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Enoteca Sociale: Grant van Gameren's Roman holiday

The grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and a roasted pepper tuffo sauce at Enoteca Sociale

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Enoteca Sociale
$150 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip

I received a querulous e-mail from a reader who was shocked at having to call for a table at a popular downtown restaurant a month in advance. Get with the program, baby – this is now the Toronto restaurant reality. The popular new places are all small, artisanal and our demand exceeds their capacity. This has produced a very New York state of affairs: People in the Big Apple book their restaurant tables one month in advance. If their social arrangements fall through, they cancel. Bear in mind that a fair number of NYC restos require credit-card numbers to hold a table, so stiffing them will not be friendly on your wallet. This is what's coming here.

So it should come as no surprise that Enoteca Sociale has become a pretty tough table to score since Grant van Gameren (ex-Black Hoof) became the executive chef there. They say they hold nine places for walk-ins, but I've tried twice (both times early in the week) and not gotten a table. Call a month in advance if you wish to dine at a civilized hour.

Is it worth it? Has Grant van Gameren brought the magic of the Hoof to Enoteca?

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More you might ask, did they need it? Pre-Grant, Enoteca, the child of Max Rimaldi and Rocco Agostino (the Italian gastro-wunderkinds who also own the Pizzeria Librettos) was ticking along very nicely thank you, doing pretty great traditional southern Italiana. Grant left the Black Hoof in the summer, parked himself briefly at Lucien in the fall, and found a (certainly temporary) home at Enoteca early in the winter.

Rocco and Max are in his corner. They're happy to employ Grant while he a) looks for a space for his next restaurant, and b) broadens his horizons. He did a three-day pop-up in a warehouse in Calgary a couple of weeks ago and is planning eating trips to Rome (in a few weeks) and Copenhagen (in July).

All of which suggests that his effect on Enoteca (save for the over-the-top publicity that is fuelling reservation mania) may not be exactly profound. Pre-Grant, they served house-made pastas with big-flavoured loveable sauces. They still do.

Much of the menu is unchanged both in execution and content. By his own admission, Grant was not out to bring the Hoof to Enoteca. But he did add smoked sweetbreads, which are very Grant, in the sense of being layered and complex in their execution, deceptively simple in presentation. And who ever heard of smoked sweetbreads? He soaks and then brines them, cooks them sous vide, presses to release water, cold-smokes and then marinates them and then (finally, three days on) grills them. The end result is lightly smoky, iconoclastic, delicate, crisped, ungreasy sweetbread heaven. Adding escarole and romano beans plays off the salt and the sweet of the sweetbreads.

Here we see the long arm of Grant van Gameren: He's added toothsome little chunks of guanciale to the (already splendid) amatriciano sauce. The cauliflower appetizer used to be with olives; he's added an erotic bath of cream and browned the cauliflower more aggressively for jazz, setting it off against the nutty sweetness of toasted slivered almonds. The gnocchi are too soft (it feels as if they'll fall apart on impact) but their slightly smoky tomato-chili sauce is very Grant.

As is the very farmhouse cabbage soup: It is brought to the table in a black iron tureen, a sweet buttery cabbage puree served with oil-soaked sage garlic bread, coarse sausage and flat-leaf parsley, all of which, when dunked in the soup, make it taste-bud party time.

Grilled octopus with pepper tuffo and potato is classic Enoteca: Perfectly charred and super tender octopus sits on sweet and hot red pepper sauce gentled by potato.

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Hot chili appears again in the tomato sauce smothering tender black cod stewed with olives, capers… and undercooked chickpeas. The starter we love least is roasted beet (always a treat thanks to how beets intensify when they lose their water in the oven), pistachio (a good idea any time) and burrata, which is the letdown, thanks to not having enough cream in the middle.

The mains, all pastas, are as wonderful as they've always been. House-made trecce with pork sausage, charred broccoli and tomato peperonata is spicy and porcine, what could be better? House-made spaghetti with perfectly (barely) cooked spot prawns, rapini, chili and bottarga di mougine (salt-cured mullet from Sardinia) is a killer combo of sweet spot prawn, salt mullet and hot chili in intense sauce. Lamb pappardelle tastes strongly of lamb with a big uptick from guanciale and pecorino.

Among the pasta dishes, we really only feel Grant's influence in house-made orecchiette with chicken gizzard ragu, porcini and gorgonzola. It's so Grant to use the forgotten parts of the bird, and to craft a weird, wacky out-on-the-edge combo. He is a master alchemist – and it works, thanks to the blue-cheese undertone being subtle.

The desserts, we don't 100-per-cent get. Tiramisu? Really? Why? Surely only to be ironic, but eight bucks is rather a lot for bland irony. The panna cotta with pear mostarda, pine nut and rye flake crumble is wonderful – crispy, crunchy, sweet crumble, silken panna cotta and intense pear. But beet and apple tart promises the moon (fennel semifreddo, apple-cider honey and fennel pollen) and delivers a competent tart with bland fixins.

Recent dinners at Enoteca have been mostly delectable – as always. But is it a van Gameren revolution in the kitchen, a sea change in the food? Not even close. Enoteca is just a way station for Grant. He's just passing through.

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