Reds, the two-storey bar and restaurant on Adelaide Street West in the Financial District, is the pride and joy of SIR Corp., the Burlington-based hospitality giant.
SIR Corp. owns 51 restaurants. Though it counts downtown Toronto's Far Niente and Four among them, the company's bread and butter is in middle-brow suburban places: in its four Alice Fazooli's casual Italian spots, its eight Canyon Creek Chophouses and its 35 Jack Astor's Bar & Grills, with their "macho nachos" and "Jack's Cheese Garlic Pan Bread."
The 13-year-old Reds has traditionally been different, particularly for the six years when its kitchen was run by the chef Michael Steh, who left the company last summer. Reds was the 860-horsepower, leather-and-cashmere outfitted Corvette on a lot that was otherwise double-parked with Cavaliers and Chevy Cruzes. Reds was proof that SIR Corp. could produce serious food and top-flight service – that it could play up-market with the big boys when it wanted to.
What the place was not, however, was popular after bankers' hours. Reds' dog of an upstairs dining room, with its wavy ceiling and its cruise-ship decor, was often empty come dinner time.
This summer, its management remodelled and revamped, changing the name from Reds Bistro and Wine Bar to the more populist-ringing Reds Wine Tavern. The company put the chef Ryan Gallagher, of Top Chef Canada fame, in charge.
The remodel was successful, if derivative. While the tavern-like downstairs space feels much the same as ever (it was never all that troubled), the upstairs room is now a checklist of up-to-the-decade design tropes. Exposed brick? Got it. Bare-filament bulb chandeliers? Those, too.
The floors are rough-hewn and farmhouse-y, the wine racks fashioned from reclaimed wood, the menus bound in saddle leather. The requisite chalkboard – you saw that coming, didn't you? – announced "Rowe Farms Heritage Breed pork chops" earlier this month.
Mr. Gallagher's comfort-food menu also plumbs the trends lists, circa 2010, from those heritage chops to the lobster rolls, the "butcher burger," the kale, the brussel sprouts with bacon. Nothing is even remotely intimidating.
The menu reads as if it was composed by a marketing department. To with, this type-written exercise in empty obviousness: "Our daily fish specialties are carefully crafted to accent the natural flavours of the fish."
The fish specialties are not special, if my experience was at all typical, and they are not "crafted," if by "crafted" one means "cooked with love and care and hard-earned expertise." The Arctic char I ate one night was fine, seared past its optimal doneness, surrounded by a fresh-tasting broth. It was a fish dish, not good, not bad, not even remotely memorable an hour later. The cod was set over not-bad Jerusalem artichokes and a sludgy, red-pepper accented sauce that reminded me of Western Family chip dip.
The lobster rolls were two bites each, mayonnaisey more than lobster-flavoured, with tasteless corn kernels (the menu calls them "corn and lime salsa") and not enough acidity. They might have been good if it didn't cost $30 for four of them. The ham hock tater tots were tater tots with chopped smoked ham in them. They were one of my favourite things.
The farmhouse cheddar and endive salad was also great both times I had it. The cheese was white and punchy, the endive (and many other greens) bracing. Mr. Gallagher further dressed it with excellent sliced ham and chopped apple pieces. I'd happily make a meal of that.
Where my visits fell apart was with the main courses. The buttermilk fried chicken tasted like schnitzel (not a good thing). The onion rings: over-battered, doughy, worlds away from crispy. The "sautéed greens with fresh chili and garlic" one night were so out-of-control salty they would have been better served in a bag marked "premium-blend granular sidewalk ice melt."
The "red spiced matchstick potatoes" came cold and greasy.
That pork chop on the chalkboard was seasoned well and served with decent vegetables, but it was cooked to well done, a crime with heritage pork chops. Overcooking makes pork chops dry and tough. (Why don't restaurants ask how customers would like their pork cooked? I would support this. Same thing for fish.)
The butcher burger was juicy, flavourful, competently executed. I was nearly overcome with waves of relief and gratitude as I ate it.
For dessert, there was a choice of refrigerator-cold carrot cake, grasshopper pie or molten chocolate disguised as black forest cake. They were fine. I'd bet $40 that if you also put a Cinnabon cinnamon role on the table it would have been finished sooner.
The service was friendly, but annoying. When I went for lunch one day, the wine took 15 minutes to arrive – we were well into our appetizers by the time it turned up. Another time, at dinner, it took 15 minutes just to get menus for the table, at least 20 before we had drinks.
They mixed up my wine order, billing for a $90 reserve bottle when I'd clearly ordered the same vintner's $56 offering, even pointing to the listing on the menu. (I didn't notice the mix-up until I looked at the bill a few days later.)
The server then did that thing where a server fills a table's wine glasses far too full, and then returns not 90 seconds later to top up all the overfull glasses, so the bottle is empty before anybody's even started their main courses.
"Is there anything else I can bring you at this moment," he said obsequiously. A reservation at Biff's, perhaps, or Richmond Station or The Gabardine? Those I would have happily taken.
No stars: Not recommended.
One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.