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restaurant review

Aloette is a downmarket eatery as serious as its upscale sister

Chef Patrick Kriss is leveraging his haute-cuisine stardom to branch into the quotidian fare of burgers and sundaes

People eat lunch at the Aloette restaurant in Toronto.

Aloette

163 Spadina Ave., Toronto

416-260-3444

aloetterestaurant.com

Price: Dinner for two with a cocktail and a glass of wine, including taxes and tip, for $150.

Atmosphere: A narrow room that feels like a luxurious but relaxed dining car with an all-ages crowd. Service by bow-tied servers is smart and efficient; music plays at a reasonable volume.

Wine and drinks: Five featured house cocktails ($12) and a short wine list with nine offered by the glass ($11-$15)

Best bets: Wedge salad, burger, steak, brussels sprouts

★★

With the opening of Aloette, the new sister restaurant to the celebrated, high-end Alo, chef Patrick Kriss is staking claims on opposite ends of the culinary spectrum. Alo, with its carefully plated, critically acclaimed $155 tasting menu, represents fine dining at its peak. The decidedly more downscale Aloette, meanwhile, aims to be Toronto's finest diner.

Located on the ground floor of the historic building at Queen and Spadina that's also home to Alo, Mr. Kriss's new venture marks his first step toward a restaurant empire. He's leveraging his haute-cuisine stardom to branch into the quotidian fare of burgers and sundaes.

Mr. Kriss, who launched the ambitious and expensive Alo in 2015, has long coveted the street-level space beneath it, which was formerly a nail salon. Initially, he envisioned turning the room into a classic French bistro. But the idea died on the stove as the dishes he and his team conceived failed to meet his standards. "We trashed that idea," he admits.

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The concept he ultimately unveiled marries American classic with urban cool. In Mr. Kriss's words, "big portions, and play the music a bit loud."

Already, Aloette is drawing crowds. On two recent visits outside of peak lunch and dinner hours – expect to be on a waiting list if you arrive at noon or 7 p.m. – I saw a full dining room with a broad audience. There were tables of lunching ladies, corporate suits, millennial first dates and single tech dudes, sitting alone at the counter for a late burger and glass of red.

Aloette chef Patrick Kriss’s concept for the restaurant was ‘big portions, and play the music a bit loud.’

For the most part, Aloette succeeds. To begin, it's an impressive space – the small, narrow room that seats just 38 has been meticulously renovated with an arched, padded ceiling. It looks like the interior of a mid-century industrialist's private dining car – inviting, casual and slightly luxurious all at once – accompanied by a hip-hop-and-indie-rock playlist to keep the atmosphere lively without being too loud. Here, the neo-diner has achieved something that few Toronto eateries have been able to pull off: Millennials and baby boomers happily and comfortably co-exist.

The new spot bears no relation to the restaurant upstairs, and that's the point, Mr. Kriss says. "I wanted people to have a completely different experience." But he's aiming to maintain the same high levels of service and hospitality . The washrooms are stocked with linen hand towels. Servers wear bow ties and matching denim shirts and, unlike wait staff at most restaurants with hip-hop playing on the stereo, Aloette's staff provide service that's formal and swift.

Yet the dishes at the heart of the menu plant Aloette firmly in the diner genre – mac n' cheese, burger, steak – and they arrive with surprisingly few technical flourishes. Upstairs at Alo, complex plates often require long descriptions to explain miscellaneous powders and sauces. At Aloette, Mr. Kriss stays true to the classics as we've always known them, with subtle tweaks.

Take the burger ($18) as an example. It looks very similar to what you'd get at a highway truck stop, but rest assured Mr. Kriss has thought this one through: The patty, cooked medium, is topped with Beaufort cheese – earthier and more aromatic than your regular Cheddar – melted and browned under a salamander grill .

The burger arrives like an open sandwich, with the top half of the soft bun adorned with fine julienned lettuce and a mayonnaise sauce that's spiked with diced gherkins. Under the meat on the bottom half are pickled onions for crunch and a hint of acidity. The sum of these small but very deliberate decisions amounts to a tasty result.

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The burger, cooked medium, is topped with Beaufort cheese, melted and browned under a salamander grill, along with fine julienned lettuce, pickled onions and a mayonnaise sauce that’s spiked with diced gherkins.

