Furlough (1 star)
924 Queen St. W. (at Shaw Street), 647-348-2525, furloughtoronto.com
Bar Fancy (A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip.)
1070 Queen St. W. (at Fennings Street), 416-546-1416, barfancy.ca
In December of 2008, a bartender named Frankie Solarik opened an innovative new cocktail lounge called BarChef, on Queen Street West. These were innocent years on the city's drinks circuit; save a few pioneering exceptions, innovation behind the bar usually involved rivers of Kahlua or apple-flavoured vodka and ended with the suffix "-tini."
At BarChef, Mr. Solarik concocted impossibly complex drinks that borrowed techniques and ideals from the world of molecular gastronomy – drinks that created "a sensory-emotional experience akin to walking through an art museum," Grant Achatz, the modernist chef from Chicago, wrote after visiting.
But there's only so much market for $45, hickory-smoked Manhattans; a second BarChef would probably cannibalize the first. This past January Mr. Solarik and his BarChef partner, a sommelier named Brent VanderVeen, branched out into restaurants with the opening of Furlough, a bistro with a special focus on less highbrow cocktails. Their goal here seems to be avoiding any innovation at all.
The room, set in the former Ursa space at Queen and Shaw, is done with tin ceiling tiles, textured paisley wallpaper, dark wood wainscoting and ye olde timey prints on the walls to evoke the speakeasy era – a design trope that's feeling distinctly shopworn lately. (The faux-speakeasy is the new faux-Firkin.)
The absinthe fountains on the bartop were empty both times I visited; the effect was like seeing a grand old Cadillac Phaeton up on blocks in a suburban front yard. Hang On Sloopy played one night as the first round of drinks arrived.
The menu reads classic bistro for the most part: duck confit, French onion soup, steak frites, lobster on toast, crème brûlée.
Furlough's young kitchen crew, led by chef Harrison Hennick (NAO Steakhouse, Origin North), executes these with limited success. Mr. Hennick is Furlough's second chef; Justin Newrick (La Société, The Windsor Arms) left after five weeks in charge. In fairness, Mr. Hennick is clearly working hard at improving the place. I could hear him patiently trying to mould his cooks into a team as he managed the pass out front of the open kitchen. Still, he shouldn't have been sending many of their dishes out.
One night's frisée salad with a softly poached egg arrived without any discernible vinaigrette on it. There was a puddle of eggy water at the bottom of the bowl. The squid ink risotto was dramatically underseasoned – it didn't taste enough like anything – and there was almost no acidity to brighten the plate's overcooked scallops.
The beef cheek braise had none of the silky, molten collagen texture that makes wine-braised beef cheek so decadent; it was verging on chewy. And call me pedantic, but when you order "coq au vin" in a bistro, you expect chicken simmered in red wine and aromatics, and not grilled Cornish hen with a dribble of sauce. These are basic failures on basic dishes, as was the fridge-cold crème brûlée with the long-haul berries on it, and the stale, un-sticky toffee pudding.
The appetizers were better: delicious lobster on toasted pain au lait with not-bad hollandaise; a good pickled beet and goat cheese salad; a way overdressed and un-beefy but otherwise perfectly pleasant beef tartare.
On a more recent visit, the cooking was improved, including a by-the-book French onion soup and the nicely grilled steak on a steak frites plate. The $25 "Sunday supper" special of roast chicken was superb: half a chicken, roasted and seasoned beautifully, set on carrot and ginger mash and buried in excellent roast vegetables. I hope the improvement continues.
Yet the most consistent – and puzzling – part of Furlough was the cocktails. I sampled nine of them, and most were way overwrought (the sweet, musky, awkward house creation called "Self-portrait with monkey, inspired by the painting of the same name by Frida Kahlo") and out-of-balance (a distressingly sugary Sazerac that drank like a saccharine tongue sock; the Lucien Gaudin, an $18 negroni variation that uses Cointreau and was served cough-syrup viscous and sweet).
Worse, the sole bartender on duty both times I visited moved at what felt like half-speed. So if you ordered cocktails for a group, a few of them inevitably sat on the bar for several minutes, losing both their chill and their freshness until the last one was poured. The only thing worse than an oversweet, overwrought cocktail is an oversweet overwrought cocktail that went warm before it arrived.
The story behind Bar Fancy, a popular new spot hidden at the end of a narrow passageway off Queen Street West, is the opposite of Furlough's: It's a first bar from one of the more promising young chefs in the city.
