243 King St. E., Toronto
$125 for dinner for two including tax and tip
Someone needs to conduct an empirical survey on the efficacy of those little brewery-sponsored sandwich boards with the Day-Glo quick-erase specials that litter the sidewalks in front of certain restaurants. It should determine once and for all how many customers they actually bring in versus how many they permanently drive away. I've never seen anything interesting scrawled on a single one of them. After a while they all start blending together into a mess of uninteresting soups of the day and tired old pasta specials. They are almost always a bad sign.
The sandwich board outside of Pico - the restaurant on King East that used to be Toba and still shares many of its dishes and much of the decor - is sponsored by Sleeman's and touts a free bowl of mussels for anyone ordering a glass of wine or a beer. The other night that meant exactly one order of mussels - mine. There was a grand total of no one else in the restaurant for the whole night. In fact, our table of two outnumbered the staff. It might be time to reconsider the board.
That free bowl of mussels is indicative of the bipolar cooking that is Pico's defining characteristic. One night they are okay, pretty good even. Served in pretty bowls with a sweet, herbaceous tomato sauce, they come with homemade foccacia-like bread well suited to soaking up all the tasty sauce. A good first impression. Another night, however, they arrive half open and stone cold. That the tomato sauce is lukewarm, like the bland side of frites, only makes the experience more disconcerting.
Order the right things at Pico and you'll have a decent meal in a casual neighbourhood bistro. Order wrong and you'll have a sadly disappointing meal in a casual neighbourhood bistro and have to listen to Paul Young and Rick Astley while you do it.
Let's say you start with one of the right things, like the grilled honey chili calamari. You will be presented with a tender, golden Slinky of accordioned calamari sitting curved atop a fresh bed of baby arugula interspersed with wafer-thin slices of mango and you will probably enjoy it. The components come together nicely even if the combination of honey and mango is a little too sweet and lacks the balance of any discernible chili heat.
You might want to follow that up with the pan-seared duck breast. Arrayed in slices atop its accompaniments, the duck is sensibly cooked enough so it's actually tender (blue rare duck, the default choice of most restaurants, looks and sounds great, but it's even more tender when taken just beyond that stage). Warm pears, sliced asparagus and toasted, spicy walnuts round out the plate in an appealing way and the orange maple demi glace, although a bit sweet, is expertly reduced.
If, on the other hand, you started with the soup of the day - roasted garlic, for example - you'll receive a wan beige purée that tastes a little bit like garlic, but mostly like overcooked broth: bony and thin. It's not terrible - just totally non-descript and perfunctory.
The same must be said of the "risotto of the day," which appears to be just an excuse to use up whatever is kicking around the kitchen. How else to explain the completely overwhelming presence of nearly raw red pepper and cracked, undercooked remains of rice? When the risotto was explained, it was advertised as containing bacon, which is there, but mostly it just tastes of red pepper and salt.
Fortunately, the okay dishes outnumber the not very good. A pan-seared halibut is fresh and glistening, homemade gnocchi are tender and well sauced, the "house aged" Angus striploin is cooked as requested. Still, it's hard to get very excited about any of the dishes and the 15-item wine list isn't going to set your world on fire either (although the inclusion of a pink moscato from Australia is nice).
In the end, the closest we get to actual enthusiasm is for the desserts. One night they even serve Eton Mess, that relatively obscure Eton College specialty consisting of strawberries mixed up with meringue and cream. Pico serves it with raspberries and blueberries, but does a bang-up job of it, making it barely sweet and utterly creamy with just the right amount of sponginess. The plum crisp is also lovely, thanks to its sticky, caramelized top and cooling scoop of ice cream.
Pico has some momentum in its post-Toba incarnation and remains a bright, welcoming space. Unless it finds more consistency in its cooking, though, the signs spell trouble.