Chicks should love sports bars, for the simple reason that they present a captive audience of males. Problem is, said males are usually glued to the oversized TV screens, stuffing their faces with overcooked wings and sloshing around in too much beer. The remedy for that is e11even, which takes sports bars to a new level. It’s got a multi-screen bar out front where the guys can do that thing, but in the back (if the boys tire of TV), there is an extremely gracious dining room.
The era of bad food at sports bars is coming to an end, and e11even is at the vanguard of that change. The design of the dining room says it loud and clear. For a big room it is astonishingly intimate, divided into small areas made cozy by tall banquette backs and “soft dividers” such as tall glass vases of pussy willows and orchids. Signs of intelligent restaurant design are everywhere, in the oversize swing-arm lamps with onyx shades and warm slatted wood on the ceiling, and in the long mirror angled over the kitchen, cooking-school style, to give diners a view of the shapes and colours of the cooks’ mise en place. Even the wine list is hyper cool. E11even is one of the few spots in town (in addition to Seven Numbers on Eglinton) to have its drinks list on iPads. SmartCellar is a fun program that gives pics and descriptions of the cocktails and lets diners sort wines by price, region, grape, name, vintage and bottle size. (I have trouble understanding why they don’t worry about unscrupulous diners stealing the iPads, but they seem very calm about it when I ask. That’s so sophisticated!)
E11even’s menu, however, is not so glamorous. It’s basically steakhouse with a culinary uptick, and sits squarely on the fence between wanting to please the jock and wanting to please the gastronome. Can a person be both? Sure, but if yes, then why are hot dogs on the menu? Why is the menu so meat-heavy? There are giant meatballs, prime rib and ribs. One evening the waiter tries to sell us a 32-ounce steak!
The meatball is man-size, almost as big as a softball. It’s made with Kobe beef, loaded with flavour and sitting in a veritable pond of robust tomato sauce. The spinach and artichoke dip is built on fresh spinach leaves with chunks of indeterminate but nicely sharp cheese. Similarly snazzy are big chunks of raw tuna tossed with soy and chili and sesame atop avocado. The entire effect is positive, especially when you factor in the happy grease of house-made waffle chips. Speaking of fun with fat, the house bread is a warm challa dome, egg brushed on top for shine, sea salt dotted on top for savour. With a hint of sweet butter, it’s irresistible.
The crab cake, another steakhouse stalwart, has been given a new lease on life at e11even: It’s pretty much all crab, no filler, which is unusual. And of course there’s the token nod to lighter fare: Warm beet salad, which is sliced beets in a too-sweet dressing with chunks of chevre and something they call walnut brittle, but which I experience as tiny batons of wannabe-crunchy beige sludge.
Then there’s the $52 veal chop. What justifies charging $52 for a veal chop? Size? No. This is not a huge chop. It is perfectly cooked as ordered, tender, juicy … but also over-salted. The accompanying roasted head of garlic cuts the salt somewhat. These are manly mains: The maple burger is 25 bucks worth of excellent ground beef, cooked rare, precisely as I ordered it, and topped with cheddar, shaved pickles, tomato, shredded lettuce and maple-glazed thick-cut bacon. It comes with a lot of way-too-good thin-cut twice-fried sweet frites. This is a burger to fall in love with. Same deal for the roast chicken, a juicy bird with crisp skin. Only the stuffing disappoints, its plainness an affront to the felicitous fowl.
Clearly this is a kitchen in love with meat. When asked to do something else, at times they falter. The traditional Cobb salad is a thing of beauty composed of straight rows – on a plate – of lettuce, Roquefort cheese, bacon bits, tomato, avocado, hard-boiled egg and chicken. Substituting lobster for the chicken and charging $34 is acceptable, although chicken and high-quality blue cheese do marry rather well. E11even’s Cobb, on the other hand, is a misbegotten creature, a bowl of romaine tossed with overcooked lobster and bacon in an unassertive blue-cheese dressing. Is salad considered too sissy to do well here? Or is there simply inconsistency in the kitchen?
If inconsistency, it’s carried over to the truffled mac and cheese is overcooked noodles with lots of truffle oil but hardly any cheese taste. Brussels sprouts are similarly afflicted: Pecans are always fun but they should have been toasted; the sprouts were said to be browned but were not and something on them is too sweet. Are we quarrelling about how many angels are dancing on the head of this pin? When they don’t supply veg or starch with your dinner (again, a steakhouse thing) and you’re paying $10 for mac ‘n’ cheese and $8 for Brussels sprouts, it had better be top drawer – they’re not exactly expensive ingredients. Better to skip the so-so sides and save the calories for their dreamy mousse, a peanut-butter cloud clad in dark chocolate syrup.
Paying eight bucks for a side of Brussels sprouts is a little like paying for parking to dine at e11even. Mind you, on game night at the Air Canada Centre, you’ll be grateful to find a parking spot at any price. But here’s the trick: E11even offers free valet parking on non-game nights at the ACC. You might think the place would be a ghost town those nights. Au contraire. Maple Leaf Square (framed by the ACC and the spiffy new Telus building) is always abuzz, as is E11eleven. The square is a splendid new urban space and the restaurant is its grace note, a new idea that gives the lie to all the stereotypes about bad jock food.