We arrived at Habitat as a party of two, around 6:30PM on Saturday. The place was empty so we got our choice of spots at the bar for pre-dinner drinks. We sat and watched the Leafs vs. Penguins game for a bit, before heading into the dining room for dinner. Bonus points to them for not making us settle our bar bill prior to taking our seats for dinner (big pet peeve of mine, BTW).
By the time we were seated for dinner, the place was much livelier than it was but still far from being full. A server came by promptly to take our water order (bottled vs. tap/bubbly vs. flat) and returned with the water we requested. In that time, we took a look at the wine list and decided on the 2003 Burrier "Memoire du Terroir" Pinot Noir. The server came back after a few moments and regretfully informed us that they didn't have that wine in stock and named another 2 wines on the list that were also not in stock.
He gave us some recommendations about possible alternatives, including an Ontario pinot noir which made us very skeptical (we seem to have very little luck with Ontario reds) and he left us to mull over it for a few moments. When he returned, we made our alternate choice, a Cote du Rhone. He kind of chuckled that we still weren't convinced about the Ontario pinot noir he recommended and he offered to give us a taste of the Cote du Rhone we chose since they apparently also serve it by the glass and therefore had a bottle already open. We tried it and we realized it was a weak choice and decided to take our chances with the Ontario pinot noir. With that, he whisked away the standard wine glasses we had on our table and promised to bring back nicer ones.
He returned, as promised, with larger big bottomed wine glasses and with the bottle of Ontario pinot noir. As he was uncorking it, he noticed that there seemed to be some seepage in the cork and asked us to be extra observant when tasting it. He poured some into my glass to taste (which I loved because servers almost always assume it's the man at the table who okays the wine and never the woman). The server made a very nice recommendation - the wine had a bit of cherry and currant flavours, and a nice amount of oakiness, crisp and dry (and as it opened up more, it really softened out a bit more and there was a nice peppery flavour to it). It was a 2005 Lincoln Lakeshore "Tawse" Pinot Noir, in case anyone is curious.
The whole reason I'm writing so long an explanation about the wine choosing experience is because I think that our server was very professional about the whole process. We never got the impression that he was in any way mocking our choice in wine, or trying to upsell us on another more expensive bottle. He was truly trying to help us find the best value we could get within our price range (in fact, what he recommended was less expensive than the Cote du Rhone we initially chose). More restaurants should learn this concept as good will creates more return business.
Anyway, on to the food...
The menu is an interesting mesh of "worldly" flavours. There was an interesting snapper done in a Japanese dashi broth that I was curious about, but I was in the mood for poultry that night so I didn't order it - if anyone has tried it, I'd like to know your comments as I love dashi broth. Instead, I ordered an appetizer of smoked trout and my dining partner ordered the winter salad. For mains, I ordered the roasted cornish hen and my dining partner ordered the duck duo.
We were almost immediately presented with an amuse bouche - a cream of jerusalem artichoke, blended with almond oil, served chilled in small shot glasses. Very refreshing, incredibly smooth, and a nice balance of nutty and slightly floral flavours.
As we were waiting for the appetizers to arrive, we experienced the only service misstep of the evening - we were not given a bread basket the way the other tables were. Once we mentioned that we would like some bread, the server was apologetic and promptly brought some over to the table. We got a couple slices each of standard ACE baguette and a lovely sourdough olive bread. As a spread, we were given a ramekin of celeriac puree, which was very smooth and not as pungent as celeriac can sometimes be. Very enjoyable.
After about 10 or so minutes, we were presented with our appetizers. The winter salad was a simple mixed lettuce and belgian endive salad, very lightly coated with a tangy vinaigrette. Crispy fried leeks were scattered throughout the salad to give it a great nutty bite. Refreshing and very pleasant.
The smoked trout was served on a bed of escarole and diced beets that were tossed in a mustard dressing, and an apple gelee. The trout was a lovely texture and not overly salty. The escarole and beets provided a nice contrast in texture and the mustard dressing added just enough bite that it didn't overpower any of the other flavours on the plate. The apple gelee provided a delicate fruity-floral flavour that complemented the other flavours very well.
