In its sixth year The Only On King, with its fully realized farm-to-table philosophy, devoted acknowledgement of the local terroir, and support of local farmers and producers, remains an outstanding archetype of the virtuous up-to-the-minute Ontario restaurant. The kitchen, led by Paul Harding, is a self-proclaimed labour of love. When Harding is not chained to the stove, he continues to find new ways to integrate the locavore ethic into all aspects of The Only.
Former business partner and dynamic co-chef Jason Schubert left the restaurant over a year ago to work at Sanagan’s Meat Locker (an old-fashioned butcher shop, specializing in meats from small local farmers who ethically raise their animals) in the heart of Toronto’s Kensington Market. Recently, Schubert announced via twitter that he has started a new trade, working for “a kick-ass old school masonry restoration company.”
Schubert may have left many fans in his wake but under Harding’s proprietorship the restaurant continues to perform at the top of its game. That is in part due to The Only’s trusty and knowledgeable long-time manager Scott Sloan.
Dealing successfully with the difficulties and disciplines of local food procurement, and executing an ever-changing daily menu with a deep appreciation of the seasonal palate has been evidence of the kitchen’s dedication. The cooking repertoire emphasizes the rich traditions of classic French and Italian cuisines and the aesthetics of modern British cuisine. Located in a historic building and former dairy on King Street in the London downtown dining district, the restaurant has a welcoming character with just that right amount of off-the-cuff insouciance that often comes with success. The conversational hum can be loud when the restaurant is hopping — which is most nights.
The Only was voted number six of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2008 by enRoute magazine. It has lived up to its early accolades and the kitchen has never rested on its laurels. The Only is collaborative by nature and there have been many exciting events where The Only has partnered with other culinary notables like Victor Barry of Splendido, Vineland’s Tawse Winery, and Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21, a gourmet hot spot in Waterloo. A recent collaboration with Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth of Edulus restaurant in Toronto (which was voted number one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2012 by enRoute magazine) was a much talked about sold-out success this summer at The Only.
Dinner at The Only On King begins with a basket of warm, white-linen-wrapped house-made bread accompanied by long, crisp, melt-in-your-mouth breadsticks and a pot of salty, creamy butter. In keeping with their philosophy of local food procurement, flour, grains and legumes are sourced from the historic Arva Flour Mills. The list of local producers that The Only supports is extensive. Farben Farms is Harding’s choice for Berkshire pork raised in a natural environment with no additives, hormones or drugs. Another producer, Lo Maximo Meats, is an outgrowth of Spence Farms, a fifth-generation family farm located in Chatham-Kent. Paul and Sara Spence’s Lo Maximo Meats offers traditionally raised beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb and eggs with no hormones or steroids, but with a Latin American sensibility. The meat is aged and flash frozen by a local abattoir and sold at regional Farmers’ Markets.
Recently, I ordered The Only On King’s classic chicken boudin (white sausage), which has become a delicious signature dish. On this occasion it was served with a fried egg, Swiss chard and garlic sauce. Our charismatic waiter, Margeaux Levesque, gave me a binder with a dossier (prepared by farmer Paul Spence) on candidates for my dinner that is entitled “From Our Family Farm To Your Fork — Meet Your Chicken!” There was a dizzying array of potential contenders and all had lived a happy life on the Spence family farm where they “had the opportunity to roam in an open area with fresh air, sunshine, bugs, grass and weeds to feed on.” The information provided included: date of birth, markings/distinguishing characteristics, likes, dislikes and other personal information that included questionable hobbies and diet.
Later, I quizzed Spence about his inspiration for the “Meet Your Chicken!” dossiers and he told me, “It was actually a suggestion from a fellow farmer … It’s a great way to both educate and amuse consumers.”
In addition to Harding’s often ironic sense of humour, he is proficient at butchering and making many house-made specialties: bacon, sausage, terrines, galantines, pates and confits. The Only’s kitchen has a revolving repertoire of dishes and several can be purchased on Saturdays at its satellite operation at the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market. On offer are favourites like the signature vegetable salad, pork rillettes or even foie gras parfait. Of course, the main reason to go to The Only at the Market is for Brian Bellamy’s outstanding bacon butty with cheese.
The Only’s kitchen has an aptitude for cooking lesser-known cuts of meat with great versatility. I have many memories of organic flat-iron steak, braised shin and grilled organic beef heart, all cooked to perfection. Simple sauces at this restaurant accentuate flavour and elevate a good piece of meat or fish to a superior one. A recent appetizer that the kitchen turned into an entrée is golden-brown, Fisher Folk-sourced tuna meatballs, braised in tomato with olives, capers and pine nuts, and accompanied by knock-out gnocchi.
This kitchen crafts silky crème brûlées and a yummy Pavlova-like dessert, aptly named Eton mess, with berries sourced from Heeman’s Berry Farms. A richly-flavoured Habitual chocolate semifreddo with boozy cherries, raspberries, mint oil and Maldon salt was perfect melt-in-your-mouth Food Day Canada fare.
The restaurant allows guests to bring their own wine, features several house-made seasonal cocktails, and has a varied wine list of interesting choices and a selection of bottled and draft beer produced exclusively by Muskoka Brewery.
The Only On King
172 King Street, London
Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 pm to close
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large and Contributing Editor.