51A Winchester St., Toronto, 416-925-8680. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $140.
A dark room with tiny lamps flickering on the tables, a lounge singer crooning, a handkerchief dance floor with couples movin' slow, and a long, cool cocktail list painted on the smoked mirror behind the bar: Such is the divine decadence of the Laurentian Room. It's Sex and the City meets The L Word meets Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
The second floor of the semi-derelict Winchester Hotel in Cabbagetown had been empty for 39 years, abandoned to squatters, both human and animal. It took a hat trick (vision, capital and balls) to embark on the project of returning the Laurentian Room to its 1930s art deco glory. And they've done it -- with sparkles on top.
They are Trevor Berryman (who owned the delectable and gorgeous Xango), former fashion designer Wayne Box, ad man Michael Griffiths and brand manager James Burn. The room they rented had great bones under the filth and destruction, it just needed the TLC of a careful (read: expensive) restoration. Today, the wooden bar gleams darkly under two long and sexy red-lit ceiling recesses, and the wall opposite is punctuated by four gas fireplaces inset just above the top of the dark banquettes. One almost expects Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart to stroll in and take a table.
Here's lookin' at you baby . . . while ya quaff Tickle Me Pink, a clever cocktail confection of champagne and raspberry liqueur with several drunken raspberries adrift in it. Darling, if you haven't tasted raspberries marinated in champagne, you haven't lived. Bogey, of course, would drink something more masculine from the most compelling cocktail list in town.
Word on the street is that the food was no match for the décor when the place first opened, but Berryman (who did Babaluu after he closed Xango) fixed that problem. He went looking for his old chef from Xango, a Venezuelan named Carlos Fuenmayor, who has also cooked at Senses and at Spinello. Carlos became chef at Laurentian on Jan. 25, and matters in the kitchen improved immediately.
My two favourite starters are king mushroom ragout and curried scallops. The former is a small stew of barely sautéed king mushrooms (the new "it" fungus) with sweet green peas, decorated with asparagus, in a simple sauce made with vegetable stock, truffle oil and cream. It's ambrosia by another name. The scallops are big, golden and perfectly cooked. They sit atop ultralight curry sauce and are happily married to citrus salsa crudo (thinly sliced cucumber with orange bits).
I've been having two big problems lately. The first is with mussels: As a fad, they are coming up hard behind sushi . . . and are suffering similarly from their overuse in the hands of pathetically klutzy cooks. Most of the mussels I meet in restaurants are shrivelled, due to overcooking (or perhaps they were not impeccably fresh when they met their maker). A great mussel -- for this bivalve can attain greatness -- is sweet, moist and plump, as if ready to burst forth from its shell. My second problem (no less grave) concerns roast chicken. Seemingly the simplest thing in the world to cook, roast chicken is the no-brainer that goes awry 90 per cent of the time. North of California and west of Paris, it seems to be a rule that chicken must be overcooked. Roasting a chicken -- over and over and over -- until they get it right should be a rite of passage for every cook. A properly roasted chicken is truth and beauty incarnate. Overcooked, it's dry, dusty and unsweet. Fie on that.
Chef Carlos gets the mussels right, cooking them correctly and spiking them with chipotle pepper for zip and zing. But his roast chicken is overcooked and dry. One expects better from the master of the king mushrooms.
My second pet peeve is typographical: Great to offer gravlax, but do you really garnish it with "frisse?" And how about those mussels with "chipolte?" Not in my world. As for fresh-cured pork "striplion," the lightly salt-cured pork loin is moist and lovely, sitting pretty atop light, fresh cornbread, with roasted apple and onions for sweet contrast. But methinks this meat was not cut from a lion's haunch.
Chef's Latino background comes through loud, clear and delicious in a snowy piece of perfectly roasted halibut atop jazzy Creole stew that is rich with tomato, garlic and peppers. His deft touch also graces sea bream that is roasted until crispy, "buttered" with tapenade and served with a New Age salad made from thinly sliced fennel and onions lightly marinated in red wine vinegar, jazzed with lemon zest.
Why a restaurateur as smart as Berryman puts up with the inconsistent service beats me. Such lovely food, so much money sunk into the reno, and one evening our server doesn't know anything about the history of the room, has no clue what's in any of the dishes -- but is happy to pull wrong answers out of the air with great sangfroid. As if diners are credulous idiots. Which is kind of what we feel like when they phone us, twice, to confirm a reservation. One feels almost invaded by their attentions.
Better they should put them to the stairway, the only black hole (literally) in the space. Lit only by two artsy chandeliers at top and bottom, the black-painted staircase to the restaurant is a hazard. Quaff one too many cocktails and good luck going downstairs afterward.
While they're at it, they might fix the coat-check problems. One: Handing one's coat over a shelf holding the reservations book is annoying. Two: It's churlish to take money from diners when you're already getting a good buck for dinner. And a fine dinner it is.