Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Biff's Bistro: Traditional French Classics with Chef Ray

Warm, friendly and casual, Oliver & Bonacini's French-inspired restaurant, Biff's Bistro at 4 Front Street East in downtown Toronto, is styled on belle époque Paris, with framed 19th-century French posters, waiters in starched white aprons and traditional bistro fare such as boeuf bourguignon, steak frites, duck confit and moules et frites. Taking full advantage of the neighbouring St. Lawrence Market, Biff's seasonally inspired menu includes an outstanding selection of market fresh seafood, traditional bistro classics as well as Biff's evolving Selection de Fromages.

The Parisian charm of Biff's outdoor terrace, perfect for lazy summer lunches

In the warm summer months, guests arrive early to grab a table under the generous awnings to savour the Parisian charm of Biff Bistro's long street side terrace. The inside Bar also buzzes at lunchtime and after work, when seafood fans clamour around Biff's zinc-lined Wine Bar for $1-oysters on the half shell, which are featured after 5pm each and every evening.

$1 oysters at Biff's Bar each night after 5pm

New to Biff's is Chef Amanda Ray, who joined O&B in 2001 after graduating from the Chef School at George Brown College. Beginning at Auberge du Pommier under Chef Jason Bangerter (currently chef at Luma), Amanda then transferred to Canoe in 2005. One year later she was sent on stagiere to the south of France to work at Crillon le Brave, a gorgeous Relais & Chateaux hill town property in the heart of Provence. After her apprenticeship, Chef Ray returned to Canoe and worked her way through every station in the kitchen until being promoted to Sous Chef in 2008. After eleven years with O&B, Chef Ray was recently appointed Chef de Cuisine at Biff's Bistro just three months ago, in April 2012. Talented, charming and bursting with personality, Amanda already appears to be as popular with her staff as she is with her clientele.

Biff's new Chef de Cuisine Amanda Ray

Arriving at Biff's for lunch on the outdoor terrace during the summer months usually means arriving at noon, or shortly thereafter, in order to secure one of the limited number of bistro tables that sit protected under the great yellow awning, which spans the width of the restaurant, and casts an unusual yellow glow over the food. In addition to Biff's traditional french classics, the menu features daily specials such as a Soupe de Jour, which was Chilled Gazpacho the day we visited, as well as the daily pasta special, a homemade Tagliatelle with Mussels.

Biff's Menu

Starters include traditional French dishes as Warm Octopus Salad with escarole, black olives, roasted fingerling potatoes and crispy capers, Grilled Sardines with haricots vert, sautéed red onion and cherry tomatoes on a bed of escarole, or Steak Tartar, which can also be served as a main course with frites. Another luncheon category of Les Oeufs featured La Crêpe Madam with country ham, gruyère and a sunny side up hen’s egg. Biff's also features a daily Prix Fixe which included the day we dined, Chilled Gazpacho followed by a Roasted Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart. The perfect end to a leisurely summer meal is a napkin wrapped basket of Biff's à la minute Baked Madeleines, which arrive warm of the oven, with a fragrant scent of butter and cardamom.

Warm Octopus salad with escarole, black olives, roasted fingerling potatoes 
and crispy capers

Biff's Soupe de Jour — Chilled Gazpacho

La Crêpe Madam with country ham, gruyère and sunny side up hen’s egg

Roasted Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart on Arugula

Biff's Pasta-of-the-day, Tagliatelle with Mussels

Grilled Sardines with Haricots Vert, Red Onion and Cherry Tomatoes on Escarole

Biff's warm Madeleines, baked-to-order hot from the oven

Starting the day after we visited, Biff's was starting their annual Summerlicious menu which runs from July 6 through to July 22, with a $20 three course luncheon, and $35 three course dinner menu. A great way to sample a multitude of fabulous restaurants in the city you've always wanted to try, Summerlicious offers great food at affordable prix-fixe pricing. The only catch is that you must start making your reservations now! 

Here are Toronto Life's 'Top 10' Summerlicious picks: 

Biff's Famous Mushroom Soup
Serves 4

Biff's famous Mushroom Soup made without butter or cream, just excellent rich earthy flavour. 

1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup chopped yellow onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig of thyme, leaves only chopped
6 cups diced assorted mushrooms, such as shiitake, oyster and king oyster
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups water
1 bay leaf

Optional garnishes:
Truffle oil
1 tbsp chopped chives
Trimmed enoki mushrooms
Plain yogurt

In large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium. Add onions, garlic and thyme. Cook, stirring, 6 minutes, to soften, reducing heat if onions start to brown. Add mushrooms in 4 batches, seasoning each layer with salt and pepper and stirring constantly. (This allows each batch to cook down slowly.) Add water and bay leaf. Raise heat to high; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium. Simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Discard bay leaf. For coarse soup, purée using hand-held immersion blender. For creamy soup, purée in blender.

Return to pot over medium heat. Taste; adjust salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately, or refrigerate overnight to let flavours develop.

If desired, top each serving with a drizzle of truffle oil, sprinkling of chives, several enokis and a dollop of yogurt.

CHEF'S NOTE: By adding a half cup of 35% cream and tsp of butter, makes this soup rich, creamy and velvety smooth and can also be used as a sauce to accompany chicken, or grilled salmon.