — consistently," Lexi Wolkowski, manager and sommelier at Parquet, said. "So even some of my favourite restaurants don't do all three of those things. And certainly not all the time. So I think all of us are really invested in, you know, bringing that together."
The name Parquet was taken from a style of floor tile that's present in many special places, from the Palace of Versailles to even the Boston Celtics' court. It was a very aesthetically-driven choice, but also a good analogy of what the team is trying to achieve at the restaurant — subtle attention to detail with everything it does.
When it comes to running the dining space, Wolkowski's philosophy is simple: she wants to do right by her patrons — for them to have a seamless experience from the moment they enter the restaurant. And it doesn't need to be something overt that is noticeable, but small things that can make a big difference — even down to keeping their glasses of water filled without them having to ask.
"I think to me, that's the seamlessness of it, the elegance of it, the subtlety of it," she said. "When they don't have to ask, you know, and [just] anticipating those things."
As for the food, Dennis said that the fare served at Parquet is French and Bistro inspired with locally-sourced ingredients. Living in a multicultural city like Toronto, he said it's hard for all the cuisines he is exposed to to not become part of the creative process while creating the menus.
"We are not trying to own French cuisine by any means," Dennis said. "We're trying to take some of the classic ingredient and flavour combinations and then do our twist on it from a Toronto perspective."
As for the way he likes to run his kitchen, Dennis said that he makes sure his staff are enjoying their time, that the cooks are learning, have room to grow and have room for creativity. He said he's more than happy to harness his team's energy and work on dishes together.
"I honestly believe that customers taste that at the end of the day," he said. "And they see that, you know, if we're not enjoying ourselves, it's going to make its way out here."
The menu will be "uber seasonal," meaning that change is imminent about five to six times a year. Hitting the classics and focusing on comfort, nutrition and flavour is a priority to Dennis, putting those above simply making the dish look pretty.
"It's so easy to put flowers all over everything and make it look pretty. But for me, it's very important that food is really delicious," he said. "And also gives nutrition and value, which is also two things a lot of us seem to forget about."
Dennis and his team want to have a menu that plays with and incorporates the tasty classics using their new-school techniques — their interpretation with a skosh of new ingredients that do nothing but elevate the classics to another level. Once that foundation is solid, the team has the leeway to mess around and create rather playful dishes that stray away from the beaten path.
"Some of our dishes you might not have seen in France in the 60s at a bistro, but you might see now in a hip neighbourhood with a young chef who's just excited to play," he said.
The Tartine is a great way to kick off the meal and to also gauge what is to come for the rest of the night. The open-faced sandwich (a fancier way of saying a slice of bread with stuff on it) consists of a gruyere mornay, caramelized onions and a fresh garnish.
While it is quite a simple dish on paper, it is quite the banger on the palate. Many textures are in play with the beautifully toasted bread, the creamy sauce, jammy onions and crunchy garnishes. The flavours complement each other quite well, too, as the salty and nutty gruyere mornay, broiled to introduce smokiness, plays well off of the sweet caramelized onions, which are a true labour of love. The greens in the garnish complete the dish with a pop of freshness as well.
The Glazed Maitake is one of the most complexly-flavoured dishes on the menu. With the mushrooms sitting on a bed of wild rice, black walnuts and other deeply-flavoured root vegetables, there's a big umami kick that your senses are dealt with starting with the first bite.
Sometimes there's the issue of the glaze overpowering anything it's used on, but that is not the case here. All it does is complement the mushroom's earthiness, making for a cohesive bite. With the Calvados brandy from Normandy (really sticking with the French theme) giving off flavours of apple, pears and warm spices, the dish is a veritable flavour bomb that one just can't get enough of, so order at your own risk.
Taking inspiration from France's neighbour to the east, the Lobster Agnolotti is quite the refreshing pasta dish. The wonderfully-flavoured bisque is poured tableside, so you get a little show with your meal too.
