That the Gabardine fills up by noon pretty much every day should tell us something about the lunching options in the belly of the financial beast: Carpe diem. This is the most charming place to break bread in the financial district. I find it entertaining - and indeed instructive - how few alpha males in expensive suits are there for lunch or dinner. Perhaps The Gabardine lacks testosterone. This may account for its laid-back charms. There are no large-breasted hot female servers, no high-priced cocktails and no large hunks of meat.
But the place is packed - mostly with women and younger, less-than-alpha males. It's likely they're drawn by the Gabardine's clever positioning. The financial district has high-end formal restaurants and food courts, but few midrange edible pleasantries. The Gabardine is modelled on the British gastro-pub, an informal bistro aiming for high quality but relatively unambitious food.
The owners hired chef Rodney Bowers of The Rosebud and The Citizen to consult on the menu, and he installed a protégé, chef Graham Pratt, in the open kitchen. The smallish room is charming thanks to lacquered blond-wood tables and cream walls hung with sepia photos and yellowing copies of this newspaper's front page. At lunchtime the servers are jovial and smooth, attentive to the needs of diners to eat and run. At dinner the lights dim and the pace becomes decidedly more leisurely - as do the servers. Most unfortunate.
It's the same menu for lunch and dinner, but the kitchen does more justice to their casual offerings. Is there a better lunch than a well executed banquet burger? No foie gras, no blue cheese, no other silly garnishes, just a perfectly cooked, medium-rare fat beef patty. Who cares about the Dow Jones when the meat juice is dripping down your chin and there are crisp sweet fries on the side?
The other standout opus is the mac and cheese, also a frequently butchered classic. But The Gabardine's is comfort food exemplified, thanks to just enough creamy sauce rich with sharp cheddar. Two bucks gets the addition of chunks of smoky ham. Mac and cheese purists will not want to do this, despite the excellent pedigree of the pig.
At dinner, one feels compelled to order a first course. But the salt-cod cakes are, however pleasant, somewhat starchy in their texture, and the pasta fagioli soup is so strongly tomato-based that its bean component seems almost secondary, which is contrary to the mission of the favoured Italian soup.
That they do black cod is good; it's a great fish. Tiny French lentils are a good counterpoint to the cod's sweetness. But the fish is slightly overcooked and the braised mushrooms in the lentils are leathery. A better fate befalls the mushrooms in the beef Stroganoff; they have been more carefully cooked, and remain tender. The beef is also tender and moist; the Stroganoff's brown sauce with sour cream is a friendly throwback to the 1950s. It could have come from my mother's Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.
But my mother, may she rest in peace, would never have done such a heinous thing to noodles. With the Stroganoff, there are browned spaetzle - only the bravest (and perhaps foolhardy) cooks brown a noodle, for this can easily toughen it. Spaetzle are high-risk cooking even without browning them. By tradition, cooks in southern Germany scrape pasta dough off a small wooden board with a knife, directly into boiling water, to produce feathery little threads of noodle. That's spaetzle. The challenge for a restaurant is to cook the spaetzle in advance and hold and re-heat them without toughening such delicate noodles. They blew that one.
Their desserts continue the comfort-food theme. Here, too, one wants more attention to detail. The house signature dessert, burnt-marshmallow ice-cream sandwich, does not fulfill its promise. First off, I don't get why they're not using the orgasmic toasted-marshmallow ice cream from Greg's Ice Cream. (Their ice cream is from Ed's Real Scoop and not redolent of burnt marshmallow.) Second, the chocolate wafers are tough and hard to cut. This dessert has the potential to be dangerous. With a little work, it could blow Bay Street's GI index off the charts.
It's always dicey when a chef with a name writes a menu, installs a protégé and then goes back to where he came from. Perhaps Mr. Bowers might look in a bit more often. Methinks if he tastes some of The Gabardine's food (most particularly the leaden spaetzle) he might worry about his name being tarnished.
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