Jonathan Poon is also the chef and co-owner of Chantecler, in Parkdale, where his new-Asian tasting menus – discontinued last month, sadly – were refreshingly original, with nuanced flavours and rock-solid execution. Mr. Poon's best cooking at Chantecler was fancy, for lack of a better word.
At his new spot, where he's partnered with chef Jesse Fader (Chantecler, Fabbrica), the "Fancy" part of the name is an ironic wink; Bar Fancy is anything but.
The chefs send out packaged toasted seaweed snacks, plastic packing tray and all, for wrapping their Korean-spiced beef tartare. Bar fancy's artichoke dip is about one-third as good as what you might find in a Best of Bridge cookbook, and comes with Ritz crackers; they side their fried chicken with white Wonder Bread (stale one night), among other things. Bar Fancy's "dirty nachos" are made with store-bought chips (the kitchen dusts them, for what it's worth, with a bit of vinegar powder) and gloopy cheese sauce that tastes like it might have been brought in from the concession stand at a community skating rink.
The servers are efficient and kind and the vibe both times I visited was of a gentrified, west-side sort of debauchery: an arts-meets-commerce mix of youngish women and men with nice teeth and GoodLife bodies, slumming it over tallboys to a soundtrack of Trans Am rock. The room is lovely, with a wide bar that wraps around the busy open kitchen. The front window is festooned with overgrown plants in pots.
I can appreciate the place's anti-fancy M.O., especially given how self-parodying some of bar culture has become. (Please see: "Self-portrait with monkey, inspired by the painting of the same name by Frida Kahlo," above.) If you ask for a cocktail list at Bar Fancy, the servers will tell you they don't have one. "We only do ordinary cocktails," one of them said.
But Mr. Poon and Mr. Fader have blurred the lines between un-pretentiousness and garden-variety laziness. The difference between the "ordinary" Manhattan I had one night, which was off-balance and served on crummy ice, and a very good one, is about 30 seconds' effort. When the plates seem as though they've emerged from Aisle 4 of a Wal-Mart Supercentre, you begin to wonder what the kitchen has done with its pride.
The fried chicken is the exception, by far Bar Fancy's best dish. It is excellent fried chicken, as juicy and smartly seasoned as you'd hope, and with the addition of coriander, cinnamon and smoked jalapeno to the batter for interest and kick. The place earns a cheap eats recommendation based on the atmosphere and that chicken alone.
But, wow, the rest of it. The "tiny lamb sausages" taste most like Johnsonville breakfast links slathered in sticky glaze. Mr. Poon's riff on som tam, Thailand's extraordinary green papaya salad, is all lip-stinging chili heat without any of the salty, savoury and fresh lime notes. It's lame. Maybe we're meant to eat that salad with Bar Fancy's mingy $3 olive dish. The olives were so oversalted one night that we left all but two of them untouched.
The thing is, great, from-scratch bar cooking doesn't have to be pretentious or expensive: Consider the case of the excellent 416 Snack Bar, or LoPan, or the former Hoof Café, to cite just a few of examples.
Mr. Poon said on the phone this week that he and Mr. Fader plan to build a new, multistorey restaurant in the lot behind Bar Fancy. It will be a different concept from the bar (expect wood-fired cooking, he said), with more ambition. That all sounds great, but it's not a solution to the issues they've got right now, with the place that's up and running.
"Relax, it's only bar food," doesn't cut it, not when two extremely able chefs, one of them a bona fide star, have attached their names to it.
Like the owners of Furlough, Mr. Poon and Mr. Fader need to focus on getting some basics right.
ATMOSPHERE: Neighbourhood bistro meets ye olde speakeasy, with a very serious bar and an open kitchen. Friendly service.
WINE AND DRINKS: A long and meticulously annotated cocktail list; the drinks often don't measure up. Short wine list (the pinot we ordered was served much too warm). Good craft beers.
BEST BETS: Lobster on toast, foie gras, beet salad, steak frites.
PRICES: appetizers, $12 to $17; mains, $24 to $30.
NB: Brunch on weekends.
CUISINE: bar food
ATMOSPHERE: A fun, friendly bar down one of the coolest passageways in the city (check out that neon sign!).
WINE AND DRINKS: A short but uncommonly excellent list of craft beers; cheap but well-chosen wines; "ordinary" cocktails.
BEST BETS: Fried chicken.
PRICES: Snack dishes from $3 (olives) to $18 (fried chicken).
NB: Half-price oysters and $2-a-piece fried chicken from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Vegetarian-friendly.