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Posing for selfies at Fring’s

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

1.5 out of 4 stars

455 King Street West, Toronto, Ontario
Appetizers, $10 to $24; mains $24 to $40.
Vegetarian Friendly?
A decent, California-heavy wine list with many usual suspects; good sake, very sweet cocktails (go off-menu; classic martinis and negronis are excellent) and no beer.
A very cool, very loud, surprisingly swanky restaurant and lounge, filled at all hours with King West professionals and hip-hop groupies. Live music on Wednesdays. Who seen Drizzy yet, yo?
Beet salad, salmon tartare, the burger, ricotta toast, avocado toast, whole branzino, caramel monkey bread.

The guest of honour had stood us up again, and no one was willing to say it. You could feel it though, around that bar, throughout that room, in the faint hope behind the liquored smiles, at the tables that lingered longer than strictly necessary.

You sure it was here?

The party girls in the barely there dresses kept looking toward the entrance.

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The hip-hop boys in the indoor tuques stared down into their cellphones. He used to call.

That we were supposed to wait?

The band kept on teasing, a drum and a bass and a jazz guitar in a slow, cool, sexy neo-soul jam, ratcheting up the expectation.

Maybe he wasn't coming after all. Maybe it was us who'd done him wrong.

But then the guitarist threw the crowd a crumb above the vamping: a single unmistakable, tension-busting chorus.

I know when that hotline bling.

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The girls in the barely there dresses quietly shrieked.

That can only mean one thing.

The hip-hop boys in the indoor tuques looked up from their cellphones toward the girls and smiled. All of Fring's was waiting for Mr. OVO, but who were we kidding to think he'd show in his own restaurant? Tonight his music would have to do.

Drake became a restaurateur last fall in classic Drake fashion. There was no announcement and no preopening hype – just a star-packed party at the end of September in the former Crush Wine Bar on King Street West, with October's Very Own, as Drake and his crew are known, in the DJ booth, spinning for the night. Fring's, as the place is called, has been packed with would-be groupies almost ever since.

Want to see more from Fring's? Click here

The business is a partnership with chef Susur Lee, the designer Brenda Bent and their sons, Kai and Levi Bent-Lee, who also run Bent restaurant on Dundas Street West. The Lee-Bent-Bent-Lee family provides the cooking, the design and the management, and Drake provides his aura from afar. Shockingly, perhaps, the place isn't bad. It's exactly what a modern, downtown Toronto theme restaurant and bar should be.

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The design, from BentGableDesign, which Ms. Bent runs with Karen Gable, is the first success: They are masters of the half-hidden, exquisite detail. Notice the taxidermied exotic birds behind the perforated screening in Fring's second-storey entryway, and the glowing, saloon-style chandelier made not from crystal but, ingeniously, from clear plastic coat hangers that absorb and diffract the room's soft light. There are red-tasselled boudoir lamps above the black-leather booths in the back, by the bar, where they send out cloying cocktails in a seemingly unending stream.

Up front, closer to King Street, the walls are adorned with huge, wrought-iron crosses, as if Ms. Bent stopped in at a forgotten, Crusader-era cemetery on her way to work one morning. It's a loud, comfortable, mostly friendly lounge and restaurant on King Street West. What the place doesn't have much of is the usual theme-restaurant memorabilia. Fring's is Drake's restaurant only because everybody knows it is, from Instagram and Twitter – because the people are all too happy to take it on faith.

Downstairs, though, by the bathrooms, there are a couple of sops, in the form of a wall-sized neon installation that reads "6 on! A" above a giant wave (it's a not-so-sly reference to Drake's nickname for Toronto, combined with the title of a recent hit). That sign is often wholly obscured by selfie-taking women. And the directives on the bathroom doors read "6 Gods" and "6 Goddesses," which are also Drake references, and so the bathroom doors, too, are often obscured by selfie-takers, which is odd, if you ask me, but to each her own, I guess.

The service varies. The busboys mostly look like budding MMA fighters, all scary tats and black-plastic earpieces. You're never quite sure if they're here to fill your water glass or snap your clavicle in three. Others among the servers are kind, solicitous, indifferent or forgetful. And then there's also Kevin. "I'll be your charismatic waterboy this evening," Kevin told us the first time I ate there. Kevin is charming and bossy and he hip-hop gestures with his hands as he talks to customers. Kevin couldn't stop flirting with my date.