As they say, you eat with your eyes first. If that was taken literally, your eyes would have themselves a feast looking at the bright-orange bisque that engulfs the pasta. The flavour of the lobster comes through in the broth and one can clearly taste the ocean through it — a testament to technique and freshness. A hint of acidity rounds out the dish, giving it a vibrant taste that pairs well with the lobster.
Could you really call a restaurant a French bistro if it did not serve Steak Frites? Luckily, we don't need to find out just yet. As far as classics go, this is pretty much the gold standard — perfectly seasoned meat cooked to perfection, crispy fries and a complexly-flavoured demi-glace where you can taste the time and effort that has gone into creating it.
What really takes this dish to the next level is the bearnaise sauce it's served with. Widely regarded as the "child" of the famous Hollandaise, this specific bearnaise is riddled with fresh herbs that make it a vibrant accoutrement to the dish. It cuts through the fat well and makes for a great sidekick to the star of the show.
Ending with something sweet, the Apple Tarte Tatine is the most technique-heavy dish at Parquet, according to Dennis. The apple is sheeted out, rolled back together and baked in a caramel. It's a wonderful textural piece with the puff pastry cooked just right. Carving into it with a fork, the apple gives way and the puff shatters.
Sitting underneath it is a Benedictine anglaise which adds a different dimension to the dish. While many different textures are in play the flavours are also quite layered. There's the sweetness from the apple and caramel, nuttiness courtesy of the hazelnuts and a bitter and somewhat alcoholic profile due to the anglaise.
Or try the Malted Chocolate Mousse with walnuts and miso caramel.
Food is not the only thing at the centre of Parquet, as it also has a boastful drinks program, much to Wolkowski's delight. While her knowledge lies in the world of wine, her friend and colleague from Bar Isabel, George Fellows, helped write the cocktail programme.
The offerings are playful riffs with a strong focus on French or French-adjacent ingredients behind the counter. The bar is not meant to do all cocktails under the sun but rather provide a strong Rolodex of modern classics and its own concoctions while retaining that French theme.
The Paris Syndrome falls under the same banner. It's not meant for everyone, and Wolkowski certainly did not expect it to do as well as it has. But now that it has become the restaurant's signature drink, there would have to be a really strong reason to take it off the menu.
"I wouldn't recommend the drink to everybody, but the people that get it, get it," she said. "It's so savoury and vegetal, and also like a martini but not. It's like French but not. It's been like a sleeper hit on the list."
Wolkowski said that she had wanted to do a French wine programme for a while to pay homage to the country where she significantly learned about it all in. The wines found at Parquet keep with the bistro vibe, possessing a certain lightness and being a bit more playful and energetic.
"Everything should be food-friendly," she said. "That's why the list, if anything, skews towards the lighter end of the spectrum than heavier just because I find those wines are more drinkable, with a wider variety of dishes."
In the short period that the restaurant has been operational, it has garnered a loyal clientele and the locals seem to be taking a shine to the new neighbourhood spot.
Dennis said that the place has been seeing a lot of returning customers and that the neighbourhood as a whole has been very welcoming to the new entrants. Even while the build was underway, people would stick their heads in, introduce themselves and have conversations in classic Harbord Street fashion.
"People have just been really friendly," Dennis said. "I've opened a variety of projects over the years in the city, I've never felt this kind of vibe from a neighbourhood, which is nice."
With the people putting their trust in Parquet, it is paramount for the restaurant to pay that back and more. The spot prioritizes the patrons' happiness and ensures they get good value for all the money and time that they spend. And with dining out getting more expensive by the day, stakes are that much higher for the industry.
"It takes a lot to bring yourself to a restaurant, and it costs a lot of money to do so," Wolkowski said. "So I just really want people to feel like they received everything that they should have, given what they're bringing here. You know, what it takes for them to get here, both financially and mentally."
With the way Parquet's first few months of operations have been, we have no qualms in saying that that's exactly what they're doing and will continue to do so.