It was with something bordering pornographic lust that I crossed the threshold of Café Cancan, son of Piano Piano, Victor Barry’s divine downscale Italian pasta ’n’ pizza parlour. Even the door is a good omen. Turquoise, my late mother’s favourite colour.
But that’s not why I was excited. My lifelong feelings about French food border on worshipful. I know people who don’t like butter, I have friends who cringe at the thought of foie gras, and my beloved partner, being a better person than me, abhors cream sauces. I wish I were one of those people. Think of the calories I wouldn’t have to consume! Imagine the battles I wouldn’t have to fight. The bulge would be somebody else’s problem.
But I never met a form of butter or meat fat that I didn’t crave. Cream is like silk to me. Hence French food and I, a love couple.
Entering Café Cancan, a small bistro in what used to be the Harbord Room, is like falling down the rabbit hole into fin de siècle Parisian wonderland. It’s a pink room wallpapered with big blousy pink peonies. You can almost imagine Edith Piaf tossing back Pernod at the bar. The tiny dining room is charming, but my heart belongs to the back terrace: Marble tables, white wooden banquettes and a roof of Edison lights against the dark sky.
Would that the food were as glorious as the decor. Taking on a classic like French onion soup is really throwing down the gauntlet. The stock is too subtle, there’s an excess of bread cubes and not enough of the sweet savour of long caramelized onions. We love the creamy rillettes of smoked sturgeon on roasted flatbread with dill, parsley and pickled shallots, but few glories follow it.
The duck confit is greasy even for me. And I find it weird to be served pretty much the same garnish with our two mains: raw green apple, raw endive, pickled cauliflower and halved raw grapes. With the skate wing the cauliflower is browned, and with the duck there are slightly burnt hazelnuts. Rather like the overcooked frites, which only came after a reminder.
They do several different eclairs for dessert, so gotta do it. Here we meet the nadir of French cuisine: An eclair filled right before serving is crispy crunchy choux pastry with creamy filling. Filling it in advance? Recipe for disaster. Despite my love for Canada’s two key food groups — peanut butter and chocolate — I am disappointed by the sadly soggy peanut butter chocolate eclair.
How is it that Mr. Barry can succeed so delectably with downscale Italiana at Piano Piano, and not with a casual French bistro? Maybe because that’s just the nature of Italian versus French cuisine, the former being full of brio and ease, the latter being a labour of technique layered under the love. More technique please.