"Meat-forward" is a hot buzzword that's being thrown around Toronto more often these days and the Riverside and Leslieville area has caught on to the craze. This offering is from newcomer to the east end: M'eat Resto Butcher under established executive chef Cam Nelson, an Albertan transplant to our city. Nestled snugly in a strip of older storefronts, just steps from established neighbourhood heavy-hitters Tabülè, The Comrade, and Bonjour Brioche, it hopes to offer not only a unique dine-in beef experience, but a take away one as well in the form of a functioning mini-butcher shop up front.
Relying on a "one humanely-raised cow at a time" approach to availability from a specific Ontario farm, Nelson hopes his ethical, eat local, farm-to-table approach resonates with patrons, including offering options for vegetarians.
Leslieville can be a fickle neighbourhood as its residents and local diners tend to know what they like, what they want, and shy away from typical pretentiousness of Downtown and West End eateries. It's always with some hesitation yet enthusiasm that it welcomes westsiders into the fold and Chef Nelson and his Chef de Cuisine, Rudy Boquilo of The Gladstone Hotel and Lamesa, have yet to prove their chops along the Queen East strip. Unfortunately, M'eat has a long way to go before it moves past being a 'Bar Rescue' episode in the making.
Atmosphere & Decor
The decor is the best part of M'eat. Clearly the design was carefully planned and it's a huge improvement on the Japanese bistro that used to occupy the spot. There's a very down-to-earth, farm vibe with barnboard panelling, exposed light bulbs, rope, and wooden tables and chairs. It reminds me of an elegant sort of farmhouse. It's spacious enough that you don't have to worry about squeezing past people or knocking your chair into them but cozy enough not to feel exposed.
Both the interior and back patio are at a good brightness level as opposed to many restaurants these days where you essentially need a flashlight to see your food. There is a tiny shop up front with a few preserves and sauces for anybody picking up meat from the butcher, and a brightly lit display case for the meat. The only issue here is the garish white-blue light of the display case that is starkly juxtaposed to the warm golden glow of the rest of the interior and can be rather distracting as you're eating. Not to mention, at they time we were there, the was no meat to buy. Rather, the display appeared to be storage for a huge hunk of beef. I can't imagine any vegan that would be comfortable sharing a meal with a large raw carcass of a dead animal in their view.
Overall the decor gives a homely vibe without a lot of the hipster faux-gravitas that is associated with similar "modern rustic" design concepts. There is a hint of communal dining, especially with the large style tables so if that's not your thing, you may want to stay away from the patio where it's busiest and you're most likely to have to share with strangers.
The entire night was a constant loop of Johnny Cash songs at a decent volume which is wonderful if you love Cash, and irritating if you don't.
Opening just over a month ago, it was confusing that on a Saturday night when all the other restaurants in the area were hopping, we entered M'eat to an empty front of house except for one couple being doted on by the chef. The patio out back was busy enough but the atmosphere overall seemed quiet, so much so I actually had to ask if they were closed when I entered.
As previously mentioned the concept is fairly simple which means the menu is small and simple as well. The idea is to only use one cow at a time so the cuts of beef can vary from one day to the next based on availability. Interestingly, despite this aim, there seems to be no attempt (from the menu offerings at least) to employ a "nose-to-tail" approach which would blend seamlessly in the farm-to-table mantra. There was no liver, offal, trotters, tripe, sweetbreads, ox-tail; nothing beyond the typical cuts associated with any run-of-the-mill steakhouse. Now, perhaps this Saturday evening they were fresh out of the rest of the cow so I can't judge entirely on one visit, but I find it curious that the majority of the cuts on offer were all from the rib section. No brisket, no flank, no tenderloin, no round, no shank. Not even anything a unique meat-forward restaurant would include like cheek, tongue, or even the ever-trendy marrow canoe or ear for the really adventurous. A full cow has a bounty of options from the rare and daring delicacies to the traditional steaks.
For a beef-focused restaurant that also doubles as a functional butcher shop, I found this absence of variety perplexing and disappointing. But like I said, perhaps the rest of the cow was simply sold out by Saturday evening, which is an unfortunate situation for the one of the busiest nights of the week.
