Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Biff’s Bistro & Wine Bar
Address: 4 Front St. E.
Lunch: Mon. to Fri., noon-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Mon. to Sat., 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Late-Night Menu: Show nights, 10 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $90
Basilio Pesce, the young man who runs the kitchens at Biff’s Bistro, has a great name for a chef. He’ll happily let the conversation wander from his own kitchen to an avid recollection of street food he’s eaten in Italy and Southeast Asia, and what it was like to work for a month in a restaurant in Singapore. His enthusiasm for cooking and eating is almost overwhelming, and thankfully, it shows in his food.
Pesce has been the head chef at Biff’s Bistro, across from the Hummingbird Centre in downtown Toronto, since last February, arriving there after a tour of duty in the kitchens of the Oliver Bonacini fine dining empire, starting at Canoe and moving on to Auberge du Pommier in distant North York.
"One of my biggest concerns walking into a restaurant that’s already been here for five or six years was that change was good, but too much change wasn’t good," Pesce recalls. "First thing I had to learn, the menu. I had to learn how they made their Caesar salad, how they made their fries ... Changing the menu is one of those funny things where you’re not afraid to do it. It’s something you want to do and have to do. When you change a menu item and no one orders it for two days it’s almost like they’re angry at me, the regulars."
The Oliver Bonacini organization has had a remarkable effect on dining in Toronto, setting a high standard across its marquee eateries — Biff’s and the Auberge, Canoe and Jump in the business district, and the Oliver & Bonacini cafés in Bayview Village and Collingwood. They’ve also raised the standards for service, offering decent benefits packages for their employees, and taking them on regular cook’s tours to places like New York to educate their palates, and look for cresting dining trends.
Pesce was working with Mark McEwen at Bymark when he went for a rare night out. "I went into Canoe, I sat at the chef’s rail, and I remember just watching everything. It was so different from where I worked. Everything just made sense — wow, they’re all doing that together ... Chef Anthony (Walsh) was there and came up and said ‘this is a little thing from me.’ It was a little amuse — it was barbecued eel with a garlic scape from Cookstown (Greens, the greenhouse of choice for Toronto chefs), and he made a chocolate sauce which just blew me away."
Three years later, as the head of Biff’s kitchen, he’s offering bistro fare made with care and thought, like his pork choucroute — three different cuts of pig offered roasted and as a confit, with a variation on the standard French moutarde — a mustard sauce — that Pesce nudges toward an Italian fruit-based mostarda. "I guess I get to slip in a little Italian every now and then," he laughs.
He’s also — justifiably — proud of his sweetbread entrée, the main ingredient being the standard kitchen euphemism for the thymus or pancreas gland from a piglet. "I was always the kid who’d go in and order the weirdest thing on the menu," he says. It’s a rich, subtly gamey dish, and it partners nicely with any number of choices on Biff’s sanely-priced wine list. "I always order the sweetbreads whenever I go into a restaurant. Most people won’t do it, but I will.
"Constant learning," Pesce says, when asked to sum up the best thing about his employers. "Good company to work for. Really good company to work for." I don’t know whether to thank Pesce or the Oliver Bonacini organization for the knowledgeable and enthusiastic presentation of the cheese course our waiter gives us, but it’s a fine end to a great meal.