If you're a longtime chef who at the age of 40 has finally opened his first restaurant, do you a) work like hell each night in the kitchen so that every dish is a knockout, or b) leave the cooking to an underling and spend dinner hours busing tables around the dining room?
Bruce Woods, whose eponymous, 80-seat casual fine-dining restaurant opened in the former Colborne Lane space two months ago, buses, largely. One sticky Wednesday evening recently, Mr. Woods, wearing immaculate chef's whites, topped up water glasses as elaborately underwhelming dishes of chicken Cordon Bleu and chewy duck breasts drifted past him. On another evening, a plate of that night's special, butter-poached turbot, wafted a trail of fishy pong through the cool, high-ceilinged dining room – it was the sort of smell that you never, ever encounter in a restaurant that cares about seafood. Mr. Woods didn't appear to notice. He was clearing dessert plates at the time.
As for the house-made sourdough, with its insides like sponge cake and crust as substantial as a pudding skin, the best-case scenario is that Mr. Woods hadn't managed to try it. And that he also hadn't tried the venison carpaccio that tasted like a dozen things, few of them pleasant, none of them the meat of a deer.
I also doubt that he'd tried the vegetable "pot au feu" that I had another evening. It might have been illuminating, recalling, as it did, the discount bin at the back of an only-in-emergencies produce store at the end of February.
Woods is not a good restaurant. It does, however, succeed on a couple of not-entirely-minor counts. The space itself, with its bare, hanging Edison bulbs, its long, graceful bar, and enormous windows, feels timeless and coolly elegant. (The design has been tweaked, but not substantially, from the Colborne Lane days.)
You can have a conversation here without shouting. Reservations are not impossible to get.
The plating is uniformly gorgeous: Mr. Woods's kitchen has an extraordinary sense of colour, playing indigo blues (from blue potatoes) against bright oranges (carrots; sea buckthorn berries), warm pinks (rare-seared Yellowfin) and soothing crimsons and greens (the veins and midribs of beet leaves), often on speckle-glazed earthenware plates.
The desserts are spectacular to look at. One of them bears a miniature tree made out of chocolate. Another, a complicated number that includes mascarpone mousse and something called "textures of raspberry," centres on an eight-layer, white-red-white-red party in a mason jar. It is by all appearances the Kate Upton of after-dinner dishes: fun, frothy, desire-inducing, the sort of confection that could sell five million magazines.
But then the service is often awkward. "It's just an herb. I'm not sure what that is," a food runner said when asked to identify a recurring garnish one evening. (If he found out, we never heard.) Another server, introducing the "artisanal" charcuterie plate (the charcuterie is mostly purchased, not made in-house; why would you bother?), was stumped when he got to the bresaola.
"The waiters remind me of being in grade 10, trying to approach girls," one of my dinner mates said.
Mr. Woods, whose résumé includes a long and largely undistinguished run as chef at Centro, a shorter stint at the clubby Brassaii and most recently a year at the well-reviewed Modus Ristorante, at York Street and King Street W., has his roots in 1990s Italian – in the Cal Ital and cucina nobile waves that preceded the so-called "rustic" Italian boom.
At Woods, he's melded those inspirations to populist notions. His kitchen makes a $22 spaghetti and meatballs, for instance, as well as a softball-sized bison burger, an "organic grain salad," warm cinnamon doughnuts and tuna tartare.
The spaghetti and meatballs are fine – one of the best things on the menu. The spaghetti (or rather, spaghettini, store-bought) is cooked to properly al dente. The sauce is not sweet or particularly tomatoey or savoury or punchy. It is red. It is sauce. The meatballs are nicely seared on their outsides so that they smell fantastic. There is oozing cheese in their middles. They taste quite good.
The tuna tartare tastes mostly of mayonnaise and avocado.
The venison carpaccio comes with corn nuts. There are pickled hen-of-the-woods-mushrooms scattered around the meat. The mushrooms are spectral grey and soggy with vinegar, which is the only thing they taste like. If you don't care for venison, consider yourself lucky: You could eat this dish without ever knowing what it is.
The chicken Cordon Bleu is what chicken Cordon Bleu would be if made by austere Calvinists. It was not cheesy, not hammy, not even on nodding terms with deliciousness when I ate it. It was chicken, rolled up all fancy-like, with a filling that might have been measured in micrograms.
The roasted Muscovy duck breast: raw in places, overcooked in places, consistent in its chewiness, served with a "duck egg béarnaise" that tasted like water and corn starch.
The sautéed scallops: Memories of Aluminum Can and Tutti Frutti. Very nice sear, though.
I am mystified by the vegetable pot au feu. The sauce, made from mushrooms, was thick and delicious. The bowl also contained zucchini, allegedly, though I don't recall much of any summer veg. What the vegetable pot au feu contained a lot of were sunchokes and celery root – both of them distinctly winter vegetables – as well as dry, floury purple potatoes and weirdly flavourless beets. This, in July, at a time when local gardens are bursting with interesting produce.
The celery root soup special with birch syrup was brilliant – smooth and luxurious and perfectly seasoned. It would have been a stunner on a cool evening in October. Who wakes up on a morning when it's a billion degrees with the humidex and thinks, "Today I'll make a thick, hot, syrup-doused soup with out-of-season root vegetables!?"
Even that Uptonesque raspberry jar was deeply troubled, gorgeous on the outside, sickly sweet within.
The buckthorn pavlova almost worked, but the meringue was crunchy without a good meringue's inner chew, and the topping was one-dimensional sugary, without the fruity tartness that makes sea buckthorn berries so good.
I struggled with it, poking with my fork, trying to find something nice to say. They're trying hard, I thought to myself. Or are they?
When I looked up I saw chef Woods, chit-chatting with a corner table full of conventioneers. He should have been in the kitchen. All I could think was how incredible buckthorn pavlova should be.
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