Aside from repetitive cuts of beef, there were a few venison offerings of the same cuts such as ribeye and striploin, both for $40. While I can't speak to other weeks, on our visit there was no poultry or game bird, no small game, no large game other than deer, no pork, no lamb, and no fish! Not even some other interesting meats that are also available in Ontario such as ostrich. When a restaurant is called "M'eat", a reasonable person would expect more than two varieties of meat, surely. Based on the menu we had, perhaps it would best be called "Red M'eat" or "B'eef" instead.
Beef striploin was $32 for 12 oz., a 14 oz. rib eye at $36, 12 oz. slow-smoked prime rib roast $40, braised chuck or blade for $28 or $52, respectively. At the higher end for four people, there's a 3.5 or (56 oz.) lbs bone-in striploin for $75 and 3.5 lbs tomahawk steak for $90, both of which sound insane. Curiously, there is no mention of how long any of the cuts had been aged.
The raw bar features 2 different types of raw beef (surprise, surprise!) as tataki or tartare and 1 venison tartare for $20 each. These raw options appear to be always on the menu.
The printed menu has unspecified "classic salads" for market price which is, quite frankly, a ridiculous concept for salad.
For sides, M'eat divides it into "Cow's Trough" and "Dairy Farm" which are vegan-friendly and vegetarian options respectively. For the vegan side, it ranges from $7 for roasted corn or fries, to $10 for deep-fried battered beans, and $14 for cauliflower. So, if you're a vegan, prepare to be hungry and carb-loaded.
Vegetarians can fare a little better with a mushroom dish for $15, not market price which would make sense as the seasonability of various mushrooms can vary widely in Canada. Although the printed menu states shiitake and oyster, the ones on offer during our visit were maitake (commonly known as hen-of-the-woods) and lion's mane, both excellent mushroom species. Also available is smashed potato which appears to be a normal baked potato with crème fraîche for $14, fresh peas for $13, and potato gratin for $14. And on the evening of our visit there was also feijoada for $9 which is a Brazilian black bean stew. A daily poutine is listed on the menu for market price as well.
Dessert is also offered for $10 for either dulce de leche or bread pudding.
As an appetizer, we opted for the beef tataki as huge fans of the dish. Having had both beef and tuna offerings from everywhere from home chefs to Morimoto in NYC to eateries in Japan itself, a good tataki is a great way to begin a meal. Sadly, this was a huge let down and even worse, seemed to set the tone for the rest of the meal.
The presentation was not as seen in social media and seemed messy and lifeless, just splashed onto the plate in a hurry. The meat was swimming in thin, watery soy sauce that lacked the citrus-y punch of a good ponzu, on top of a large helping of spring onions with no hint of sesame oil nor mirin. Even the beef itself seemed merely salty with very little of that natural savoury flavour of raw beef.
It was only the app after all and although it was initially disappointing, we still held out hope for the rest of the meal.
For an entrée, we settled on the fantastic-sounding slow-smoked prime rib roast, with corn as a side, and the beef ribeye steak. Now this is where the meal really started to go off the rails.
When a person thinks of "prime rib roast", there is a particular image and expectation that comes with it. Any simple Google image search will prove me correct. A prime rib roast, regardless of whether it's slow-cooked in a smoker or roasted in an oven, relies on the simple fact that it is a ribeye cut cooked whole, and then cut up after cooking to serve, normally au jus. If you cook just a single piece off a rib cut, that is simply a rib steak. We were served this supposed prime rib roast and it looked peculiar. Not only was it a single, thick steak-like size, but it was seared, all over as you would a steak. When we inquired about the cooking of the meat, we were told it was cooked yesterday as a roast, then cut, and "reheated" today by pan-searing. So, basically, we were eating the previous day's warmed up, misnamed leftovers for $40 a plate.
Adding insult to injury, Chef Nelson unapologetically insisted it was okay to be called a prime rib roast because it was actually a tomahawk. Confusing, much? We thought so too. So, not only was it yesterday's food but it was also not what we ordered and that was just fine with him. We asked for prime rib roast, not his misinformed idea of a rewarmed tomahawk steak.
