I went into Erling’s Variety with no idea what to expect. I’d heard generally good things about the food and the atmosphere in the nearly two years since it opened (and underwent an early name change due to some evil corporate overlord nonsense). However, I hadn’t had the opportunity to give it a try until my awesome friend C texted to invite me to dinner on a late-October Friday night with several other fabulous women of my recent acquaintance. How could I pass up an offer like that?
At the appointed hour I arrived and was immediately impressed by the warmth of the space, which has a two-storey ceiling with visible ductwork, all painted a warm grey and laden with quiet fans to keep air moving – a must due to the open kitchen. Despite the height, and the wall of windows facing Strathcona Avenue, it feels cozy. The warm wood tables and chairs are spaced just close enough together to feel convivial but not communal; the assorted soft pillows available to ease one’s back on the banquettes (including one printed with the image of a pug) invite you to sink in and stay a while.
Which we proceeded to do, with great enjoyment. A round of very well-executed cocktails and two bowls of utterly delicious fries with smoked duck-fat aioli were the first order of business. We savoured them as we further contemplated the extensive but not overwhelming menu of small plates, which include seafood, fish, meat, and vegetarian options. B, the lone member of our party who was a repeat visitor to Erling’s declared that anything with mushrooms was a must-try and that her husband had just kept ordering more of them. On that very strong (not to mention hilarious) recommendation, C and I decided to share the oyster mushrooms with goat cheese and kale on a pumpkin flatbread. I also ordered the scallop dish, which changes daily, and the smoked sturgeon. Others at the table went with beef tartare, roast pork loin, oysters (which arrived fried, not raw as ordered, and were promptly comped and cold ones brought out as well), fried pickerel, and seared tuna, and we all snacked off one another's plates.
The mushrooms were as advertised: heavenly. “I thought, how good can a mushroom be, right? Now you know,” B pronounced, and she was right. Umami does not begin to describe the depth of flavour these humble fungi possessed. Matched with the warm melty goat cheese, the soft flatbread rendered only a tiny bit sweet from pumpkin, some wilted kale and garlic, these mushrooms SANG. They DANCED. They were better than Cats (but not cats; let’s be reasonable here). I tried to change my mind about sharing but C insisted. A wise choice in the end; it was very rich and I needed space for my other delicious dishes.
The smoked sturgeon arrived stunningly sliced and gorgeously plated, crowned with strips of pickled yellow carrot and tiny piles of black caviar on a bed of wilted spinach with a berry aioli beneath. The fish itself was perfection: only lightly smoked so the flavour shone through, nicely matched with the salty hit of caviar and the sharp pickles. However, the rather intense acidity of the vinaigrette on the spinach combined with the sweetness of the aioli overpowered the delicate flavours of the fish and provided the only misstep of the night for me. Each element was tasty on its own, and the plate was clean when I finished it; I just felt the two halves of this dish were not meant to dance together.
I’ve left my scallops for last, though they arrived first, because they surprised and enchanted me so. Unless there’s fennel involved somehow, I am guaranteed to order the scallop dish on any small-plates menu, as they are one of my very favourite foods. I’ve eaten a LOT of scallops presented in a lot of ways. These blew past all previous incarnations and went straight to number one on my list. Two fat scallops, each seared to barely-set perfection with a crisp bronzed lid and crowned with tiny, adorable piles of micro-diced beet relish, arrived with a smear of rich celeriac puree, a small pile of wilted curly kale in a puddle of sharp-sweet confit tomato, and two sexy chunks of house-cured and smoked brisket “bacon.” This was the dish I could have ordered three more of. The Brits have a food term I love: “moreish,” meaning it’s so good you want to eat more of it, and that’s what these scallops were. I am still mourning their passing, days later. When the waitress asked whether we needed anything, I actually said “a cigarette.”
I was able to shoehorn in bites of the seared tuna and the pickerel, as well as two oysters (one raw, one cooked, both much tastier than I remember oysters being when I last tried them at sixteen) and everything was bright and interesting on the palate, rather than heavy or hackneyed. It’s not weird food, but it is creative food, and that scores big points with me.
All this, and I haven’t mentioned the wine. After I finished my delicious Southside cocktail I thought I’d have a peek at the wine list and the word “Malvasia” leaped off the page at me. “They don’t have it by the glaaaaaaass,” I moaned to my companions. B, a wine blogger, perked up. “Is it the Birichino?” she asked. I confirmed that it was.
“Let’s get a bottle, then,” she said decisively, and so we did, and it was awesome. It’s an aromatic and crisp California white, using a Spanish grape varietal, and I’ve only ever had it at Play before, where it was comped me by a delightful waiter who, upon seeing my delight at a different white wine, insisted I had to try this, and bless him. It is SO GOOD. I now order it whenever I see it. Kudos to Erling’s for an unusual and fabulous pick.
Speaking of comps: Our waitress throughout the evening was a delight, but the occasional plate was dropped off by a man in his thirties wearing a very nice grey sweater and a sweet smile. As we wound down our admittedly raucous and random-silly-toast-filled meal, he quietly placed a bowl of ice cream and four spoons on the table “with our compliments.” Such a sweet gesture given that he knew none of us from Adam’s housecat. The awful part was that it was peanut butter-and-banana ice cream and none of us liked it. I tried, I did, but bananas are my nemesis, and apparently the others felt the same. He noticed, stopped by again, and we apologized abashedly for not enjoying the treat. He removed it gracefully and – I kid you not – not five minutes later was back with two other kinds for us to try. As you will all have realized by now, the Man in Grey Sweater is Liam, the owner of Erling’s, and for his kindness, his terrific room, his lovely staff, and his utterly fantastic food, I thank him. We four crazy women had just the best time and left well-fed, well-cared for, and wanting more of what you’re cooking up in that open kitchen.