"And have either of you dined at Fring's or any of the Susur restaurants?" he asked her, almost as if I didn't exist. No, we answered, lying.

"All right, well let's make it special because it's your first time," he said. "The first time should be special."

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"Are you going to pop our Susur cherry," my dinner date said right back.

Kevin, bless him, didn't miss a beat. "We're going to start off slowly, you're going to be unsure if this is right and then it's just going to feel amazing and you're going to want more," he answered.

With those introductions done, he took us into the menu. "The idea is the food is so good that you're going to want to try a bit of everything," he said.

Yet by "everything," Kevin did not mean to include the cocktails. "I feel I can say this to you guys, our cocktails aren't that good," he said.

As for the sake: "We have one really damn good bottle of sake, stay away from the other ones," he said. One of them, Kevin told us, tastes like "a rice punch in the face."

As for the wine: "Don't get the by-the-glass wine. The by-the-glass wines are only drinkable. I'm not going to let you drink this only-drinkable wine." The crab cakes are good but too small, he advised us, while the lobster and truffle poutine special is dope, and the oysters would be a mistake. "No don't get the oysters!" he shouted when I tried to order them. "It's not oyster season, they're Blue Point, they're not that good." Which – it is prime oyster season at the moment, actually, and the Blue Points right now are excellent, but I didn't bother correcting him. Sincerely, I love this kid. I love a charming, bossy waiter. A charming, bossy waiter makes you feel like you're in able hands.

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This last bit, of course, can be an issue at Fring's, because Fring's is a Susur Lee restaurant. Susur Lee is merely a figurehead lately – if his hands are still able, you would hardly have cause to know. The menu he's created at Fring's is the menu of a newly graduated culinary student, a month or two out of George Brown chef school. It is good in spots and less good in others, but either way, it isn't even remotely the work of a once world-leading innovator. Does that matter? It probably doesn't. That Susur Lee is the putative chef here is all but irrelevant to the experience of being at Fring's.

Fring's beet salad, served with whipped goat's cheese and roasted apples, is exactly what it needs to be: fresh, bright and tasty. The salmon crudo, seasoned with ponzu and bits of green apple, is very good, and the "Mom's Meatballs" – I asked whose mom one evening, but our server didn't know or care – were just meatballs, plain but good ones, in a thick, rich, bright-red marinara sauce. The crispy chicken sliders are crispy chicken sliders: You'll like them if you like them. The Susur Burger is a soft, juicy, cheesy, manhandleable $22 cheeseburger; it's good if not particularly memorable. It comes with Jamie Kennedy fries.

The fried chicken was unmoist and overbattered, and the batter had all sorts of herbs in it and it sloughed off in big, doughy flakes before you could get the chicken to your mouth. That fried chicken cost $28. The toasts, though, were excellent: piles of good ingredients, fresh cheese, or soft avocado, seasoned perfectly, and served on thick, dense slices of Forno Cultura toast.

The truffle pappardelle costs $40 and was passably good but didn't taste like much. If you spend $40 on a plate of pasta in a restaurant that also serves crispy chicken sliders, you get what you deserve. The whole fish is a better idea. The seared, sort-of almondine branzino was terrific when I tried it one night.

As for the crab cakes, Kevin was right: They are small and you get only three of them for your $24, but what he didn't mention is that they come stuffed with melted brie, and set over puréed black garlic. I loved them. The butter-poached lobster poutine with shaved black truffles was not great, not bad, not dope, but good enough. The truffles looked as though they'd been scraped through a box grater, which is an odd way to treat a truffle if it's any good.

For dessert, do try the "caramel monkey bread," which may sound infantilizing but tastes a little like a sticky toffee pudding, served with clotted cream, salted caramel and an excellent hazelnut ice cream. Or get the molten chocolate cake. Really. There can't be shame in a place like Fring's.

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When we finally left some time before midnight, we'd still seen no sign of him, but the band, which was excellent, had riffed on Hotline Bling two times since we'd arrived, and had played a bunch of D'Angelo, also, and one of the boys in the indoor tuques was now sitting across from one of the barely dressed girls.

I pushed my way into the 6 Gods room and then out into the night and scanned up and down King Street for Drake's Bugatti Veyron. I didn't see it.

It had been a really good time.

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