At this point, the dining room had become full, including a table behind us that seemed to be very free flowing with the alcohol. Despite this, we never felt neglected and service continued to be as efficient and friendly as it was when we initially arrived and it was relatively more empty. The water and wine glasses on the table were continually filled up without us having to prompt it, but in no way were they at all intrusive.
After a brief pause following the clearing of our empty appetizer plates and cutlery, our mains arrived. The duck duo consisted of a duck breast roasted to medium-rare and sliced and served atop braised red cabbage and drizzled with a szechuan peppercorn sauce, and duck confit shredded and placed atop gnocchi romana rounds. Both preparations of the duck were very tender and there was a nice acidity to the braised red cabbage. But while the sauce had a lovely tempered sweetness, I couldn't really detect the numbing kick of the szechuan peppercorns. Or maybe it's because I didn't eat enough of it to really feel it?
The cornish hen was nicely moist and juicy, and seasoned just right with a simple salt rub. I wasn't sure what to expect of the buckwheat jus that accompanied the dish, but I didn't really notice it much at all. I was hoping that the du puy lentils would be served as a stewy concoction, but instead it was served without any liquid. The lentils themselves were done to the perfect tenderness and had some moire poix mixed in there, but it really could have used just a touch more salt and perhaps some smoky bacon fat mixed in there. But I did really enjoy the poultry iteself as it was moist and flavourful.
For dessert, my dining partner and I shared the Michel Cluizel fondant au chocolat (I was full but I couldn't resist dessert once I saw Michel Cluizel's name on the menu). It was so utterly smooth and delicious. Not overly sweet at all, but I was hoping to get a bit more of the chocolate's bitterness (that's maybe a personal taste thing though).
I ended the meal with an Earl Grey tea (they disappointingly serve Second Cup tea bags rather than Mighty Leaf or another whole-leaf tea) and my dining partner enjoyed a glass of scotch from a well-chosen list of scotches.
The bill including pre-dinner drinks, taxes, exlusive of tip came to about $190.
Service-wise, I think they run a very efficient and professional house.
Food-wise, I thought the dishes were executed competently - the different flavours were well-balanced although the chef was a bit light-handed with some of the flavours, especially with regards to the mains we tried. And on the one hand, I find menus like Habitat's to be a bit fussy (like do you really need to have oolong fig and szechuan peppercorn sauce? Is it okay just as oolong fig? Or even just fig?), but on the other hand I'm always intrigued by what seemingly odd combinations of flavours one can dream up and make it work. From the limited sampling of the menu we had, we felt that the chef did, for the most part, reach his goal of making these flavour combinations work.
What worked to the venue's disadvantage is that after 10PM it gets very loud in there because it turns into a lounge. I like lounges, but not when I'm still enjoying a slow and laidback meal.
Was it worth the money we spent? Having spent $130 at Marinela's the evening before, and an identical amount at Crush a year back, I think we got more for the money we spent at Habitat than at either of those places. Of course, it's hard to compare those places with each other, but I think that value of the whole experience can be fairly compared.
In the case of Marinela's, the wine list is poor and the mark-up is excessive, and it's food that I can (and have) recreate(d) at home for far less money. For an extra $60 at Habitat, we got pre-dinner drinks and a glass of scotch at meal's end, an infinitely better bottle of wine, as well as food I may not necessarily be able to recreate at home.
In the case of Crush, the wine list was great but the food was a step or two above standard bistro fare, but bistro food is one of those things that I often feel has a diminishing marginal return thing happening value-wise, where I don't walk out of a place like Crush feeling as though I couldn't have gotten a similar meal elsewhere for less money. Whereas, for the same price at Habitat, I feel like I had a relatively unique experience, for better or for worse. At the very least, the flavours were somewhat experimental and I may or may not be able to find a similarly priced experience elsewhere.
So in the end, I felt satisfied with my experience at Habitat. I wouldn't say that it's a great value for the money, but I do think you get what you pay for.