A change for the better
Diners are fickle creatures of habit, so a change to a restaurant that includes picking up lock, soup stock, and barrel and moving it several kilometres from its original location is risky business indeed. However, judging by the steady stream of customers on a sleety Friday evening, the Blackshop's recent move from its quaint and cosy home of 15 years on Hobson Street has been well received.
The mainstay Cambridge restaurant is settling nicely into its new digs in a thoroughly stripped down and fully renovated building that was once an Ali Baba Steak House on the busy Hespeler Road. A main entrance at the side of the building opens to about 185 seats that are divided among several rooms: a main dining area, more private Green, Red, and Blue rooms possessed of casual European elegance, a "studio" with art and a skylight for private functions, and a cafe and bar. And with spring weather, a patio will come into play as well. Recognizing a need for more tables and expanded parking facilities, the brothers Cerny (owners Alec and John) oversaw the ambitious project with the vision that experience has given them. Veteran restaurateurs that they are and having grown up in the business that was started by their parents, the Cernys were perhaps uniquely suited to pulling off such an evolution. I think their efforts have been successful: I liked the old Blackshop, but I like the new one too.
Seating for nearly 200 has the potential pitfall of a lot of noise and a sinking feeling that you are unanchored and adrift in a sea of people noshing a meal. The Blackshop avoided that by breaking down the space into the smaller sections. The result is an ambience that is relaxed and warm. As far as the other facilities go, a common wash-up area between the men's and women's lavatories is a bold if not momentarily disorienting feature, but good for Blackshop.
The menu is broken down such that it gives Blackshop faithful the cuisine they expect and want. I'd call it a bistro menu in a restaurant that pegs itself at the casual fine-dining level. Spinach salad ($7.95) -- one of 18 appetizers like mussels, insalata Caprese, Alsatian flat bread, gravlax, and steak tartare – combines crisp spinach, candied pecans, toasted pumpkin seeds, grapes, and maple syrup-based vinaigrette with a smoky hint that outstays the sweetness. No complaints about this simple salad – cool, refreshing, vibrantly green – except that the stalks of the spinach made for some difficulty in getting a forkful into the mouth without taking knife in hand.
Excellent shoestring pommes frites ($4.95) are true to bistro fare. These little devils are a delicacy for which the Belgians are famous, and Blackshop's fit the bill with a little ramekin of smooth aioli which immediately announces itself as lemon. The thin frites are served piping hot in a cone lined with faux newspaper. Their essential potato flavour, sans grease, hovers in an ideal realm between crisp and chewy. Out of the fryer and into a perfectly timed application of salt while ripping hot and moist gives the frites added character.
Throwing a punch of flavour of their own are Blackshop's chicken livers ($8.95), revealing the hidden richness in such humble offal, the too-oft castaway variety meat: they melt in the mouth with an intoxicating headiness. To the livers are added sautéed mushrooms, while roasted bacon cleans things up in a perfect balance. The sauce is creamy-rich and holds the components together without overriding the liver flavour, though the pea-shoot garnish is poorly executed and amateurish. Mains have inventiveness, including a foam, without straying too far from bistro roots: a mushroom strudel, steak frites, a crab "macaroni and cheese," sole tempura, three grilled meats, Muscovy duck and caraway spaetzle, and the stalwart schnitzel with mashed spuds ($16-$33). Grilled beef tenderloin ($26.95) with a side of wonderfully cooked small button mushrooms ($4.95) has the right texture, degree of doneness and full body that one expects in tenderloin. Scaloppine ($21.95) is veal medallions served with a restrained shallot and Marsala sauce – It's alla Milanese with a light breadcrumb and Parmesan coating, leaving the scallops of veal inside lusciously tender.
Cerny restaurants usually have interesting wine selections in any price range; Blackshop's list is divided primarily among Italian, American, and Australian with a Flaccianello "super Tuscan" ($145) and Napa Opus One ($350) representing the higher end.
A trio of creme brulees, vanilla, chocolate, and lemon ($6.95) are light and airy and made an ideal last impression at my introduction. Change, it appears, is good.
Apps. $5 to $17; mains $14 to $33. Cellar selection of 50 red wines and 30 whites; 20 feature wines from $26 to $50 ($7-$13 by the glass). Dinner for two with two glasses of wine and shared dessert is about $100 before taxes and gratuity.
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p m.;
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight;
Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Visa, MasterCard, American Express, debit accepted.