Modern would-be restaurant impresarios have a limitless range of design motifs to pick from, even if they typically stick with the usual. Montmartre Bistro, Dublin Firkin and Roman trattoria, those old chestnuts, remain as safe and eternally popular as ever, but then urban farmhouse (barn boards, Edison bulbs), East London gastropub (mismatched China, footy memorabilia), Bavarian prison mess (self-service sausages, heraldry) and Compton taqueria (if you have to ask) have also made inroads these last few years.
Modern, high-end saloon, by contrast, was untested here until this summer, for good reason; any restaurateur with a sense of the city would run from the idea, with its Bush Republican sensibility, its dead-eye Dollywood ring.
Yet Charles Khabouth, the nightclub, restaurant and condominium mogul, and his sometimes business partner, the restaurateur Hanif Harji (Nyood, Blowfish, Kultura), locked into an enormous, two-storey space on prime King Street West and hired Munge Leung, the top-drawer city architects, to outfit the room with glossy dark wainscoted wood, louvered saloon doors and a Hinterland Who’s Who of big-game antlers and taxidermy.
They dressed their servers in dark denim, and raw cowhide shoulder holsters, named the place Weslodge, and opened in mid-July.
They also made their modern saloon the opposite of the awful you’d expect it would be.
They made it fun and gorgeous, like a place in another, bigger city, where of course Modern Saloon is a perfectly normal restaurant aesthetic. Even the food’s surprisingly good.
The room is the thing, though: The enormous, Lamborghini-yellow doors out to King Street; the stuffed snipe and snowy owl on the stairs to the washrooms; the Hyundai-sized water-buffalo head glowering over the bar. There are dusty old portraits, strings of olde-fashioned bar lights. A sheet of glass across the back wall looks into the busy kitchen beyond.
The cocktails, with their evocative names (Chai Vieux Carré; Smoking Poncho) and lush descriptions (“Lingering campfire with bold agave flavour, smooth vanilla-walnut finish”) are available in antique, cut-crystal barware, as well as by the bottle (the Tobacco Manhattan, which is made with a house tobacco tincture, costs either $18 or $185 – your choice, big fella). There’s a chalkboard with 31 whiskies on it, available by the half or full bottle. The wine menu, like the food ones, is bound in handsome leather. “Libations,” its title says.
On a Tuesday night a few weeks ago, the room was crammed from early evening until approaching midnight; there were randy fashion photographers, money managers in jeans and wide-open collars, breathtaking young women with boyfriends who’d rather play on their Android smartphones; men who ordered margaritas, demanding they be made with Azul.
One of the Susur sons sat at a deuce with a friend and chatted with the waiters; a pair of managers from the soon-to-open Toronto branch of Soho House (“the pre-eminent private members club for those in creative industries”) agreed when somebody suggested that the room was a brilliant space.
On another night, a Friday, the feel was different altogether: club crowd in place of culturati. Girls in mall-store micro-minis sipped at straws that descended into Red Bull tins; muscle-bound men with expensive hairlines ordered flutes of champagne for strangers, which servers struggled to carry through the amped-up crowd. The restaurant does lunch and weekend brunch, as well, when I’d imagine it’s more subdued.
The food? Right. That matters, doesn’t it. Weslodge’s executive chef, Stuart Cameron (ex-Kultura), has chosen, wisely, to augment the expected saloon food (lots of bison, steak, hamburgers) with raw fish, Middle Eastern spices and French groceries.
There’s a starter of simple grilled snap peas, loaded with fresh-from-the-fire flavour: They’re firm and crunchy, but charred in spots and seasoned beautifully with salt and Parmesan. Salt cod brandade arrives as what the Spanish might call an espuma; the comforting, savoury, fishy froth is floated out over celery and capers, freighted with black truffle shavings and centred on the plate by a jiggly poached egg. Delicious on toast.
Buffalo tartare, chopped more coarsely than the usual, is spiked with red chilies and meekly seasoned; it’s good but not earth-shaking. The kitchen dresses raw, sweet fluke in yuzu juice then serves it with a puffed tapioca cracker – it’s a very good dish, though unmistakably similar to what you might find at Claudio Aprile’s Origin, where Kanida Chey, Weslodge’s chef de cuisine, once worked.
Mains can be less successful: slightly (but not terminally) under-seasoned ricotta agnolotti; grilled, dry-aged rib-eye that isn’t quite warm when it arrives. The steak is served with a long, roasted marrow bone. It’s mounded with salt at one end, and devoid of seasoning at the other.
The fried Cornish hen, brined with bourbon and maple syrup, is moist and tasty, however, and the sides are fantastic in places, especially the roasted carrots spiked with harissa, the North African spice mix.
There are also fabulously bitter dandelion leaves with milky stracchino cheese, lemon and za’atar spice.
Mr. Cameron’s desserts are excellent, none more than his instant cake: a cylinder of featherlight chocolate mousse that’s wrapped in a hard chocolate shell, like a Dairy Queen cone dip, and topped with tart dehydrated raspberries.
And to Mr. Harji, the cooking really seems to matter. The other night, when he asked a pair of women who were eating near us how their meal was, they said “fine.”
Mr. Harji was taken aback. Fine wasn’t good enough, he told them; he brought free cocktails, then champagne, gave them his card, begged them to come back.
It was Friday, though, club night on King Street. The girls were playing him. When he turned his back they high-fived each other and giggled drunkenly.
You can’t fault the man for trying.