Harry's Steak House knows the art of grilling
Harry’s Steak House
Address: 3277 Bloor St. W. (near Islington Ave.), 416-551-5864, harryssteak.house
Chef: Frank Morrison
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to midnight. Lunch, Thursday and Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.
Wheelchair access: No
Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $250
Like its rib steak, the story behind Harry’s Steak House is juicy.
Harry Barberian was a driven man. The son of Armenian refugees who settled in Brantford, Ont., Barberian was forced out of school by racial intolerance and repeatedly told he’d never be successful.
Yet his Barberian’s on Elm St. is still going strong after nearly 60 years. Alumni went on to open other legendary Toronto steak houses like Tom Jones while Barberian himself opened the now-closed Harry’s Steak House on Church St.
“I’m in the shadow of a great man,” says son Arron Barberian of his father, who died aged 71 in 2001.
To honour him, Arron Barberian retooled The Black Angus in The Kingsway— another steak house spawned by ex-staff of his father — and christened it Harry’s. It opened in September.
(After a 2016 fire, Black Angus moved across the street to the Bloor Islington Centre. A recent meal there featured grainy steaks in a painfully noisy room.)
The fire-damaged building sat empty until Arron Barberian took it on with business partner Pat Orgera (TLP). They hired designer Lori Morris to create a 60-seat restaurant “more like a private club that’s been open to the public,” Arron says.
The transformation is dramatic. The grill is up front, as it was when Harry Barberian manned one in the 1950s. Sexy red neon lights the bar. Masculine banquettes and bold tartan carpeting give the dining room the feel of a Rat Pack-era hangout.
Women in Chanel jackets and rhinoplasty bandages sit at tables set with black leather placemats and pink Himalayan salt dishes. Birthday celebrants fill the banquettes.
Meals begin the usual steak house way: Garlic bread and pickles. While Barberian’s on Elm St. brines its own kosher dills, Harry’s serves Putter’s instead due to limited kitchen space. Still, they are stylishly served in small mason jars.
Consider the wedge salad ($14) as license to indulge in oodles of buttermilk-blue cheese dressing, crumbled bacon, chopped chives and halved cherry tomatoes. It’s certainly a better salad than the bland Caesar ($15).
Shrimp cocktail ($26) is a trio of crustaceans practically as large as lobster tails. Harry’s does right by these impressive beauties with strong horseradish in the cocktail sauce. Other appetizers that get it right: A tangy half-rack of ribs ($24) and bone marrow ($18) complemented by pink pickled onions.
The beef, as expected, is faultless. Arron Barberian employs an in-house butcher at Barberian’s downtown to carve meat and age it up to six weeks.
“The aging process separates what you buy at a steak house from what you get at a supermarket,” he says.
“It’s an art to know when a steak is ready.”
All of Harry’s steaks are prepared at Barberian’s, except the filet mignons ($56) and New York striploins ($58) cut on site.
Grill chef Frank Morrison, with half-a-million cooked steaks to his credit, knows what to do with Quebec maple charcoal and quality meat.
There’s nothing fancy about Harry’s setup. No imported grills that can be raised and lowered to vary the heat. No open fire pits. Just filet mignon infused with the smokiness of its bacon wrapping. Or a 16-ounce rib eye ($66) that sputters hot fat and cuts like soft butter. Or a bone-in filet mignon ($67) with a cool red interior, exactly as ordered.
Even the chicken ($42) is good. Better than good, actually, with crisp skin, juicy brined breast meat and thyme-flavoured gravy.
Creamed spinach ($9) is just that, without even nutmeg to detract from the crumpled green perfection. Other side dishes fall short, such as so-called “fancy” mushrooms ($9) that are mostly button and onion rings ($9) with an excess of batter.
There are two other categories where Harry’s disappoints. The first is reservations, in which one’s text, phone or email request may not be returned; the restaurant reports getting more than 100 requests a day. Open Table is too costly at $5 a reservation, says Arron Barberian, plus it allows last-minute cancellations. He says a better system is under discussion.
The second major failing is dessert. Cakes ($10.75) are currently made offsite and many — Boston cream cake, New York cheesecake, pineapple ricotta cheesecake, chocolate-hazelnut sponge — either taste like the fridge or have dried out. This will also be redressed, says Arron Barberian, along with adding wheelchair access.
What remains a treat is the candy at the end. As we walk out, Harry’s staff hand over a tiny paper box of licorice allsorts. (Barberian’s has been doling them out for decades, just not in Chinese takeout containers.)
Never take candy from a stranger, goes the maxim. But steak from a Barberian? Always.
Amy Pataki is a Toronto-based restaurant critic and reporter covering all things hospitality. Follow her on Twitter: @amypataki