As an aside, the chef was clearly wrong, as a tomahawk is named for it's resemblance to the Algonquin throwing axe. The presentation requires at least a 5-inch section of rib bone still attached to the meat, and goes for about $150-180 at upscale steakhouses elsewhere in the city. As seen in the photos, this plate had no bone whatsoever, anywhere. In my opinion, we merely received a boneless, pre-cooked rib steak. Not a tomahawk steak nor prime rib roast. While I'm not a steak expert by any means and perhaps I am mistaken, I do know a tasty slice if it's in front of me and this just wasn't what I ordered.
Furthermore, it was full of fat, dry, and astonishingly flavourless. To me, it's strange to have a piece of meat have almost no natural or seasoned flavour other than, once again, too much salt. The saving grace of the plate was the maitake and lion's mane mushrooms which were perfectly cooked, flavourful and moist. I loved them. Honestly, they were the best part of the entire meal and in retrospect we should have just ordered the $15 mushroom dish and it would have been just as good as the alleged prime rib roast.
Moving on from whatever beef that was (it's apparently debatable), we also got to try the corn. For $7, it's a single cob of corn, roasted and covered with a Brazilian powdered cassava seasoning. Now, I love corn. I'll eat it any way I can get it but there's good corn and bad corn all the same. This is mediocre corn at best, a bit on the dry side.
Finally we got the rib eye steak, pre-cut as if we were children and served rare (as ordered), hovering on blue. While there was slightly more beefy flavour to this steak, it still had far too much salt for my taste. If someone wants that much salt, I would guess the restaurant could provide salt shakers? Not everybody finds pleasure in pickling their own mouths while eating an otherwise possibly nice steak. One positive was the chimichurri sauce. It had a great flavour and perfect consistency, a perfect complement to the meat. I can't say too much more about the dish because it was decent enough but I'm not convinced it's $36 decent. Had we known that the so-called "prime rib roast" was as it was, we would not have ordered the second rib eye steak.
We skipped dessert because nothing caught our fancy.
Here is where another poorly-thought out aspect of the restaurant becomes glaringly obvious. They do not serve spirits. Not even any of the rarer regional spirits such as cachaça or pisco that would pair nicely with the vaguely Latin-inspired menu. You cannot order mixed drinks, even simple ones like a G&T because apparently Chef Nelson does not want to pour or mix drinks when he's plating (which I personally did not see him do once). The only hard liquor available is a very small selection of whiskies, simply because he likes whiskey—but you won't find any listed on the menu. They don't even have pop or juice for non-drinkers. No coffees or teas were on the menu either. One of my companions asked for a Sprite or 7-Up, and they did not have any. So, don't walk in thinking you can have a nice bite to eat and a cocktail, of any kind and if you don't drink, you are left only with water. (Clearly it's not a place for people with kids or teens!)
What M'eat does have however is a wine list and a focused local microbrewery beer list.
The wine list is long, and focuses mainly on Old World bottles you can't get in the LCBO, making it a nice place to try a wine you may not regularly have from France, Germany, or Italy. The environmentally-conscious locavore ethos apparently doesn't apply to the wine list. With bottles ranging from $40 to $120, most are pretty reasonably priced around the $45 to $55 range, and if you know your wine, you may have a great time. There's a large list of reds for obvious reasons, 3 whites, and 2 sparkling. It's also available by the ounce.
Based on the advice of both my wine drinking companion and the server, we settled on a lighter red which actually was nice with the red meat, although this wine is best suited for lamb apparently. We wanted something lighter than a Syrah, which is the most popular at M'eat, and settled for Patrick Galant Cotes du Rhone which is a Southern Rhone red grape blend. It was smooth, medium-bodied, yet rich and still intense without the lingering tartness of some other offerings. Oddly, all wine is served in glassware branded by a beer company.
