The Senator Diner 249 Victoria St., Toronto 416-364-7517 www.thesenator.com $70 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
Foodies are saying that, after his estimable Boba closed last year, chef Bob Bermann bought the Senator. Not so. Bermann did sign on as chef and was there until last Saturday. "I didn't want to get back into the full financial stress of a new venture in the new economic climate," he says. "We [he and partner Barbara Gordon]did not retire at the top of our game. Boba was a good thing, but it cost us a lot of money to stay open. We mortgaged half our house and we're up to our necks in debt. We lost a fortune."
Boba was a temple of haute cuisine, but don't go expecting the Senator diner to start offering foie gras with champagne. As the employed chef, Bermann had scope to improve the diner's food but not to reinvent it. "If you put the potatoes on the right side of the plate instead of the left side of the plate," he says, "there's a revolution in the brunch crowd."
Bermann did, however, allow his culinary passion to influence matters: "I [didn't]want to do it all at once. I eased into it incrementally, like griddling the mashed potatoes on the flat-top with green onions or making a better turkey sandwich. For the burgers, they used to get big bags of commercial beef. Now Cumbrae's is grinding it for them."
To pay for the likes of Cumbrae's beef, Bermann says, "I [went]to the food terminal to purchase food on my own time. I found significant savings within our food budget by being prudent, in order to do the Senator the nice way, improving the quality with a few nice things on the menu."
And he did. The diner's looks haven't changed since the old king died. It still has the same old cramped mahogany booths with the metal coat-hooks, the old Coke dispenser and Hamilton Beach shake machine, the black-and-red-checked linoleum-tile floor and beige Formica tables. It's all so retro, but it's genuine, because the diner opened in 1929.
The problem with diners is usually the food. The Senator was typical of this: Think industrial ingredients that arrive on the Sysco truck ready to be reheated. But mesh Bob Bermann's food philosophy with the exigencies of a diner (cheap food delivered fast) and good things happen.
The aforementioned Cumbrae burger is divine: pink, juicy and fat, served on a fine sesame bun with hand-cut super-crispy fresh fries. Chef Bermann appears to have taught the cooks how to get the burger and fries right, because they churn them out like plates of paradise on nights when he's not in evidence. They also roast the herbed chicken breast to perfection, keeping it moist and serving it, unusually, with slow-roasted green and red peppers. There are, however, no green onions in the not-very-griddled mashed potatoes.
Bermann did not mess with the Senator's signature crab cakes, which remain big, soft lovelies. He did, however, renovate the salads, using designer greens in the house salad and making an upmarket Greek. Fish tacos are variations on the theme, featuring crisp, ungreasy deep-fried haddock with slaw, salsa, black beans and properly seasoned guacamole. Same salutary deal with the mac and cheese: al dente pasta with real cheddar, spiked with small dots of feta for fun.
Diners hearken back to a kinder gentler era, a slower time, when a cook could stir rice pudding over a low fire for an hour. And the Senator's rice pudding is delectably creamy. Its super-moist and very dense pound cake also hearkens back in time, to when the favourite farmhouse cake was made with a pound of butter, a pound of flour and a pound of eggs. This is old-time Ontario cooking. Most diners, being thinly disguised fast-food joints that say "diner" in decor only, cannot deliver on that promise. But the Senator Diner, thanks to Bob Bermann's involvement, keeps the promise.
Three notable closings: Autogrill, the yummy pizza and pasta parlour on Eglinton West in Forest Hill, closed suddenly two weeks ago. Murmurings on the street say there were movers at midnight, and a peek through the windows reveals a great yawning absence of restaurant equipment.
Up in Yorkville, meanwhile, Greg Couillard's Spice Room in Hazelton Lanes has also closed. The spicemeister decamped to Mexico, where he is, as usual, chef in a hot new restaurant. His staff tried to run Spice Room without him, but clearly that didn't work.
And Le Gourmand's outpost at Yonge and Eglinton, LG3, closed last week. There wasn't enough business, apparently, to pay the rent. The owners opened in the spring with a fab evening menu and then dumped it to try to reduce costs, but it was too little, too late.
Editor's note: At the time of writing, Chef Bob Bermann was employed by the Senator on a short-term contract basis. His last day was January 23.