Biff’s Bistro: take me to Paris

May 15, 2014

Biff’s Bistro has a one-of-a-kind terrace in the summer: lit up at night, it resembles downtown Paris in its décor. Step inside and the transformation is immediate: 1930s Paris meets fresh London cool.

The bistro’s entire concept – be it cuisine, service or design – is welcoming and memorable. Soft jazz tunes are played in the background, while staff members chat in French among themselves and with guests. This is a trendy place, with a funky yet cozy décor.

The name itself leads to a question: who is Biff? “There are a couple of stories about it and that’s part of the mystery,” explains general manager Judith Sloan. “One story is that it’s from the play Death of a Salesman, where Biff was one of the favourite characters of someone at the restaurant. Another story is that there was, at one time, a bistro in London that was called Biff’s Bistro as well.”

The venue has been a Toronto staple since 2001 and Sloan agrees that their décor and the menu have been a big magnet for clients. “A big driving force behind the décor is to make it comfortable,” she says. “There are also a lot of vintage posters and we have a lot of different art works focused on the Belle Époque era. In terms of the cuisine, we don’t stray really far from bistro classics, but we make them as much as possible from local products and produce.”

A menu highlight is the selection of fresh market seafood, which is locally sourced (or sometimes sourced from within Canada). Other specialties include steak tartare, duck confit and beef bourguignon, as well as an evolving Sélection de Fromages. In addition, $1-oysters are featured nightly from 5 p.m. Biff’s Bistro is also part of the Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, which means that the service at the venue is impeccable.

The bistro is perfectly situated in the heart of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, just on the edge of the financial district. A high number of businessmen in suits is a frequent sight here on weekdays, while weekends tend to attract families, couples and tourists.

Chef de cuisine Amanda Ray (left) poses with general manager Judith Sloan at Biff's Bistro.

Chef de cuisine Amanda Ray (left) poses with general manager Judith Sloan at Biff’s Bistro.

Chef de cuisine Amanda Ray has been in business for 14 years and was originally inspired by James Barber’s cooking show while still a teenager. Following her studies at the George Brown College Chef School, Ray kicked off her career at the renowned Auberge du Pommier, followed by Canoe, one of Canada’s most iconic restaurants. She has been at the bistro for two years.

“I often pull menu influences from my travels,” she says. “For example, this was the case when I returned from my recent trip to Vietnam.”

In addition, Ray greatly enjoys mentoring emerging chefs. The bistro has three internships, attracting students from both high schools and colleges. Ray also does talks and guest chef appearances at George Brown.

Ray's upbeat personality makes translates into her colourfully decorated cuisine.

Ray’s upbeat personality translates well into her colourfully decorated cuisine.

For our tasting, Ray cooked up a real feast. We started off with the Plateau de Charcuterie, where all of the cold cuts were made in-house. This included nduja (pork and chilly sausage), pork heart and pork chillies. The porchetta was soft and tender, and paired well with the duck pistachio terrine, chorizo and beef pepperoni. The sweet mustard, caper berries and cornichons were an excellent complement for this starter dish. A particular highlight was the Landjäger, a very dry, half-beef/half-pork, cured sausage, which we were told got its name from soldiers who used to take it with them when serving.

Plateau de Fruits de Mer – oysters, shrimp cocktail, mussels, octopus, ceviche and chef’s addition – followed. The mussels had a wonderful texture, the shrimps were perfectly firm, and trout tartare paired well with espelette mayonnaise that was quite spicy. Tuna ceviche with beet and crab jelly was particularly memorable.

For the main course, we tried the duck breast and the warm octopus salad. The duck was mild, paired with chili jam, and served with Napa cabbage and spätzle. The octopus, at first, sounded a little too exotic but we really enjoyed it.

On to dessert, we tried the classic vanilla bean crème brûlée, and gâteau au chocolat with candied Kernal peanuts and vanilla Chantilly. The crème brûlée had a very thick sugar coating and a soft, semi-liquid texture. The gâteau was not overwhelmingly sweet like most chocolate cakes and was a good meal finale.

Perfect for summer, Biff’s Bistro was a memorable experience. We’ll be back soon, but until then we say: À la prochaine!

By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Aleyah Solomon

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