The steak ($28), a thin wet-aged rib-eye imported from Missouri, is cooked on a griddle and came that night with a few charred enoki mushrooms and drizzled with beef jus. Thick-as-your-finger steaks typically come out overcooked and devoid of flavour. Not this one. The well-marbled beef bursts with umami, even when cooked several seconds longer than my desired medium-rare. It's a testament to Mr. Kriss's fastidious commitment to serving quality ingredients and a good sign that he takes the downmarket eatery as seriously as the upscale one.

Rest assured, Alo fans, there are more conceptually daring dishes. The iceberg wedge ($16) is a brilliant mash-up of last century's salad and the kale-based fare that dominates today's food courts in the financial district. A halved iceberg lettuce is dressed with a chive cream that's reminiscent of ranch. But atop the lettuce, Mr. Kriss sprinkles a cover of toasted soybeans, crispy wild rice and pumpkin seeds – ingredients you'd find at a nearby salad chain. This cross-generational idea is playful and so substantial that the dish that was once listed as a starter is now under the mains section as the lone vegetarian option.

The iceberg wedge is dressed with a chive cream and topped with toasted soybeans, crispy wild rice and pumpkin seeds.

The appetizers are where Mr. Kriss really shows off some virtuosity with premium ingredients (with prices to match).

Fresh, creamy sea urchin from B.C. is carefully placed on fingers of toasted bread laden with a mayo improved by scallions and yuzu kosho – a Japanese blend of citrus and spice. At $22, the tiny dish costs more than the burger, but it's also like treating your palate for a fun whirlwind tour of Paris and Tokyo.

The house-made burrata dish ($16) is fussy food at its best and the total antithesis of typical diner fare. Slices of the mild, chewy white cheese are buried under orange wedges, julienned fresh fennel, tiny pickled fennel cubes and roasted pistachios, all of which are bound together in perfect harmony by a green herb-infused olive oil.

The scallop sashimi appetizer ($14) isn't as successful. The raw Japanese scallops are sliced and dressed with a fine-dice of granny smith apple, coriander, pickled onions and a slice of jalapeno. If only Mr. Kriss stopped there. Instead, this ensemble is served atop three tostadas – one pander too many to current dining trends – which makes for easy sharing but the tortilla's flavour blasts the subtleties of scallop.

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The scallop sashimi appetizer is dressed with a fine-dice of granny smith apple, coriander, pickled onions and a slice of jalapeno, and is served atop three tostadas for easy sharing.

There are only three desserts on the current menu: A black forest sundae, pecan pie and a lemon meringue pie (all $10 each). The latter is generous in size and sugar, as sweet as one would expect at a roadside eatery. It's delicious, even if wholly unoriginal.

The wine and cocktail list is short but thoughtful and changes often. On one night earlier in the winter, Aloette poured an obscure red blend from Lebanon; this past week, it was a fantastic Pinot Noir from little-known Reuilly in France's Loire Valley. The cocktails are fresh takes of lesser-known regional favourites, such as the English classic King's Cup (here, reinterpreted with bourbon, Scotch and ginger ale) and Brittany's Kir Breton (cider and cassis).

Service is smooth, polished and unobtrusive, although one hiccup came at dinner when our two side dishes – a bowl of nutty-tasting charred Brussels sprouts and a dish of fries in sausage gravy (both $9 each) – arrived almost 10 minutes before our mains. With a packed house, these misfires happen, but they shouldn't at a place with Mr. Kriss' standards.

As diners, we expect a lot from Mr. Kriss, and here lies the central issue as he tries to cross over to the mid-market mainstream: Does cheaper Aloette show the full creative range and technical wizardry of a talented chef such as Mr. Kriss? No, it doesn't. But it's also foolish of us to expect the same level of accomplished cooking at one-third of the price.

Aloette is still a delicious execution of Mr. Kriss's vision of a diner and worthy of embrace. The genre has long been a glaring weak spot in Toronto's restaurant scene. We've lacked the casual options that are so common in cities such as New York and Montreal, where numerous street corners are home to counters that serve club sandwiches and milkshakes at any hour.

Mr. Kriss says he hopes to replicate his Aloette model in other locations around the city. We should hope he does. The handful of diners we have downtown, such as Fran's and Patrician Grill, are nostalgia trips rather than places for decent food.

Our star system

No stars: Not recommended

One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.

Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.

Three stars: Excellent, with few caveats, if any.

Four stars: Extraordinary, with near-perfect execution.

Aloette, with its handsome room and haute-cuisine pedigree, doesn't dish out retro sentimentality. But it does share one essential characteristic with the diners of past: versatility. Those old places served as convenient spots for a range of dining options, from a quick bite, solo, to a lingering, chatty meal for four. In that respect, Aloette is as diner as they come.

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