If you closed your eyes and shut out the leopard-print curtains and the tartan wallpaper and the queen-sized padded headboard at the back, lit in brothel red, and the flat screens streaming CP24, and the server swearing oh shit as she breezed past, and the 30-odd minutes it took to get a cocktail, and the rich and guileless tourists in their white denim and brass-buttoned blazers, and the Denny’s-style name tags the staff wore, and the all-1970s soundtrack some nights, and the drywall by the kitchen, crumbling as if in the basement laundry of a soon-to-be-condemned cold-water tenement, you could almost imagine the Windsor Arms’ restaurant as it must have been when the hotel was the most important dining address in Toronto.
Chefs Jamie Kennedy, Michael Bonacini, Robert Clark, Marc Thuet, Suzanne Baby and Anthony Walsh all once cooked here. Pierre Trudeau used to come in with heads of state, passing rock stars and platinum-headed socialites and film idols on the way to the johns. Peter C. Newman once called the piano lounge in the corner of the hotel’s Courtyard Café restaurant: “A combination of the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, Elaine’s and Sardi’s in New York … Blake’s in London and the Gaslight in Paris.” The Toronto International Film Festival was conceived and reared at this address. Leonard Cohen and Burt Reynolds used to get hit on at the bar.
Yet the hotel’s restaurants have never been able to grow old gracefully – they’re constantly born again. “When the Windsor Arms opens another restaurant, it’s as if Dick is giving Liz another diamond,” Joanne Kates wrote in this space a few years ago. Correction: Joanne Kates wrote that line 35 years ago, at the end of the 1970s.
The cycle of birth and death has only accelerated. After the first dozen facelifts you have to start looking in out-of-the-ordinary places for serviceable skin.
The latest arrival, announced last winter, was hard to ignore, however. Rather than building a new concept in-house, the Windsor Arms bought out and relocated one of the city’s most charming and beloved bistros.
For just shy of four years, the chef JP Challet’s 25-seat Ici Bistro was a beacon of inventive, accomplished cooking and warm service at the western end of Harbord Street. Mr. Challet served airy Barbadian cod-cakes with lemon-zinged rouille, superb, finely flavoured fish, and best-in-the-city lobster bisque. His potato croquettes were so light and delicious that I would happily have made entire meals there from nothing but cru Beaujolais and those whipped, deep-fried tubers. Ici’s plates were nouveau French and classic French: light and fresh and decadent. Mr. Challet’s Grand Marnier soufflé was easily the greatest egg dish in town.
Mr. Challet, like the Windsor Arms’s restaurants, is a constant re-inventor; he rarely stays in one place for long. (The chef has also had an on-again, off-again relationship with the hotel since his first, three-year turn as executive chef there in 1999.) That sweet little spot on Harbord Street couldn’t last.
Ici Windsor Arms is just good enough in spots, at times, to remind you how great the original was. It’s Ici, but without the lightness or the freshness, the warmth, the charm, the intimacy or the knowing service. Maybe you’ll love it. The second time I ate there the cooking was largely excellent, the service at very least friendly and professional. (I’ve encountered just one good server at the restaurant. We had him that evening.) But my first visit was almost comically abysmal – it’s well in the lead so far for worst restaurant experience of 2014 – and the third one, just this week, was closer to what you’d expect from the breakfast buffet of a north Florida HoJo’s than a supposedly boutique, five-star hotel.
Mr. Challet’s menu here is long, the plates complex. His steak tartare, served in any one of three ways, is reasonably tasty, particularly the Bordelaise version, which tops hand-chopped beef with oysters and Canadian black caviar. His bisque was as good as ever when I had it: Mr. Challet extracts and concentrates every last bit of goodness from the flesh and shells before weaving the deep-marine suspension with ginger and green onion brightness, and shrimp that are fried au point in starchy-crisp potato shells.
One night’s escargots plate was terrific, the snails rich and tender, with a wedge of puff pastry, toasted grapes, macadamia nuts and a thick, buttery nap of sauce vigneronne. The scallop dish was a knockout: it combined the flavours of crab salad, perfectly seared scallops, ginger, pears, beurre blanc sauce and lobster thermidor.
On the foie gras plate: cool torchon and flash-seared lobe dressed with rhubarb and reduced beet juice, so that the whole was earthy, humble, fruit and fowl with a farmhouse sensibility. It was foie gras as you might find it in Mr. Challet’s hometown of Lyon.
We had two soufflés, chocolate and Grand Marnier, both exquisite. The Grand Marnier version was a jiggling, decadent web of egg, sugar, flour and bubbles, leavened as if with hydrogen and just barely held together by gentle heat. It was peppered throughout with orange-flavoured booze and flecks of candied peel.
I’m still struggling to believe those plates came from the same kitchen that sent out leathery house-made ravioli, overcooked beef tenderloin, underseasoned fish, cold, congealed-tasting bone marrow croquettes and a puck of couscous so hard and bland and grainy-tasting that my otherwise omnivorous tablemate that night pulled it from her mouth not three seconds after a piece of the thing went in.
The soufflé on another night was undercooked: runny instead of jiggly. The duck breast was tough, the salmon trio blunt-tasting without acidity or salt, the escargots desperately bland, the deep-fried goat cheese borek yearning for a bit of balance.
And it would be hard to overstate just how incompetent Ici’s service can be. The first time I ate there, having reserved a week earlier, it took nearly 10 minutes of confusion just to be seated; when, after 25 minutes, I pleaded with a food runner to find somebody we could order drinks from, the first server she grabbed announced, “That’s not my table.” They were just three feet away from us at the time.
Mr. Challet became the hotel’s executive chef when he signed on; he oversees not merely Ici’s menu but also the hotel’s all-day hotel and bar menus, a vegan menu, Sunday buffet brunch and a full Kosher offering. I don’t know of many chefs who could do all that and maintain any level of quality. When I spoke with him this week he said he’s aware of how much work is still ahead; the transition from 25-seat bistro to institutional kitchen has been difficult, it sounds. He works at the hotel just four days a week, meanwhile.
On Wednesday this week a middle-aged couple were just finishing their main courses as I arrived. They were tight lipped and unhappy-looking. They hardly spoke.
As one of them finished his plate, a server turned up with a long-awaited glass of wine. He’d wanted it 15 minutes earlier, he told her. The server left with the wine. You could see the frustration on the couple’s faces.
“This is the same place as on Harbord Street?” the man asked his partner.
I wished I could have warned them earlier.
No, it really is not.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won’t blow a lot of people’s minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.