The beer list has some good offerings from East York's Muddy York and Hamilton's Fairweather, with a range of ales, lagers, wheat, stout, and cider. All cans with the exception of the cider are an easy $6, and cider is $8. Bottles from Fairweather are $15-$17 for 500ml. Two Fairweather ales are on tap for $7 and $9 for 12 oz. or 16 oz. respectively.
Our server was very nice. She was friendly and helpful and we can't fault her for our overall experience. However, service can make or break a meal and unfortunately our treatment by the executive chef and owner completely ruined the visit. He took what was a fairly mediocre but acceptable meal down to one of my worst restaurant experiences anywhere. It started when we entered and Chef Nelson was casually chatting up the only table occupied inside. He greeted us and then dismissively waved towards the patio and said he thought there might be a table back there. It felt as if he was shooing us away out of sight. He did not seat our party and seemed uninterested in our presence, focusing exclusively on the couple who one can assume are either personal friends of his or prestige restaurant critics.
We made our own way to the patio and found all the large tables occupied with couples or small groups, and we had no idea these were communal tables, and I'm guessing neither did the other patrons. So coming back inside we sat ourselves and waited for service. This entire time, the chef was just talking to his friends. Again, our server was lovely but we literally had to watch Chef Nelson talking with the one other table during our entire meal. He even took time to serve them personally and put on a big show of every plate they received. Not once did he come over to our table and ask how we were enjoying the meal. Our server did, but you'd think that if he is spending so much time with customers, he'd check on all of us, not just his favourite table. I personally can't recall him ever going back to the patio at all during our visit.
The only time he spoke with us was about the steaks, in which he admitted they just reheated leftovers and then proceeded to make excuses and argue instead of working to fix the issue as most other managers would. After that, he virtually avoided us entirely, although that wasn't much different than before. Never have I had to sit in a restaurant of this calibre and be so completely ignored by a chef/owner who is otherwise just hanging out in the dining area, doing nothing but chatting with his pals.
It made us feel unwelcome and unappreciated, like the gum under somebody's shoe, and certainly left a very sour taste in all our mouths, even the most easy-going, forgiving of our party. There was a complete lack of hospitality or the very basics of customer service. For a $200 meal and a brand new establishment, I expected more effort and less attitude.
Obviously, the feeling afterwards was primarily negative. Although we were all full enough, the experience itself brought a dark cloud down over the meal. It is a shame because it is an interesting concept and had it been executed better and differently, it may have been a great little addition to the Toronto meat-forward scene, something to rival Antler or the formidable Beast in the west end. However, based on this experience, the lack of variety of meat, the lack of knowledge of the chefs about what cuts are what, overpriced food with underwhelming flavours, the absent spirits and non-alcoholic drinks menu, and the wholly unacceptable customer service from the owner sadly make this a miss. There is nothing here that other existing restaurants (and butchers) in Riverside and Leslieville don't already do, and better. Walk a few blocks in either direction and you have a huge selection of other bars and restaurants to try out instead.
Quite honestly, if I want a steak with no creativity, I can buy one at the excellent Butchers of Distinction down the road and cook it myself. If I'm eating a steak at a restaurant, I want some flavour I can't get myself, something I can't do easier and cheaper at home. I don't need a professional to put too much salt and pepper on a piece of beef for me; I do need a professional to bring out new flavours or enhance the ones that are present, with flair and skill.
If Chef Nelson wishes to only cook what he likes, serve only what he drinks, listen only to his favourite music, and talk to only people he knows, perhaps he's better suited to throwing fancy dinner parties at his home instead.
We really, really wanted to enjoy this place and were excited that something new was coming to this little strip of Riverside. Perhaps our hopes were too high. Furthermore, the idea of "as available" dining or "spur-of-the-moment cuisine" is something I've had excellent experiences with in the past, like at the fantastic Provisions in Montreal. Between the pseudo-Brazillian steakhouse hints and the carnivorous-but-also-vegan menu confusion, what I thought was originally a cool concept of a "resto butcher" just ended up seeming more like an identity crisis in practice. Honestly, I hate to write negative reviews, especially about new restaurants in this precarious city, but with an experience like this, it's no surprise M'eat was almost empty on a Saturday night.