432 Wellington St. W., Toronto, 416-596-6405. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $120.
Wherefore art thou, J.P.? Hiding in the basement? No, that's where the kitchen is, and we cannot for a New York minute imagine that you're really there, turning out this franco-dreck that's catching the fancy of hundreds of gullible eaters at the hottest bistro in town. Perhaps you're there in body, but where's your soul?
J.P. Challet was chef/owner of Bouchon, where he turned out highly credible bistro food from late 2002 till late 2004. He was then brought in to rescue the Fifth's kitchen (which was struggling after bad boy wunderkind Marc Thuet walked out in the middle of a Saturday night shift. How ironic that J.P. and Thuet are now going mano-a-mano for the downtown bistro business).
J.P. cooked beautifully at the Fifth, which is why our credulity is strained at the new Le Select, recently transplanted to Wellington Street West. Its megapopularity is due in part to its casual beauty. Like a hot blond in jeans and cowboy boots, this place seduces au naturel. It looks precisely like a Parisian bistro of the 1920s: small black and white tiles galore, deco light fixtures, art nouveau facade, fabulous old French movie posters, zinc bar and copies of the Herald Tribune at the front, as if we're all expats in gay Paree. Call for a reservation and you hear a cock crowing and a band playing La Marseillaise. But good luck getting a table, because the place is as hot as a Parisian crepe seller on the street in July.
Talk to Toronto foodies older than 40 and you'll discover they have a thing for Le Select. Was it the hanging breadbaskets that dangled over every table? For 29 years on Queen Street West the bistro was the darling of grad students and francophiles sans high net worth. This is another clue as to its current success, for dinner is cheap(ish) at Le Select. Two can still dine for under $100 including wine, tax and tip (if they are somewhat careful). Doing that à la française in Toronto is special; doing it in such pretty surroundings is very special -- and clearly was special to many people. The place was folksy and full of charm.
Now, the hanging breadbaskets are gone. They tried them in the new place but felt the effect was more clothesline than charmant, which the restaurant still very much is. And so the food doesn't have to be. Nor the service. Twice we were made to stand and wait for almost five minutes at the entrance. One evening our server plunks down dessert while frites, mustard and mayo are still on the table, and never does notice the three stray fries that one would have liked removed.
As for the food, if they served this pap in Paris we could foresee another French revolution. The fish soup has no discernible flavour. Nor does the French onion soup. Pâté has the nasty consistency of chicken livers in a blender. The only appetizer we can stomach is the frisée salad with poached egg and pork lardons. How far can any kitchen screw up a salad? In this case the pork lardons lacked both taste and smoke.
Mains are as heinous as the appetizers: Confit of duck is a soggy, uncrisp leg with dry tasteless flesh, served with uncreamy potatoes au gratin. Cassoulet includes more of that uncrisp bland duck confit with untasty white beans and sausage that is weirdly red and wet in the middle, as if perhaps it were not cooked through. They also do a classic braised lamb shank with sweet spices: dried out meat in banal sauce.
Beef bourguignon, another great bistro classic, is composed of four huge hunks of stewing beef and a central pool of buttery mashed potatoes, with a few mushrooms. The beef is perfectly cooked and very tender, but I quarrel with the choice of using big hunks. Let's face it, filet mignon this ain't; I prefer my stewing beef in small chunks because the majority of this cut's charm derives from it catching the flavour of the sauce. Big chunks do not afford that opportunity.
The frites, required eating in a bistro, are very fine, but they are served naked. By the time we catch a server's attention to request mayo they're getting cold. The mayo, when it arrives, is a mystery. Our server says it's house-made; but this mayo is so pale and tasteless that it's hardly worth the damage to waistline and cholesterol count.
For dessert there are more bistro classics. Tarte Tatin is a disappointment, its apples not very caramelized, its pastry tough. Mousse au chocolat would be better with much darker premium chocolate.
Go figure: They're serving food with most of the flavour MIA, but try getting a table on a Saturday night. It's amazing how easy it is to fool people when you have good looks.