National Post Restaurant Review Oct 30 2010 STRATUS

I lose 65 calories after a ten-minute spin on the excersize bike. Hmmm.  This means it’s gonna take me almost an hour to work off a Tim Horton walnut crunch donut destroying once and for all the cherished illusion  that an hour’s workout gets my metabolism racing in carb-crushing mode. I leave my health club at my hungriest and then have to run the gauntlet of the  hi-cal temptations which flank it.

A fit, buffed acquaintance tells me there is  no need for all this calorie angst. A friendlier enviro for gym rats exists at Stratus, the Toronto Athletic Club’s restaurant  atop one of those  TD Centre giant  I-Pads by Bay.  You don’t have to be a member to lunch in the clouds. The space is as effervescent as a petillant wine,   a dramatic and welcoming room, long windows offering a panorama of downtown with Porter flights skimming the lake.  Yellow and orange shiny tiles frame the windows, the walls are neutral gray, the place fizzes with negative ions.  Lunchers range from  designer sweats  eating  iconic salad to Bay street suits.   Everyone looks extraordinarily  cheerful including the waiters. Water is the jus de jour except for one emeritus partner, the ghost of business lunches past. He sips  a martini with a twist. We want to cheer.

We order a pleasant glass of Butterfield Chardonnay,$9, and feel great.  This is the way to reward oneself after gruelling pool lengths  and surviving a  session with the Spanish Inquisition aka personal trainer. I have the mushroom soup $10  — sublime. I think it was Wolfgang Puck who pioneered the ineffable wild mushroom soup a few decades ago, and this hybrid, which includes farmed fungi,  is even  sleeker, an intense broth of atoms of buttons, portobellos, shitakes.  And it’s more ecologically correct. Word from England suggests that the wild mushroom forage has gone too far.  Enthusiastic amateurs,  urged on by the likes of Jamie Oliver and  anxious to prove their fresh’n’local chops,  are depleting the forests of the favourite diet of deer, rabbits, mice and insects such as flies and beetles. Hey there humans, stop being so greedy.

Chef David Ross’s kitchen has another wonderful soup, a tawny Thai broth filled with shitakes, onions, a few slices of tiger shrimp $10, so rich and satisfying it could make a whole meal. The beef carpaccio is equally flavoursome, a  coral carousel of transparent discs spiked by chimichurri sauce, onion, garlic, olive oil, which could be better defined, leaves of nutty aged Asiago and a glossy pea shoot salad.

Don’t expect Maryland lump crab in a crab cake here. But still, the crisp patty of well-seasoned strands $24 with charred tomato aioli  is good although the accompanying black tiger shrimps seem overgrilled, but then the black tiger is one tough hombre. The plate’s runaway hit is the salad. Now here’s a presentation to turn on any salad-phobe. A coil of cucumber is wrapped around a mildly astringent  bunch of leaves small enough to be eaten easily and with little enokis tucked among the greens.  For once I eat all the salad.

Omelets are  the dieter’s security blanket.. Stratus’ omelet $20 is stuffed with home-cured Juniper smoked salmon and gruyere,  such a good and complementary pairing. At another lunch, we throw  calories to the winds and have a blow out – fish and chips. Panko-crumbed Ontario perch is perfect with tartare sauce $23  and a small mountain of **** sweet potato fries. Terrific.  Not so the South-Western Chicken Supreme $23 which fails to deliver on its implicit promise of Tex-Mex spice. Sliced, grilled chicken breast is moist but otherwise without any redeeming gastro  importance. It’s poised on top   of hefty chunks of romaine lettuce tossed in an effete ranch dressing which has never kissed garlic or onion. This kitchen’s flaw is its’ erratic use of spice/seasoning. Even the cornbread croutons and sprinkling of grilled corn are bland.

Is it fair to even suggest desserts in this milieu? The dessert menu is longest of all! Is there a saboteur at work?  I’d say yes, except the two desserts are such downers.   The chocolate mousse cake with cherry compote $9 has the fibre of a cake mix and the mousse is heavy.  But it’s ethereal compared to the apple tart with caramel glaze and cinnamon icecream. The tart $9  turns out to be a cakey apple mush.  We finish neither – and feel virtuous.

** 1/2 Stratus 36th Floor, 79 Wellington W.  416-865-1924 Wheelchair accessible. Breakfast/lunch only.  Lunch for two, food and tax.Food and tax for two: $100

National Post Restaurant Review Oct 24 2010 *1 1/2 Fabbrica

The existential  question of the day: is there Italian food after pasta and pizza?

I pose the question to three colleagues – Maryam Siddiqi, Sheilagh McEvenue, Ben Kaplan,  who’ve come with me to Fabbrica, Mark McEwan’s new restaurant in Toronto’s very own version of a Californian outdoor mall, The Shops at Don Mills.

