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Colette Grand Café: Upscale French dining in Toronto gets a seaside makeover

The chilled vichyssoise at the Colette Grand Café costs $24, but its a terrific value and is the best soup you will have all year.

Danielle Matar/The Globe and Mail

2.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Colette Grand Café
Location
550 Wellington Street West, Toronto, Ontario
Phone
647-348-7000
Website
colettetoronto.com
Price
Appetizers, $11 to $24; shared starters, $22 to $58; mains, $28 to $44.
Cuisine
French
Vegetarian Friendly?
Yes
Accessible
true
Drinks
Good classic cocktails, and a deep wine list that balances funky-tasty esoterics (try the Arbois Jura Chardonnay) with better known bottles.
Atmosphere
A bright, friendly bistro on the Côte D’Azur, filled with deep-pocketed diners. Excellent but occasionally overattentive service and an energetic club music soundtrack – it can get loud.
Recommendations
Lobster vichyssoise, goat cheese soufflé, Saigon crab, pan-bagnat, frog’s legs, steak frites, lobster pasta, profiterole. (Menu changes frequently.)

Even two or three years ago, in the relative innocence, say, of 2011, the launch of Colette Grand Café, a beautifully designed, highly-polished, big-ticket French spot that opened this summer in the Thompson hotel, would have had Toronto's moneyed classes cheering.

Back in 2011, the city didn't have Patria, Weslodge, Byblos, Café Boulud, the Momofukus, Luckee, the members-only Soho House, Montecito, or the new Charles Khabouth/Oliver & Bonacini-run America, in the Trump Tower, where the ham and pickle plate will set you back $28 and the average entrée costs $45.

Cluny, the grand, 450-seat French spot in the Distillery District, hadn't been announced yet. Buca, which is set to open a satellite in Yorkville any day now, was still a one-location affair.

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Perhaps most important, the Chase and the Chase Fish & Oyster, the ambitious, money's-no-object upstairs-downstairs dining complex at the edge of the Financial District, hadn't yet arrived to help revive the market for high-end dining in the city. In the summer of 2013 the Chase's partners, the chef Michael Steh and front-of-house man Steven Salm, came seemingly out of nowhere to combine familiar but decadent and beautifully-executed cooking, gorgeous design, top-drawer service and a thumping, just-clubby-enough atmosphere exactly when city diners were ready to live large again. It's hard to overestimate just how much money moves through that room each night.

No wonder, then, that the Thompson hotel approached Mr. Salm and Mr. Steh to open Colette – to replace the disastrous Scarpetta. And it's no wonder there's been less buzz around the partners' most recent opening. The place is busy – packed whenever I've eaten there. But it's harder to get the moneyed diners to pick up the pom poms lately, the city's suddenly jammed with high-end dining options. Toronto's a different market now.

With their new spot, the partners have once again tried to do something familiar, but different. In a city that's lousy with decent to very good Parisian or Lyonnais-style bistros, they've focused on the sort of breezy seashore cooking you find farther south, in Nice and along the Côte D'Azur. So while they've got a few of the expected rib-sticking bistro standards – expect a cassoulet and boeuf braisé once the weather turns – Colette's menu is filled with herb pistous, complexly delicious vegetable fricasses, Provençale soups and an exquisite take on pan bagnat, a sort of salade Niçoise that's served on toasts.

The chilled vichyssoise comes in two parts, the first a wide, gold-rimmed bowl containing fat chunks of lobster claw, tail and knuckle – there's half a lobster, all told – and a mini quiche filled with sweet corn custard. The second part, the soup, arrives at the table separately, in a silver pitcher; the server pours it, green and fragrant and finely balanced between earthy potato and bright summer leeks, around the lobster and the quiche and the herbs and the crème fraiche in the bowl, until it's halfway up the pastry. It's a $24 soup. It's also terrific value. It's the best soup you'll have this year.

Or maybe you'd prefer a salad? I'd recommend the beet and goat cheese salad. It's not the hoary old beet and goat cheese salad you find at your usual bistro. The cooked beets are sliced into thin rounds and seasoned with oil and vinegar and aromatics; the process ombrés them to spectacular effect; they fade from white at one end to blushing sunset pink.

The goat cheese, though, is the main event: It's incorporated into a soufflé that's crunchy on its outsides from chopped, toasted walnuts, and soft and sensational in its middle. The appetizer called "La Grenouille" is also excellent if you're into amphibians – and even if you're not. The frogs' legs come like tiny land-and-sea Chupa Chups; the meaty bits are breaded and fried. They're good enough. The fricassee that comes with them is what got me though: there were cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, fresh peas, turnips, black garlic and cippolini onions that had been cooked just to crunchy-juicy, all of them just quickly stewed to order so that their flavours had begun to meld but also remained distinct. Confession: I can't stand frog's legs. I can't think of Colette without wanting to run back for another plate.

I was less impressed with a few of the mains. The flat-iron steak frites, one of the restaurant's few sops to old-school bistro tradition, was nicely grilled, deeply flavourful, with a refreshing cherry tomato concassée on the plate to save it all from heaviness. The roast chicken was weak, though – overcooked and overseasoned. That's the sort of thing a bistro should be getting right.

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The lobster à l'Américaine was the pasta of my dreams: big chunks of lobster and richly eggy chitarra noodles with a sauce made from rendered cherry tomatoes. The shellfish marinière was distressingly dry.

The pickerel crusted with mushroom duxelle, a Wednesday night special, was excellent. The duck magret was chewy. That duck's rhubarb sauce, spiced with ginger and cardamom, saved it, sort of. You shouldn't have to quibble with a $44 plate.

Desserts, by Leslie Steh (she and Mr. Steh are married), are brilliant – none more than the profiterole, a superlight ball of pastry that's crisp on top with a sort of almond crackle. The profiterole is cut open and stuffed with superb vanilla ice cream and caramel. The servers spoon dark, semi-sweet chocolate sauce and bitter cocoa nibs over it tableside. The takeout French pastries and coffee are also excellent.

Like Colette's menu, the room dispenses with the usual Midnight in Paris clichés – the dark wood and stained glass and the Edith Piaf soundtrack – for something brighter and fresher. There's lots of light-coloured marble, soft, bright surfaces and high, barrel-vaulted ceilings. An ungenerous friend of mine described the space as "Louis XIV meets American Girl;" I'd call it bistro on a beach holiday, if the beach happens to have a very high-energy nightclub. (The music here is all driving bass; it can get loud.)

As for that crowd, it's as money as Toronto restaurant crowds get, filled with a mix of luxury travellers and business titans (Larry and Judy Tanenbaum one night; Brad Lamb another, with his shirt opened I-cannot-ever-unsee-that wide), high society and its hangers-on. There were air-kissing men in alarmingly well-fitted camo pants, and not-young-exactly King West singles ("Kingles," a friend of mine calls them); there were ladies who lunch and sometimes dinner, also, who talk and laugh amongst themselves unbelievably loudly. And the eavesdropping in some restaurants is just better than the average. The eavesdropping at Colette is the best. One night I heard somebody say, "Her ex-husband had a plane – this is downward mobility."

Which, honestly – it's all relative. If you're eating here, you're doing just fine.

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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.

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Chris More

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