Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine.
Could Jen Agg put a foot wrong if she tried? From the day it opened in mid-September, her Bar Vendetta was an instant hit, people spilling onto the sidewalk waiting for tables. No reservations. Closed Fridays and Saturdays!
Could she have more gall?
She will, after this latest success. It is a sweet little Dundas West empire Ms. Agg has built herself. You waiting for a text to say your table is open? Quaff local. The Agg machine: Next door is her husband’s Rhum Corner bar with Haitian snacks. Across the street is Cocktail Bar, where her Vendetta staff use the kitchen to prep dinner.
’Cause the Vendetta kitchen, behind the bar, is about as big as my bathroom. Sit at the bar and watch speed demon chef James Santon. He double-fists two different portions of pasta in their own strainers, tosses each into its own fry pan, throws in crisped guanciale, pesto made from puréed broccolini with anchovies and garlic, a few mushrooms, grates some taleggio on top, and shazam, the trecce is one of the best pasta dishes in town. Another frying pan gets a fast fistful of cherry tomatoes, a quick mash with a potato masher, basil and ricotta salata to turn spaghetti glam. Crown cacio e pepe is one big overgrown house-made crown pasta stuffed with ricotta, classically sauced and wonderful.
But the best thing about Vendetta is not the pasta. Or the meatballs, maybe the best in town of the genre — garlicky, soft, bathed in intense tomato sauce. But it’s not about the meatballs.
It’s the vibe, purposefully, carefully, knowingly curated by Jen Agg in painstaking detail. For she is the queen of cool, the dominatrix of the downtown scene. She does not bother with fancy. Paper napkins, cheap vinyl chairs, ordinary bar stools. A small narrow room that was once the Black Hoof has morphed into a retro bar, Agg’s take on a ’70s suburban basement.
If anybody else made this it would feel forced. In her hands it is the scene du jour, the place to be, the funster hangout. It’s not the retro orange, brown and cream colour block flooring or the old band posters or the Spy murals that make the place work. No, Vendetta is a cult of personality: hers.
It doesn’t hurt that Ms. Agg habitually trains her staff to be superbly affable, helpful and in the know. Same as at her Grey Gardens and Le Swan. The staff bring the party. Plus the très cool cocktails and a serious wine list.
Other than the fabulous pasta, Vendetta’s food is uneven. Bruschetta made with lightly preserved cherry tomatoes sits on very smoked ricotta. Too smoked for the tomatoes.
Scallop diavolo is also a little out of balance — too much fennel and too many serrano and jalapeno chilies with too few scallops, albeit in a charming tomato vinegar and oil dressing.
But is it a good restaurant? Do you need to go there? I still haven’t answered that question. Because Jen Agg is a trickster, the scenester artist who made yet another piece of restaurant art. She is, despite her deceptively casual style, a champ at staff training and management, so that the servers and bartenders at Vendetta are all super smooth, professional and downright fun. She doesn’t need the best food in town.
Like she says, it’s all about the vibe.