As a parade of big-money diners streamed into the elevator to The Chase one recent Monday evening, the lavish new penthouse restaurant's cheaper, more casual ground-floor sibling sat on the verge of empty.
The Chase Fish & Oyster's marble-topped bar, where a busy lunch crowd slurps creamy Colville Bay oysters and cocktails with such names as "Saxby Gale" and "Batten Down the Hatches," had been abandoned some time earlier. In the restaurant's cheery maritime-themed dining room, with its polished brass fittings and ceiling hung with racing sails, just six of the 25-odd tables were occupied: a few young couples, a group of office mates in junior partner pantsuits, a trio of aging creative types in a corner booth, who looked to have spent a fortune on their skin. The only face of any note – the only "non-random," as I once heard a society lady put it – was Garth Drabinsky, the former film and theatre producer, who sat at the front, looking much older and thinner than before his prison stretch.
Though this was only Monday, and a cold one, it was hard to believe the restaurant wasn't rammed with weeknight diners. As many business lunchers have learned in the three months since it opened, The Chase Fish & Oyster is a mightily good spot to drink and eat, comfortable and casual, with polished service and first-rate cooking. And that cooking – some of it indistinguishable from upstairs at The Chase, where whole, roasted baby halibuts sell for $95 each and dealmakers pop $1,800 Burgundies – is sold in many cases at distinctly down-market prices.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more perfect dish of steamed mussels than the ones The Chase Fish & Oyster's Nigel Finley (ex of the terrific Catch, on St. Clair West) makes. The mussels come in a covered bowl that releases a buttery, wine and fish stock –scented fog around the table. The shellfish, blue mussels from Newfoundland, taste delicate, gently sweet and saline and tender beyond comparison (I've never had better); the broth is rich and round and comforting – crazy-tasty sopped up with the fresh focaccia mini loaves that come with it all, smeared with apple butter. There's an entire head of garlic atop the mussels – toffee-brown and nearly as soft as bone marrow. It's been roasted, slowly, into deep submission.
The mussels come with fries, also: thin, crisp shoestrings made for dipping into a little pot of herbed aioli, or into that broth, or into both if you're feeling freaky. The price for all that is $18. I'd call a couple of those mussels platters and a bottle of citrusy Assyrtiko a pretty much perfect date night.
I was just as enamoured with the oyster po'boy sliders – The Chase Fish & Oyster's three-bite White Castle-style burgers from the deep. The oysters, enrobed in both tempura batter and breadcrumbs and deep-fried, tasted like a molten hot and juicy sea breeze; they came slathered in garlic scape tartar sauce, nestled between toasted milk bread buns.
Mr. Finley's sublime seafood chowder late this summer was unmistakably New England, but with master-level balance and deftness. It was thick with fresh kernel corn, sweet peas, fat clams and juicy cherry tomatoes, in a light and profoundly pure-tasting maritime broth – high northeastern Americana, as if interpreted by a chef from Southern France. This is not the sort of cooking you expect at your usual oyster joint.
Yet when I first tried the place in mid-September, that soup stood out for a second and far less impressive reason: it was nearly the only decent thing my lunchtime table of three could find to eat. That first visit, six weeks into The Chase Fish & Oyster's life, was a disaster, with interminable waits for drinks (25 minutes) and a seafood platter (40 minutes; it arrived well after the appetizers), and too many instances of substandard cooking.
There were just enough glimmers of greatness, though – that soup being one of them – that I decided to chalk it up to opening wobbles. I'm glad I did.
Four weeks later, during a mad lunch rush on a Thursday, it took just 12 minutes from the time my tablemates ordered the restaurant's most complex seafood platter – $110 of clams, oysters, king crab, lobster and other treats – for the dishes to begin arriving at our table. The flavours were crisp and clean where they needed to be (the oysters and clams; the superb seared Yellowfin tuna pieces; the ably timed Gulf shrimp) and complex in other spots, as with the sublime Massachusetts scallop slices that came sauced with punchy, nicely salty tomatillo salsa.
The whole cracked lobster was perfectly tender and superbly seasoned, with its supernally maritime-flavoured tomalley – the gooey-green and highly prized innards – still inside. $110 isn't cheap, but for a platter this good, it was worth it.
Plated dishes were also impressive: a play on the California roll, for instance, that wrapped hunks of crab inside creamy avocado and set them on a fresh corn salad. (A similar dish is served upstairs.) Mr. Finley's fried pickerel salad set moist fingers of fried Lake Erie fish inside a gorgeous, multi-colour and texture slaw. Even the beef burger was excellent: a custom Cumbrae's beef blend seared hard, to order, with sharp PEI cheddar, bracing jalapeno rounds and more of those excellent fries and aioli.
The desserts, which come from the fifth-floor pastry kitchen, were also standouts, none more than the strawberry cheesecake sundae, served layered with vanilla ice cream, strawberry gelato, liquid cheesecake, almond streusel a fresh strawberries in a slender parfait cup.
The last time I ate there, on that quiet Monday night (other evenings are generally busy, Mr. Finley said), we had a dish of those mussels, then an excellent plate of Madras masala – spiced swordfish and eggplant, and the kitchen's A-class fried chicken, served with a pool of what can only be described as hot sauce butter sauce. (It is hot sauce mounted with more butter than you ought to know about. Given a straw, I might have drunk it.)
We ate a plate of oysters, also. They're served beautifully here, with an eye dropper bottle of house-made hot sauce that's more flavour than heat. At $3.50 to $4.20 a piece (with the prices nowhere to be found on the menu; I have a major problem with this), they will also run your bill up exceedingly fast.
Our server, a smart, personable woman in chunky Jenna Lyons glasses, knew the food, the wines, the cocktails cold. She was an all-pro, the rare sort of server who can make a night at a restaurant.
There were just two other tables still seated by the time the bill came. We felt oddly lucky to have had the place so nearly to ourselves.
No stars: Not recommended
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.