School Bakery & Café
70 Fraser St., Toronto
$60 for lunch for two with wine, tax and tip
The first thing you see at School Bakery & Café in Liberty Village is a brick wall covered with 19 old-school clocks, all stopped at 3:30. School's out!
But school is very in at School, thanks to cute little black pleated minis on the waitresses and blackboards that say things like: "Class is in session. Sit down and drink up." One blackboard asks us not to feed the supermodels. On another, someone has been assigned to write lines: "If you wanna rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain."
There's an old schoolroom globe on the bar, an apple on every table and tall wooden shelves crammed with old books, wooden letters, cups full of pencils and paintbrushes and an old typewriter. We sit on scuffed black wood chairs with seats upholstered in cooking-school notes. Light floods the room through a huge glass garage door and a wall of oversized glass bricks. The menu is a three-ring binder paper on a clipboard with offerings like the Detention Menu (available after school - from 3 to 6 p.m.).
Could the scene be set any better?
Given the restaurant's chef/owner, we expected high grades. Customer satisfaction depends on managing expectations. If Brad Moore were not the principal of School, I'd not be so disappointed. But having inhaled his supernal food at Xacutti (2002 to 2007) and before that at Monsoon (1997 to 2000), I was expecting fusion frolics. Maybe everybody else there (and there are a lot of them - the place is jumping at lunchtime) just wants a cool place to nosh, whereas I was foolishly looking for good food.
To begin with, buffalo-style shrimp with celery and blue cheese feature a horrendously unbalanced sauce with a painful excess of salt and vinegar and a thick uncrisp coat. Heirloom tomato salad with Stilton and grilled onion vinaigrette is hard, unripe tomatoes in indelicate onion vinaigrette.
Barbecue chicken and ribs with fries, corn and coleslaw are even more disappointing. One had hoped for a throwback to the unctuous ribs of Xacutti, where the meat oozed sweetly off the bone. But these ribs are dry, gristly and embarrassingly over-salted. This is the kind of cooking that has you gulping water at midnight. The corn is yellow and unsweet; we hanker for the small kernels of peaches and cream. The coleslaw is pedestrian. One day, the fries are fresh, crisp and sweet; another day they're badly overcooked and so greasy that some are translucent.
Goan rubbed halibut with green pea risotto and lemon is mostly heat. Absent are the complex curry spices of Chef Moore's kitchen of yesteryear at Xacutti. The rice is simultaneously gummy and hard, which is what happens when I make the mistake of reheating risotto. Its nominal green pea and lemon taste is hard to find.
One expects that, when a guy finally gets his own business, he'll put his best foot forward, so this is all mysterious. School stopped serving dinner a few weeks ago and is now doing lunch only.
Which makes us wonder where the citizens of Liberty Village are wearing their taste buds. At lunchtime, the gooey four-cheese omelette soufflé with home fries, toast and greens is terminally bland. What are these four cheeses? Mild cheddar? Maybe some soulless mozzarella? The omelette is properly souffléd (a.k.a. puffed), but that doesn't help the taste. Its accompanying sweet and white home fries are bathed in enough butter to make your arteries dial 911. The burger comes with guacamole, gruyere cheese, tomato and bacon. Nobody asked me how I wanted it done; well done, it's somewhat charmless and tough.
Jerk chicken salad sandwich with mango chutney and watercress on brioche bun is chicken in a too-hot sauce. BBQ steak with mustard butter and bacon bit mayo on baguette is tough steak and the bacon bits are MIA.
For dessert, the peanut butter cupcake is pathetically dry, the dean's list brownie is not very chocolaty and the Black Forest cookie (chocolate with chocolate chips and cherry) has the same problem. Kitchen sink bar is a blondie with white and dark chocolate chips, nuts and shredded coconut. It is heavy, gooey and far too sweet.
Rarely do I find food inedible, but if we're giving out grades at School, somebody flunked out.