By Michael Lowe
A few months ago local food lovers were abuzz with joy at the prospect of Chef Ryan Crawford’s return to the mainstream dining scene. But Chef Crawford’s latest venture, Backhouse, is anything but mainstream.
Crawford, along with his wife and business partner Bev Hotchkiss, could not have picked a better name for their establishment. Hocthkiss’s grandmother’s maiden name was Backhouse and Crawford garnered a loyal following during his tenure at Stone Road Grille, which previously occupied the space. So, indeed, Chef Crawford is back in the house — and kicking butt.
I tend to dine early in the hope of picking a prime spot, so don’t let the picture above fool you — within an hour the place was filling up with food devotees. The custom made grill (below photo) and pizza oven, both wood-fired, serve as centre stage and the Chef’s bar offers the best seats in the house. The setting also makes the front and back of the house merge seamlessly into one.
Whether you drop in for a quick bite or are looking to languish in the luxury of a three-hour dinner Backhouse has what you’re after. The ‘Homestead’ menu offers a dry-aged beef burger on sourdough whey bun, frites, poutine and a variety of thin crust pizzas (Funghi pizza pictured below) with prices in the $6-$17 range.
If you have more time treat yourself to one of the multi-course chef’s tasting menus. I went with a five-course option at a very reasonable price of $59. One of the must-try starters has to be the chicken liver mousse (below photo).
Just close your eyes and savour its velvety texture complemented by a bitter apricot compote. Slathered on house-baked sourdough brioche, it’s about the best damn thing I’ve eaten in years. Chef Crawford treats us to a tasting spoon of the beef tartare (below photo). The rich flavourful bite is a perfect example of ‘umami’ and serves its purpose — to leave you wanting more (note for next visit).
Next up is an unusual soup (below photo) made from black radish paired with fermented broccoli, apple infused with West Avenue Cider, burnt onion powder and celeriac leaf. It is, in a word, stunning — a symphony of earthiness, sweetness and textural artistry.
Following dishes consist of peach wood fired broccoli shoots with 48-month house-cured prosciutto and Monforte cheese sauce, and Lake Erie silver bass with Brussels sprouts, turnip puree and an emulsion made with ‘nduja – a spicy, Calabrian variation of salami (below photos). I paired Crawford’s Project 2011 Duke Vineyard Pinot Noir with the fish course and was amazed how the ‘nduja pulled the wine into the dish.
Chef Crawford assembles a dish of wood oven roasted potato puree and creamed kale with a special something on top — 86-day aged beef (below photo). You see, hidden from view, inside the walk-in, is an eight-foot table where Crawford and his crew butcher whole animals for the restaurant. In this case, the dry aged, grass-fed beef develops a rich, sweet flavour — truly a taste sensation worth experiencing. The beef, dressed with classic sauce Bordelaise, paired exquisitely with Ravine Vineyards Meritage.
Cheese is another ingredient treated with love at Backhouse. They make their own, including the buttery burrata (below photo). They even use the whey, left over from the process to make the house-baked breads to add an extra dimension of flavour. The burrata comes with an amazing tomato sauce made with 23 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
Three hours after our arrival Chef Crawford offers us grapevine branches to skewer house-made hot chocolate marshmallows and toast them over the peach wood coals by the grill. I can’t say enough about our first experience at Backhouse. Suffice it to say that we will be back. An ever-changing menu, based on seasonal availability of ingredients, ensures a lack of boredom and a culinary adventure you won’t soon forget.
242 Mary St.,
Hours: Check website