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Miller Tavern

3885 Yonge St., Toronto, 416-322-5544. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $125.

Calling all country-club wannabes: I have a restaurant for you.

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Don't bother getting defensive. There's nothing wrong with aspiring to membership in a nice country club. It's a lifestyle choice, just like having the house, the vacations, the car, the wardrobe. A restaurant that mimics a country club is a beautiful thing -- to some people.

Which may explain why the recently reopened Miller Tavern has met with instant success. So many aspirations met under just one roof!

The nasty old Jolly Miller, infamous for the site of suburban high-school student debauchery, had been closed and fallow for eight years. The Pegasus Group, which operates a few taverns (among them the Wheat Sheaf, the Winchester and O'Grady's), picked up the building and sank $3-million into a reno.

Because the building dates back to 1860, when it was the York Mills Hotel, it has great historical value. Which means the new owners couldn't touch the outside, but were free to gut the innards and make a multistorey playpen for people with more money than taste buds.

It's a very beige restaurant, luxe in a boring way that is guaranteed neither to offend nor thrill. Like a country club. Lots of tan and various other shades of brown, decorated with the likes of wheat sheaves.

The visuals we can't understand, given where the Miller's brains hail from: It's owned and run by Rick Montgomery and executive chef Hugh Kerr, both formerly of SIR Corporation, which runs Far Niente, Friscos and Reds (among others). All three restaurants are eye candy par excellence, so go figure why the Miller has such a bad case of the blahs. Surely historical accuracy would not have to obviate visual pleasure.

As for other aspects of the Miller, the corporate food sensibility of its progenitors speaks loudly. We're often awestruck at the encyclopedic length of the menus in restaurants owned by corporations that operate several (or more) restaurants.

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The awe, however, tends to evaporate when you taste the food.

Such is life at the Miller. The menu majors in seafood and is impressive for both length and reach. There are oysters from raw to gussied up, chowders, ethnically diverse takes on shrimp, crab, etc., and finned fish galore.

One evening, our attempt at a raw oyster starter is inauspicious. After taking the order, our server tells us that the oysters might arrive at the same time as the main courses because the oyster shucker is running behind. Well that's terrific service. Said oysters arrive sweet and lovely, however, much more pleasant than white clam chowder.

A clear smell of chlorine bleach wafts upward from the bowl, as if perhaps the china had been soaked in bleach to remove stains and insufficiently rinsed. One hopes the chowder's flavour will drive out the bleach scent, but it doesn't, since its own flavour is MIA. Bland is too kind a word for this white soup with small bits of overcooked clam afloat. It is served lukewarm.

Maybe the second-floor dining room is too long a hike from the kitchen?

The salmon chowder is better thanks to huge chunks of perfectly cooked salmon, although its broth is an all-tomato affair that badly needs other flavour notes.

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Looking for fun on the starter menu is the old needle-in-the-haystack routine: Stay safe with raw oysters (should the shucker be on task) or oyster shooters (best is red curry oyster shooter, which packs a spice wallop).

But caveat emptor on other starters: Crab and shrimp cakes are greasy, overcooked and untasty, with blah salsa. Ditto the flavour punch of Thai shrimp ceviche, and where's the coriander?

The only starter that makes my taste buds happy is lobster quesadilla: Here is pub food moved upmarket for grownups, with sweet lobster chunks. But a starter for $25.95?

A wise diner might have started with oysters and finished with the quesadilla, thanks to less than fortunate main courses.

Roast halibut is so overcooked it's embarrassing. Its accompanying "sauce" is a much-too-hot puddle of wasabi cream, and it is accompanied by red and white rice in gummy clumps and ho-hum baby bok choy.

Another day, they've figured out how to cook the rice better, but meeting that bok choy 'n' rice combo again isn't so much fun. The same garnish and sauce is no more exciting with seared scallops.

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As for pumpkin ravioli, an Italian fall classic, at least half of the toasted pecans are burnt black on one side and the pumpkin filling is dry.

In its previous incarnation, the Miller was the Jolly Miller. It's no longer so jolly.

Sushi wars: If the Ontario government proceeds with its wacky plan to ban the use of fresh raw fish, sushi will go the way of the dodo in the province.

How much frozen fish do sushi chefs use now? Hiro Sushi uses about 20 per cent frozen fish (surf clam, butterfish and eel). All his other ingredients (tuna, snapper, mackerel, squid, octopus, sea urchin etc.) come in fresh.

Were they to be frozen, the sushi would have the texture of porridge.

Hiro (along with Michael Stadtlander and other chef luminaries) is organizing a petition to fight this law. You will soon be able to get information at http://www.nofrozensushi.com.

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Fie on: Upmarket Café, on Parliament Street. A young couple were lunching recently at the casual café with their baby, who started to fuss. So the mom began discreetly breast-feeding her baby. Before long, the owner came to the table and asked the mom to "not do that here."

When the mom asked her where she would prefer it done, the restaurant owner said they should go somewhere more discreet, like the bathroom.

The dad refused, asking her, "Do you eat your meals in the bathroom?"

The owner then told the couple to leave the restaurant immediately. They responded that what she was asking was illegal. She replied, "Then call your lawyer."

The diners said they would leave once their daughter finished her lunch, at which point another restaurant employee tried to smooth things over.

He apologized that "it was so awkward" but that his lunch rush would be arriving soon and they would surely not want to be in the company of a breast-feeding woman. The owner has since apologized.

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As a mother who breast-fed two babies in many much fancier restaurants in Canada, the United States and Europe, I am appalled. Does our culture hate babies and women that much?

jkates@globeandmail.ca

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