Similar to a new student who starts halfway through the school year, Tennessy Willems is the new kid on the block, and he has everyone’s attention. Trendy, simple, and located in a popular neighbourhood, Tennessey brings the culture of Westboro further East into Hintonburg through a food that everyone can relate to and a price most can afford. You can tell that the owners have set their sights high, and the attention to detail is impressive, but compared to the hype and expectations patrons appear to be bringing, it’s difficult to predict if this restaurant will be able to keep up.
The food is beyond expectation. Our appetizer, the cheese plate, consisted of three Quebec cheeses and gave good representation of the varieties available in Canada. I hate ordering a ‘variety’ of Canadian cheeses and being presented with options that all taste the same. It doesn’t take much effort to discover that there is a wide selection of totally underrated Quebec cheeses produced by local farmers, and I truly appreciated that the architect of this dish sourced three distinct examples. The pizza was unique to any pizza I had eaten in the past; very thin crust slightly charred from the heat of the oven, sparse yet proportioned toppings, and the distinct taste of smoke. Being a traditional margherita, the melted pools of baby mozzarella provided a perfect base for the fresh basil, but most bites were strictly sauce and crust. In terms of portion, the pizzas are definitely not large enough to feed two people. Even for one, I would strongly recommend an appetizer.
As much as I enjoyed the food, I loved the decanted water, tableside candles, clean interior, perfect presentation, and stunning kitchen. I understand that these details are time consuming to prepare, expensive to maintain, and easy to compromise when busy, but I doubt I would return if they were lost. It was clear that the staff were stretched during our visit, as phone calls were being missed and the chaos behind the bar was difficult to ignore, but this can be expected in almost any new restaurant. The question is, though, will the staff that stand behind Tennessy Willems rise to meet the challenge, or will they simply lower their expectations and decrease their attention to detail to accommodate the masses.
This past week I went to Toronto on a business trip. Best part about being out of town for a couple days? When I get home Jay and I go out for a welcome-home dinner. Since we've just started our wood oven pizza adventure, we thought we'd try Tennessy Willems on Wellington in Hintonburg. Because this is only our second instalment in the series, there isn't much to compare to yet, but this place managed to make its distinct mark regardless.
The disposition of a restaurant is pretty important to me. For instance, when I go to a pub, I expect to be greeted by a cozy, comfortable, at-home atmosphere. On the other hand, sports bars are all about excitement, the anticipation right before the touchdown that wins the game! Fine dining restaurants will invite you in with a sense of refinement, class and a touch of snobbery. And every once in a while you get a restaurant that manages to combine casual at-home comfort with just the right amount of formality. And this was Tennessy Willems. We walked in and were enveloped by the warm glow of candle-lit tables and dimmed lights. The dining room was small; it didn't seat more than 10 tables, and that made it very cozy. The server seated us at a gorgeous wooden table with a nice finish to it, and set the menus before us. Even the menu was a great mix of casual and formal. Jay had a beer and I chose a glass of Sangiovese, and they both suited our meals perfectly. We started with a cheese plate, including the smoothest Quebecois brie I've ever tasted, homemade fruit compote and almonds tossed in the chef's sweet-and-spicy coating. After this, I dug into my capricciosa pizza, with olives, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, ham and tomato sauce. The flavours of the pizza were subtle; perhaps too subtle. The sauce had a hint of spice to it, which I loved. But otherwise, the only flavour that really stood out was the taste of the olives. It wasn't a bad pizza by any stretch of the imagination. It looked great; it smelled amazing; it was cooked to perfection, but the flavours didn't grab my attention.
Overall, I enjoyed this restaurant very much. It had the perfect atmosphere for a date, or for a get-together with friends. The wine and the cheese platter were phenomenal. And really, all of this combined made up for the less-than-amazing pizza. I'm definitely going back; this was a wonderful experience, but maybe next time I'll choose a different pizza.
(Click to enlarge pictures)