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Lobster Bisque and Salmon Quenelles at Ici Bistro (Ian Willms for the Globe and Mail/Ian Willms for the Globe and Mail)
Lobster Bisque and Salmon Quenelles at Ici Bistro (Ian Willms for the Globe and Mail/Ian Willms for the Globe and Mail)

joanne kates

Ici Bistro's sublime food rises above the 'tude Add to ...

  • Name Ici Bistro
  • Location 538 Manning Ave.
  • Phone 416-536-0079
  • Website www.jpco.ca/restaurant
  • Price $180 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
  • Cuisine Nouvelle French

Knowing that getting a seat at Ici Bistro is akin to sitting on the blue line at a Leafs game, we called four weeks in advance to book a Saturday-night table for four people at 7 p.m. Big night out at a hot new restaurant. Which made us more hostile when, on the day of our visit, we listened to a late-afternoon voice mail from the restaurant co-owner, telling us (somewhat haltingly, as if the task embarrassed her - as it should have) that our table was booked again at 9:30 and we'd have to be gone by 9:15. She suggested that 2¼ hours ought to be enough time for us to dine.

I'm past the age where anybody gets to tell me how long I get to linger over dinner. The voicemail was polite and thoughtfully delivered, but it still rankled. Where are we, New York, where tables are rented? This is not exactly my definition of hospitality.

But it's a Catch-22 for Ici Bistro. The place is so small (24 seats) and the cooking so elaborate (nouvelle French) that it's almost impossible to imagine them making a profit. Ergo, they have no choice but to insist on turning every table twice on weekend nights. True hospitality is inimical to Ici's survival.

Still, you gotta feel for these people. Two years ago, partners J.P. Challet (ex-chef at the Windsor Arms and The Fifth) and Jennifer Decorte leased the space at Manning and Harbord. It's a suave little room with pearl-grey walls and an open kitchen. But killjoy city counsellor Joe Pantalone (who also led the Ossington moratorium that closed Salt Wine Bar earlier this fall) initially blocked their liquor licence, on the grounds that an up-market 24-seat French bistro was sure to send nearby schoolchildren down the road to drunken depravity.

When the place finally opened in October, it was instantly packed. One spoonful of Mr. Challet's lobster bisque, cream-less, loaded with flavour, velvety smooth, blessed with a fragile salmon quenelle, and you know why. His shrimp pommes frites is the sort of invention that comes to a French chef in a dream: He wraps thready raw frites around fat shrimps and deep-fries them, sets them on piquant remoulade sauce and adds tiny ravioli stuffed with rouille (a play on bouillabaisse, wherein rouille garnishes fish soup). Chef's mind is ever playful: He deconstructs lobster Thermidor. Impeccably cooked lobster flesh is served cold, with a crab cake. But Mr. Challet replaces the tired old cream sauce with espelette-tinged mayo for a breath of fire, and references classic Thermidor in the addition of tiny béchamel and lobster croquettes.

The line between starters and apps is blurred by the choice, for every dish, to have a 2/3 size portion, which encourages sharing. But I want all the foie gras - served with baked figs and a superbly flavoured, ungreasy croquette made of black trumpet mushrooms - to myself. I am also having trouble sharing the pork belly served with tiny high-flavoured French lentils and tiny French greens in very mustardy dressing. That same mustardy dressing also graces celeriac salad with a fragile goat-cheese tart, its filling as ethereal as mousse.

Beef bourguignon is as traditional as Mr. Challet gets: He proffers big chunks of superbly tender beef atop mashed potatoes but turns tradition on its head by serving the stew's onions atop a cute little tart. Saskatchewan pickerel is perfectly sautéed and charmingly served with cherry tomato salad and lightly charred polenta. Duck magret is blood red "steak de canard" with shiny brown sauce zinged with star anise. Chef's sole misstep is his deconstruction of veal blanquette, the beloved white veal stew of central France. He wraps pulled veal in a cannelloni. But the fixings are impeccable: morels and white mushrooms in delicate mushroom-tinged cream sauce with a small cake of sweetish squash mousse.

After the main meal comes a Grand Marnier soufflé that makes me close my eyes and imagine myself in Paris. Chef's other three desserts are trios: Of lemon, chocolate and apple. None of the three benefits from its nondescript crêpe: the apple trio promises a tarte-tatin-like caramelized confection but we can't find it, and the lemon trio's only interesting element is tart lemon curd. If Mr. Challet recalled the affinity between chocolate and orange, and served his sexy dark chocolate mousse trio with the Grand Marnier soufflé, I would die and go to heaven. Stick with the soufflé - sweets are clearly not Mr. Challet's passion.

His mission is to re-organize classic French recipes into something lighter, cleaner and more interesting. Luckily for diners, Chef has the skills to deliver. And Counsellor Pantalone finally got off his case.

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