What can you do with a 110 square foot kitchen? Quite a few things, it turns out, that no one else is doing, including serve the servers.
Megan Adshade and Ken Pittman have opened a new restaurant downtown that continues after regular dinner service as a late night eatery serving a small selection of freshly made trendy food along with artisan cocktails and cheap pints til 1:30am. According to Adshade and Pittman, it has already become a popular spot for other chefs and restaurant staff who don’t usually get off work in time to enjoy the restaurant boom they themselves created.
Seto opened on March 10th and, like Raymonds and Bernard Stanley Gastropub down the street, it is named after a grandfather. Every chef loves their poppy, and co-owner and chef Ken Pittman is no different.
Pittman’s grandfather, William Seto Ping, immigrated to Newfoundland in 1931, founded the Chinese Association of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1977, owned the last of the Chinese laundries in St. John’s (Snow White Laundry), and helped to organize the fight for reparations from the Chinese head tax.
But Pittman remembers him best in his Rabbittown kitchen. He would eat rice every day, and then make his tea in the same pot to add the flavours of the toasted rice that was cooked to the bottom. The rice was stored in a galvanized steel bin in his kitchen, and Pittman would stick his whole arms in and feel the grains shifting all around his hands. Ping taught Pittman’s mom to cook and her “cabin rice” is still one of his favourite foods: steamed jasmine rice with a soy marinated skirt steak quick cooked on top.
Pittman’s full sensory connection with food from an early age comes through in Seto’s menu. Imagine the give of your knife cutting through a heart-sized pork chop cooked just enough for full flavour with all juices retained, a spectrum of cherry blossom whites and pinks from edge to centre, complemented by barely wilted spicy mustard greens and roasted sun chokes.
The ingredients are not overdone, overcooked, or overcrowded. “Sometimes the best ingredients are the ones you leave off the plate,” Pittman says. And with such limited prep and kitchen space, learning what is superfluous is a necessity.
With a small kitchen comes a small menu, though it changes often. They keep roughly five appetizers, one or two pasta dishes, and five entrees with additional specials. These options cover a wide range: Beef, pork, fish, game, gnocchi, grains, vegetables. There are usually two choices for dessert and Adshade says she can’t wait for berry season so she can take full advantage of the local flavours.
Though Seto serves locally sourced ingredients when possible (e.g. taking in a whole pig every two weeks from Leamington Farms), they also use imported items to create their own version of new Canadian food. Much of the imports have an Asian origin, like umeboshi, and XO sauce.
And, no matter the seasonal availability of local produce, there is always a vegetarian option that is given the same care as the meat dishes. “You won’t just be getting all the vegetables from the other plates [minus the meat]” says Adshade, co-owner, pastry chef, and bartender.
Though her training was not initially as a pastry chef, she has been doing desserts since her time at The Tide and Boar Gastropub in Moncton. They needed someone and “it just escalated” she says until, before opening Seto, she was a pastry chef at Raymond’s.
Both her and Pittman are true life long learners and have a library of over 130 cookbooks. Adding bartending to her titles made practical sense as they have to keep staff size down as a small (32 seat) establishment. But Adshade says it makes culinary sense too, as desserts and cocktails are “similar crafts [with a] similar flavour profile” where you are always balancing sour and sweet.
“We don’t have the full brigade system here… we are just getting it done.” This sentence, begun by Adshade and finished by Pittman is indicative of the atmosphere of their business; working together succinctly, fluidly and with humour.
But it downplays their achievement. What they are “just getting done” is very high calibre food that is both familiar and innovative. Seto can hold its own among the rest of downtown’s lauded dinner spots and also fills a niche in the late night scene with a relaxed atmosphere, fine cocktails, cold PBR, and warm fresh biscuits.
Seto is located at 281 Duckworth Street; across from India Gate