The Spoke Club
600 King St. W., Toronto, 416-368-8448. Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip, $175. Open to members and their guests only.
In the Victorian era, a gentleman's club was like his castle: Only those of one's own social class were allowed in, both décor and servants were as attractive and serviceable as one's amenities at home, and one could count on encountering only those of one's own kind. How very civilized. So it should come as no surprise that the hottest new club in our town has been opened by a member of our very own homegrown aristocracy: Galen Weston Jr.
The Spoke Club occupies three floors of an uber-trendy building on King Street West (kitty-corner from Susur and Lee). For members, it wants only arts and media glitterati. The price of admission has been set ridiculously low ($200 initiation and $700 a year) in order to guarantee that no important artistes who have not met commercial success will be denied membership. And besides, do we really think that Weston needs to make money off this venture?
Funny thing is, even in the middle of January, the traditional dead time for bars and restaurants, both bar and dining room are almost full. As for why that is, the only possible explanation is that artists and media types are a little challenged in the palate department (more on that later). But man, oh man, they know about looks.
Beauty may be skin-deep, but what lovely skin we have here! The Spoke Club is a buttoned-down version of the Fifth -- every bit as pretty in a dreamy downtown loft way, but a tad more tailored. Real people can be more comfy here, whereas at the Fifth one feels that one ought either to look like Julia Roberts or be an unabashed yokel tourist.
Coming off the Spoke Club elevator, you enter a gracious reception area with Oriental rugs and Venetian glass chandeliers. The furniture whispers "elegant modern." One floor below is the club's art gallery. One floor above is a fabulous bar (done in ochre marble) with windows on three sides looking out on the rooftop patio, which was splendidly set up for rooftop dining and drinking last summer. Even the stairs between the floors are a design statement: pale wooden steps, minus risers, each threaded with tiny white lights.
There is a small but luxe screening room for members' films (don't call them movies puh-lease), and a library stocked with every club member's favourite book. Why? Just because. And the membership application does ask for that info.
Both dining rooms (regular and private) are luscious in appearance: splendid dark-stained wooden tables, a few inset in sweet little niches, orchids for flora, more Venetian chandeliers in the main dining rooms and onyx chandeliers in the private dining room. A clever designer has created informal elegance here.
Too bad neither the food nor the service matches it. Waiters don't know what food should be delivered to which diner, and at one point a server pours flat water into our glasses of bubbly water. The butter that comes with the bread is salted, and at dessert time they deliver all but one of our desserts; it arrives after we've eaten the others.
We fail to understand how all these (apparently) savvy media types can be so sanguine about the lousy food the club is dishing: soggy duck confit, ho-hum seafood salad and niçoise salad, merely pleasant squash soup. The main courses, it must be noted, make the appetizers look good.
They offer a $15 burger that is overcooked into dusty brown dryness topped with cheddar that's been melted long enough to separate and get drippy. Baked ricotta rigatoni with oven-roasted vegetables is a gummy mass of soggy noodles and overcooked cheese. It is the sort of casserole one would expect to meet at summer camp, not in a private club with certain pretensions. Ditto the other farinaceous failure, linguine carbonara, which features a gluey bland sauce. The promised grilled quail is on the side and lukewarm. Pan-roasted Arctic char is only slightly overcooked, but its red beet risotto is terminally weird: It is indeed beet red, with slightly undercooked rice grains, a paucity of flavour, and not much liquid that can be called a sauce.
The only upside is tender short ribs with fab Yukon gold frites. We do, however, have to ask for something to dip them in, and when it finally arrives, it ain't the house-made mayo of my dreams.
Desserts continue in the same vein: appallingly dry toffee pudding, unchocolately molten chocolate cake, tarte tatin with tough crust and a strangely unpalatable butter tart. As for the cheese course, anybody who charges $12 for a plate of cheese had better know what they're doing, and this kitchen doesn't. As usual here, looks trump taste: The cheeses are presented on a clever granite triangle, surmounted by an artfully carved apple. But they're fridge-cold and disappointing: a banal blue, a dryish Swiss and an industrial chèvre that resembles the Woolwich chèvre that's available at the supermarket.
The word on the street is that the Spoke Club has hired chef Paul Boehmer (ex Ultra Supper Club, ex Opus) to clean up its culinary act. Let's call it CPR and hope it works.