Skip to main content

The dining room is full for dinner at Swan by Rose & Sons.Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Of all the objects that Anthony Rose has chosen to hang as art in his quirky but poorly rendered remake of the Swan diner, one in particular seems most apropos: the salvaged hood from a 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Rose and Sons Swan, as the place is now called, was conceived as a tribute to the foods of 1980s California, and also to the time Mr. Rose spent training in San Francisco as a young chef.

The Firebird, one of America's most loved and hated muscle cars, also has a California connection: Many of them were assembled at a plant in Los Angeles. But even in its era, the Firebird was too big, too heavy and too unsubtle by design to qualify as a true California car. A couple of models were such excessive polluters that they couldn't legally be sold in the state.

Rose and Sons Swan also lacks the expected California charm and deftness. Though it's evolving still and has improved somewhat in the past month, it nonetheless feels like 1980s California as imagined by Detroit.

The first time I ate there, in mid-September, the service was kind but clueless, the lighting grim and the cooking generally appalling – this after two full months in business. The watermelon salad came freighted with chewy bacon and doused with pink viscid hot sauce, and the cornmeal-fried squid was the sort of salty that friolates tonsils and leaves your lips with chemical burns. It was the sort of salty that you can't even pretend to try to eat.

The burger, a mingy house-ground patty reposed on a box spring of bland but historically accurate focaccia, was topped with a round of pan-burnt onion. That burger tasted not of bread nor of onion nor of beef nor sauce but only of iodized salt. The baby back ribs, by contrast, tasted as though they had been braised in plain water, so that whatever flavour they had once possessed had been left behind in the braising pot.

Our server asked what wine we wanted, but didn't know anything about the wine list. I asked about one of the bottles. "I really don't like it," was the only description she could offer. We ordered a bottle and it was excellent. She emptied it on her second go-round at our wineglasses, so that our glasses now pushed three-quarters full. "So do you want another bottle," she asked before she had finished pouring. "We're good," I told her, grimly.

ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits – sides A and B in their entirety, from the vinyl, hooray for the 1980s – grated loudly overhead.

We sent most of the food back, which as a rule I almost never do, but couldn't not do. We left the restaurant hungry. As my dinner mate and I stood out on the street, debriefing about that disastrous outing, Mr. Rose, who hadn't been in the restaurant, came walking in our direction from down the block.

I know Mr. Rose a little. I've been writing about his restaurants – first at the Drake Hotel, which I liked, and then Rose and Sons, which I liked, and Fat Pasha, which I love, it was my favourite restaurant of 2014 – since 2006.

He recognized me straight away. And so I told him how awful it all had been. He didn't sound surprised, which I found surprising. He was in the middle of some changes with the restaurant, he said. I decided to give the place another month.

My second time there, I had three friends arrive before me and order dinner while I waited nearby. The Californian theme was all but gone now, replaced in large part with Mr. Rose's brand of butterfat-laden comfort food. We had a good chicken-liver pâté with beautifully tart-sweet sour cherries, as well as serviceable fried shrimp, and an odd and too-easy but nonetheless tasty take on bruschetta, made with peanuts and watercress and with thick slab bacon in place of bread.

The chef had even begun cannibalizing menu items from his other restaurants, including his superbly creamy Fat Pasha hummus, which he served in a glossy blond pool with dark-fried Brussels sprouts and with honey butter hot sauce drizzled over top.

This was a great improvement, as was the braised beef tongue, which claims no Californian lineage I know of, but came soft and melty with rendered collagen, and silky-textured the way great tongue gets, set over gorgeous creamed corn and freshened with cubes of apple. The pork chop was good, if workaday, served with dry pork-fat potato wedges and underdressed watercress; the trout almondine was also good, though a more accurate description might read, "Trout with trace amounts of butter or lemon."

And as before, the burger was a disaster. It arrived seared to nearly black on its outside and looked like the cremains of the day. But inside it was raw – not medium rare or rare, but bloody, blue-rare raw. And so we sent that back too, if apologetically. The manager, who was trying hard, returned a moment later with the fries from the plate but the burger gone. And then she returned once again, once we had mostly finished with the other main courses, with that same burger patty, which she had recooked herself, she said, because she hadn't been able to find Rose and Sons Swan's cooks.

She had done all she could. She offered to have them make us a brand-new one when they got back. We thanked her and meant it and took a few dutiful bites and left the rest of that hamburger. The only thing more rudimentary to restaurant cooking than cooking a decent hamburger to proper doneness is cooking a passable hamburger so that at very least it isn't raw. Nobody thought either time to take those hamburgers off our bill.

I went back for one last try at lunch this past Tuesday. Mr. Rose was there this time, working the floor, and I recognized a chef I hadn't seen in that kitchen before, an all-pro who had opened the original Rose and Sons.

We had cream-based clam chowder that was spiked with tarragon and whisky and would have been perfect if it contained a discernible clam or two. The avocado toast came piled with superbly soft-set scrambled eggs and stewed red peppers. I loved it, though it cost $12, so that to make a meal of that avocado toast, with a side of meat or potatoes and a juice or a coffee and tax and tip, puts that simple breakfast upward of $30. (The $4-a-glass "fresh" orange juice, by the way, tastes for all the world as if it came from a box.)

We ordered dessert. What we got was serviceable crème brûlée and cafeteria-grade chocolate pudding with a cold mashed banana topping that the menu calls "burnt banana cream."

Mr. Rose said he had just finished installing dimmable lamps over every table.

At three months along and with an owner possessed of Mr. Rose's experience, Rose and Sons Swan shouldn't be such an obvious work in progress. As I left that day, all I could think of was an old muscle car up on blocks and the master mechanic who hadn't yet got around to making it run because, hey, we're all busy right, but he'd happily take your money for sitting inside it all the same.