In the 10 months since the announcement of Drake One Fifty, an enormous and lavishly hyped new Financial District restaurant from the team behind Queen Street West's Drake Hotel, the space's décor has so far claimed most of the attention.
Jeff Stober, the Drake's big-spending, arts-loving owner, brought in Martin Brudnizki, a celebrity designer based in London, to "meticulously conceptualize" Drake One Fifty's 160-seat room, as a press release put it.
The restaurant, which opened in early October at the corner of York Street and Adelaide Street West, has been outfitted with installations from such Canadian art luminaries as Douglas Coupland, Micah Lexier and Eleanor King. Ms. King's sprawling, eerily alien Cuppa Cups sculpture, made from reclaimed paper coffee cups, occupies a prime spot in the lobby, not far from the DJ stage and the vintage Photoautomat booth.
The bar stools were purchased, as another Drake One Fifty press release boasted, at the "famed Brimfield Antique Market outside Boston." The oval bar is 60 feet of marble. When you dial up to make a reservation lately, a recorded message trills, "You've reached the Drake One Fifty, recently featured in Architectural Digest magazine."
The company even hired The Brothers Dressler, the go-to city woodworking duo, to build a fancified pergola over the dining room, so that sitting under it feels vaguely like being on a patio in Little Italy, if the patio were furnished with teal coloured custom leather lounge chairs and one-off pop art and high-end vintage fixtures, and patrolled by handsome young waiters.
The waiters had to repeat themselves on the evenings I ate there, because the volume of the room was so excruciatingly loud.
The premise behind the menu is "innovative Canadian brasserie." In practice what that means is run-of-the-mill comfort dishes (steak frites, a burger, pizzas, meatballs; all of them overpriced), of-the-moment menu trends (blistered shishito peppers, smoked mackerel, warm olives, charred octopus), and the minimum-required smattering of foodie bait, executed in some cases as if in contempt.
Take Drake One Fifty's liver and onions entrée, a dish that might not appeal at first blush to every diner, but which should practically leap off the menu for the sophisticated, jet-setting crowd that the Drake brand claims to draw. Calf's liver is unfairly known as a difficult meat; when it is less than spanking fresh, or worse still, cooked past medium, it is tough, pallid and overbearingly organ-flavoured, the liver that your grandmother might have made you eat.
In the hands of a caring chef, however, liver is smoky sweet on its outsides, mild, pink and creamy in its middle. With a hit of good salt and a bit of acidity, it is a disarmingly delicious meat.
Drake One Fifty's version reads well. The kitchen pairs it with pickled pearl onions, foie gras for depth and pickled cherries for interest and colour. But then it arrives, as grey and dank as emphysema, cooked beyond redemption by a kitchen that ought to have known better. It is a disaster even only by sight and smell. "This is the kind of liver that makes people hate liver," a dinner mate groaned as she put down her fork, a bite-and-a-half in.
The $38 steak frites was only somewhat better: overcooked (medium instead of the requested medium rare; this is an amateur-hour error), chewy and under-seasoned, with almost nothing in the way of flavour to remind you that you were eating beef.
Seasoning, acidity, basic cooking skills – these all went AWOL with disconcerting frequency: with the pickerel (underseasoned, overcooked, devoid of any acidity), with the beef tartare (flavourless, gristly, though otherwise inoffensive), with the ricotta gnocchi (gummy, bland). The confit rabbit pasta was dry and insipid, how rabbit pasta might taste if it came from a box marked "Just Add Water!" and the kitchen hadn't added quite enough.
The $26 lobster and black truffle pizza, meanwhile, came on an anemic crust. There was plenty of lobster on it, but also dagger-sharp little shards of lobster shell – four of them, by my count.
Drake One Fifty's kitchen is overseen by the chef Ted Corrado, who came by way of the Royal Ontario Museum's now shuttered C5 restaurant. As of last year, he is corporate executive chef for Drake Hotel Properties, the company that includes that original hotel on Queen West, The Drake One Fifty and the upcoming Drake Devonshire hotel, in Prince Edward County.
There were better dishes. The smoked mackerel and grilled sardines were excellent. An appetizer special of chicken-fried oysters earlier this month was among the best things I ate at the restaurant: they were light, golden crisp and smartly seasoned on their outsides. The batter gave way to juicy, molten oysters. Even the tartar sauce was terrific, spiked with fresh dill and lemon.
A cauliflower starter – roasted florets set over silky purée, with partly dehydrated red grapes and black truffle shavings – tasted far more interesting and more substantial than cauliflower ought to, with an exquisite balance of textures and flavours. The plating, however, was provocative, to use the kindest term I can muster – it involved a thin, brownish coloured purée that had been smeared along the side of a porcelain-white bowl.
The burger was fine, if distinctly un-beefy. I want better for $21.
The testina special–rolled, slowly-cooked, thinly-sliced pig's face – packed more decadent, beautifully developed flavour, buttery fat and old-world craft in a single slice than every other Drake One Fifty dish I tried.
Who was cooking these dishes? Who was cooking the other dishes? How could a cook who was sharp enough to produce that testina, or those oysters, stand by while that liver or those pastas went out?
The desserts, developed by pastry chef Christine Fancy, were standouts; none more than the baked Alaska made with persimmon ice cream and set on superbly boozy pudding. I nearly had to look around when I tried it, to make sure that I hadn't been transported to another, better, place.
I hadn't. The music was still throbbing (do not even dream of quiet conversation here on a busy evening), the feel of the place still more down-market mega chain than trailblazing arts and culture hub. I admire the moxy it took to build a room this wild, and can only imagine the pots of money it must have cost. But I wouldn't send friends here on their own dime. I can't in good conscience send you.
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.