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The espresso station and bar at Flor de Sal in Toronto.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

1 out of 4 stars

Flor de Sal
501 Davenport Road, Toronto
Appetizers, $12 to $25; mains, $39 to $49. (Lunch prices are cheaper.)
Southern European, Portuguese
Vegetarian Friendly?
The wine list is long and well-stocked with old-world bottles; it starts to get interesting above $60. Good, expensive cocktails.
A stylish and charming contemporary fine-dining restaurant, set in a newly renovated cottage near Casa Loma. But that depends where you’re seated. Can also feel like a funeral home.
Grilled fish, caponata, rapini, rabbit pappardelle, Cornish hen, egg tarts for dessert.
Additional Info
Open for lunch Wednesday through Friday.

The click click click of expensive heels echoed through the candlelit hush of Flor de Sal's sprawling second storey. There was just one other occupied table in the wing where we were seated, a glass-enclosed new addition to the Davenport Road restaurant that until last year was known as The Corner House.

We heard the heels pause, the sound of women laughing loudly in another of the dining rooms. The footsteps continued toward us and then the restaurant's beaming owner made her entrance.

"I'm just going to say a quick hello to these young gentlemen," she announced into the silence. "I'm Cristina!"

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Click, click, click.

She extended her hand.

"Pleasure to meet you and welcome to Flor de Sal!"

The little dining room was suddenly a lot less hushed, a welcome development.

"How do you like that? Nice table? Sorry it's raining today, I couldn't really switch the weather!"

She moved on to the older couple sitting across the room – Flor de Sal is a magnet for older diners. "And how are you doing sir," we heard her asking loudly. "Are you feeling healthy?"

I couldn't help being at least a little charmed. Nobody works a fine-dining floor with this much personality in 2015. And nobody builds a restaurant quite like Flor de Sal.

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See the beautiful room and the food at Flor de Sal.

Cristina da Costa is an ebullient former morning host from CHIN Radio's Portuguese-language service. Last year she indulged her dream of owning a fine-dining restaurant – one that serves "that heartwarming dish your grandmother used to make back in the old country," as she puts it on Flor de Sal's website, "albeit, a decidedly more chic version that delivers the wholesome flavours you crave."

She gut-renovated the old building, a cottage-style house set just down the hill from Casa Loma, from top to bottom. She put heavy white linens and sprays of orchids on the tables, as well as custom cork salt cellars from Portugal and bottles of good olive oil. The restaurant's annual candle bill likely reaches well into four-figures. Some of the candles are tropical-scented. You will find this either pleasant or distracting. "It smells like suntan lotion," my dinnermate said. (They've since replaced those with vanilla-scented candles, a manager told me on the phone.)

Ms. da Costa brought on the chef Roberto Fracchioni, whose family is from Emilia-Romagna, and who cooked most recently at Monk Kitchen, the restaurant at the entertainment district's boutique Templar Hotel. Mr. Fracchioni's cooking here, from a mix of southern European influences, is conservative but pretty. He aims to make his dishes visually impressive (the chef likes to use flower petals and brightly coloured purees as garnishes), without any whiff of modernism. ("You will not find the tricks of molecular gastronomy here," the restaurant's website assures.) He seasons lightly rather than in-your-face, as has become standard. Sourcing, especially of meats, does not seem particularly important here, as it does at many modern high-end restaurants. Mr. Fracchioni cooks like it's still 2005.

Which you will either be grateful for, or find hopelessly backward, especially given how much dinner at Flor de Sal can cost. All those renos and that finery – not to mention the high-end address and the staff to service the restaurant's six dining rooms – cost real money that needs to be earned back.

A not bad, not great commodity striploin steak sells for $49 here. A pair of grilled sardines costs $18.

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Mr. Fracchioni's rabbit pappardelle offers decent value, the house-made pasta coloured deep green with pureed spinach. The pappardelle comes in a wide, shallow bowl with seared mushrooms scented heavily with oregano and thyme, in a decent jus. Rabbit is prone to dryness even at the best of times. The evening I tried that rabbit pasta was not the best of times. (The version at Noce, on Queen Street West, is far better.) Still, for $20, it was a perfectly enjoyable dish.

The lobster gnocchi were fine: wide bowl, a passel of green peas, a pool of sweet lobster-butter flavoured with Cognac, a respectable hunk of tender-ish lobster. The dumplings – Mr. Fracchioni said he makes them himself – were dense and tasteless, contractually bound to make an appearance but damned if they were going to put on a show.

The scallops starter ($21 for two small seared pieces) was garnished with pretty flower petals but otherwise instantly forgettable. The rapini, a side dish, was softened from long cooking, its flavours nicely sweetened and concentrated. This was excellent. The vegetable caponata, a Sicilian cousin to ratatouille, was also very good.

The grilled Cornish hen was nicely done and properly seasoned, served over white asparagus. But as I ate the $49 lamb dish one night I briefly considered walking my plate down to the kitchen and having a heart-to-heart with the grill cook. The dish was composed of three slightly spongey-textured chops on good lentil rice, lukewarm fried artichoke pieces and humdrum sautéed kale.

It was all so institutional: high-end, vaguely southern European generica, rendered with no fixed address or personality. When you're charging $49, "just like grandma's" doesn't apply any longer. At $49, a plate of lamb has no excuse for not blowing minds.

It tasted instead like a string of missed opportunities. To cite just one example: At the Michelin-starred Aldea, in Manhattan, the Portuguese-American chef George Mendes has also built a fine-dining restaurant that's rooted in Portuguese cuisine, but his cooking happens to be thoughtful and original and delicious. (I had dinner there a few years ago.) He doesn't use "tradition" as an excuse for stasis. And neither, by the way, do the best restaurants in Lisbon these days. Mr. Mendes's Aldea also serves a lamb entrée – it costs $34.

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Mr. Fracchioni's kitchen is somewhat more able with fish. The appetizer sardines were one of the better versions I've eaten in Toronto, faultlessly fresh and plump, with the requisite fringe of char. The sardines' sweet fat perfumed the crusty slice of Portuguese cornbread underneath them. This was a very good dish, as was the whole branzino, grilled to southern European doneness. The branzino was set over a tasty radish and basil salad. It was very good, but still, grilled branzino has become a commodity dish in the city: It's the baby boomers' answer to Gen Y's fried chicken. Little about Flor de Sal's version sets it apart.

Flor de Sal's pasteis de nata – Portuguese egg custard tarts – are brought in from Brazil Bakery. They are the best of the desserts. The port-poached pear was too firm and nearly flavourless, entombed in cold, waxy chocolate.

In spite of all this, I enjoyed my first visit there, in part because of that room and the (very good) service; in part because of Ms. da Costa's charm.

On another night, a few weeks later, Ms. da Costa wasn't there. We were seated in a small, plain annex upstairs – one that didn't seem to have benefited from the restaurant's renovation budget. A shade was drawn over the window. The room was lit with brass wall sconces that came too far out so you were liable to bang your head while reaching for the wine.

The service was clumsy that night, hardworking but absent the prescience and polish you should expect at these prices. The hush in this room wasn't a romantic hush. The most interesting view here was of a waiter's station. It all put me in mind of prim black suit jackets and formaldehyde.

Flor de Sal is fine if money's no object, and Scaramouche is booked out and you need a place to take the grandparents – and if you can get a table in one of the good rooms. It's good in a pinch. But charm and style can only take a place so far.

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