Funny thing. I spent $178 for dinner for two at Sorrel on Yorkville one night, hopped a plane to New York a couple days later and spent the same amount for dinner for two at Esca, Mario Batali's fish restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. It was impossible not to compare the two Italian dinners, and Sorrel suffered in comparison.
I am not one to venerate the Big Apple over Hogtown; I celebrate the breadth and depth of Toronto's restaurant scene. But the big, sharp flavours that blew my mind at Esca were absent at Sorrel. I wanted Sorrel to be wonderful. Indeed, I expected it to be, thanks to its pedigree: Most of the team from Prego della Piazza (which closed in 2008) came over to Sorrel under Prego's exec chef/manager (and now Sorrel owner) Faro Chiniforoush.
While it lacks the grandeur of Prego, Sorrel is a pleasant enough room. The restaurant is below street level but its big windows and high ceilings make up for the fact, giving the space a warm sense of light and bright that's sorely needed in these dark days.
Dinner at Sorrel begins well enough, with a clever Italian-inflected menu that straddles tapas and regular mains. The kitchen veers wildly from the fantastic to the flavorless. Mussels and leeks in tomato concasse are perfectly cooked - plump fresh mussels in toasted garlicky tomato sauce, oh bliss. Equally charming is perfectly grilled calamari with a hollowed-out warm tomato holding capers and black olives, a nice drizzle of sweet balsamic as a back story to its baby arugula garnish.
Certain mains are equally grand: They take that old tired warhorse, fettuccine with seafood, and give it a big up-tick by going very easy on fresh tomato sauce, smoothing it with just enough cream for glamour, and perfectly cooking shrimp, scallops, mussels and small squid. Their take on duck confit (another bistro cliché) is deft: Duck with scrumptious crispy skin and moist flesh is partnered with wilted spinach, and whipped potatoes topped with micro greens for a fresh flavour blast. A classic winter combo. Epicures who like to tarry on the lighter side of the menu, or who prefer their animal fat disguised, will be delighted by nicely cooked Pacific halibut with a pool of pretty jazzy chili-zinged beurre blanc and splendidly citric wilted sorrel for contrast. One is grateful to meet the restaurant's namesake in such salutary form.
But some of what they do is so boring I could fall asleep eating it. Their panzanella salad insults that great Tuscan item with flavours so pallid they should be embarrassed to serve it. It's a large bowl of barely dressed, terminally bland red and yellow peppers, arugula, cucumber, beet greens, mussels and bread chunks. The bread has a whiff of white wine - at least something has flavour. Their minestrone is built on pathetically simple all-tomato broth full of carrots and potatoes. Where are the beans, the cabbage, the pasta? And how about offering some Parmigiano-Reggiano on top?
Salad of chorizo, beans and olives seems to have come straight from the fridge - a guaranteed flavour chill. But did it have any to start? The chorizo should have been grilled, there are too many black olives and not enough red onions or shaved fennel for flavour. Tagliatelle come with sun-dried cherry tomatoes (same taste as the big ones), flavour-free pesto and arugula. The fries are dark and greasy, as if cooked too long at insufficiently high heat, and their promised truffled aioli is low on truffle taste. As for the bread pudding one evening, the slices of bread are so dry they're on their way to being croutons.
Who's in charge here? Is there a palate-in-chief who edits the menu and dumps the dross? If so, more passionate editing please.