The Playpen is about as far from hipster heaven as it’s possible to be, not only as the crow flies but also in its sensibility. A dingy little plaza at Gerrard and Carlaw? Why put a restaurant there? Well, if you’re Johnny Katsuras and wife/partner/chef Laura Prentice, and your last restaurant (Tomi-Kro) closed in October with a bailiff’s notice in the window, maybe getting off the beaten path costs less and makes sense.
Mr. Katsuras has opened (and closed or sold) 21 restaurants in 30 years. Before Tomi-Kro there was Lolita’s Lust, Gus, Pan, Johnny K and The Liberty, among others. Playpen, as its name suggests, is about the seventies playboy lifestyle and a Vegas casino. With dim light from bronze chandeliers and big colour-block panels on the windows, they’ve sure done that job. A Tom Jones soundtrack adds to the unfortunate disco ambience.
All of which would make the place a write-off, save for Laura Prentice’s perennially good cooking. She is the phoenix who just keeps on rising… and rising… and rising. And we’re glad of it. Her cooking does not falter.
The menu is Ms. Prentice’s, the recipes are hers, and clearly she supervises the cooks. Some nights she’s on the floor backing up the wait staff, some nights she’s in the kitchen, which is where she does her best work. Her style leans to the rich and slightly florid, which, when it’s still cold, is fine by me.
Take, for example, her ricotta gnocchi, which are of good soft texture, with enough ricotta to announce its presence, in too-rich cream sauce. Her duck prosciutto is impeccable and its little nugget of ungreasy tempura’d chevre charms, but the sweet, gummy fruit sauce is beneath her culinary dignity. Chef Prentice can tempura pretty much anything. She tops hand-chopped Japanese-inflected steak tartare with a perfectly runny tempura egg yolk.
She demonstrates her global reach with seafood hot pot, a Thai-tasting red-curry broth with deep savour and a slow burn. Too bad the seafood in it is overcooked. Perhaps Ms. Prentice built the broth but didn’t stick around the kitchen during service to cook the seafood? For that was indeed one of the nights when she was patrolling the dining room. Fodder, yet again, for the argument that chefs should stay in the kitchen.
That same evening they send out impeccable veal brisket, braised long and slow for juicy tenderness, with marvellous scalloped potatoes topped with melted feta. The brisket’s sole downfall is its slightly acrid brown sauce. The same is true of the seared duck breast, also impeccable in its moist tenderness but with a similarly afflicted brown sauce. It appears that brown sauces may be chef Prentice’s Achilles heel.
Three big, fat, perfectly cooked scallops come with perfectly cooked risotto with chunks of both pancetta and lobster and enough Parmigiano cheese for robust flavour. Butter chicken, in homage to the Playpen’s Little India location, comes on a large metal sambal platter full of cute little casserole dishes of deep flavoured chicken, thick cucumber raita, mango chutney, buttered jasmine rice with green onions, stewed chick peas, raisins, coconut and pistachios and pappadums.
Chef Prentice has a global reach and a deft hand. There are few chocolate desserts in Toronto as deep and dark as her dense chocolate ganache, cardamom scented and dusted with powdered sweetened orange rind. Or as sexy as her ultra-thick yogurt drizzled with honey with a side of caramelized fig, It's a shame she's spread herself so thin. Her skills would be wasted less if she'd stay in the kitchen or, better still, in one restaurant long enough to get her groove on.
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified the intersection of the plaza where Playpen is located. It is located at Gerrard and Carlaw.