Their faces fall. They look around the slick modernity of Fabbrica, a posh factory with shiny white tiled walls in an open kitchen, woodtopped tables with striped napkins and glom immediately to the  state-of-the-art wood-burning oven.  Look, there’s the  Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana seal of approval. Sure, the pizza isn’t going to taste exactly the way it does on the bay of Naples lightly dusted with the last Vesuvian eruption, still it’s bound to be good because pizza is a triumph of industrialization and thus global tastemaking. We sense even before we actually smell the bronzing of dough, the honeyed tomatoes with minty basil. Ditto pasta. The menu has a choice of temptations. like  Orecchiette – chipmunks’ ears wrought from flour and water,  with rabbit, rapini, chili and pecorino cheese.

But taste is one thing, addiction another. Look, I argue, Toronto is awash with places enabling our wheat habit – the food equivalent of crack cocaine – but Fabbrica bills itself as Italian rustic, I look forward to roasting veal and pork, fresh grilled fish, that kind of thing.

Oh, Ok.

Now wait a minute. There’s a three buck charge for bread! I cannot remember an Italian restaurant – or any restaurant for that matter-  being so unwelcoming.  We make do with a plate of Bruschetta, bread stroked with invisible  bone marrow and horseradish gremolata tasting strongly of lemon $10. Today, our excellently prompt and informed waiter tells us, the Fritti $15 is fried smelts from Lake Huron. Smashing – little fish captured in crackling,sprinkled with fresh squeezed lemon, energized by tartare sauce.

Ben says he’d like his fave veal parmigiana ( a crumbed cutlet of veal from Parma) as his main course.  Fresh out of luck. There is no veal (or pork) on the menu. He settles for grilled lamb sausage and caponata, a spicy all-purpose Sicilian condiment $19. Good but no cigar. The lamb sausage? “I could get it anywhere.”   Now bread is needed to sop up the jus.   Like Chilean miners, we fall on the few slices of nice warm carb. Ben says he’s still hungry and poaches chicken salad from Maryam who says “It’s kind of flavourless, it needs something.” Funny, gorgonzola is advertised as the dressing.

I’m happy to give Ben a slice of  of my olive-oil poached Albacore tuna with puttanesca sauce (black olives, capers and anchovies) $29.   It’s cooked fine, rare and tender, but it too is taste challenged.   I often wonder whether cooked tuna, so often billed as the sea’s equivalent to the meaty steak,  would be on any menu if it wasn’t for sushi’s popularity  –  chunks of raw tuna spritzed by wasabi and soy sauce –  My tuna today has the transient allure of a pretty face with nothing to say.

Would a side of baby carrots have helped? Wait a mo, they cost $15 half the price of the majestic tuna!

Sheilagh orders two baby goat crepes $26 because she loves goat cheese. Texture’s fine so is the soffrito, minced onion, celery, carrots, but “I expected something more goaty.” Another overhyped meat. I think there’s a correlation between the character of animals and the way their meat tastes. Pigs  are smart and tetchy but taste fab while the larky goat is bland.

Of course we must have dolci $11 each. Both the Tiramisu, coffee cream sandwiched between caramel crackle and the lemon-stuffed zeppole, the Italian version of Tim Horton, are lip-smacking meal-enders.

Suddenly all eyes turn right. A man at the next table is digging into an oval bowl of something which looks,  smells wholly enticing – Tortiglioni, little pasta tubes with meatballs, tomato and buffalo mozzarella $19.  I swear our table tips in that direction.

Truth-telling arrives with the bill.  Our meal has cost $200 for four, including  a glass of wine/cocktail each but it doesn’t add up to a proportionately satisfying meal. Perhaps we expected too much of a mall restaurant where the food is designed to appeal to the palate of the largest number of people possible.  To call Fabbrica rustic Italian is like calling a Big Mac a hamburger.

1 1/2* Fabbrica.  49 Karl Fraser Road in Shops at Don Mills 416-391-0307 Wheelchair accessible. Food for four plus tax $160

National Post Restaurant Review Oct 17 2010 Chiado 4 Star Yums for Bucks

Missed it by golly. Salt Wine Bar, featuring Portuguese tapas, on Ossington opened and shut in the twinkling of an eye. The couple of times I called, I was put off decisively. Seems owner Albino Silva is being strangled by government red tape. And I was so looking forward to buying some expertly -selected  Portugese canned sardines. The canned sardine is my childhood mnemonic. Or I should say the European sardine. Because North American canned sardines are actually herrings which in terms of taste is as desperate as if your snark is a boojum.

I was sustained on canned herrings on toast as a kid in those dark food-rationed days.  We kids weren’t crazy about them – the bones! – but Pouncer the cat loved the discards even though he choked on them. Later we learned that we’d only had entry grade sardines, well on their way to becoming a pilchard, and rather too large for true gourmet joy. Or so I learned later from the revelatory Elizabeth David who declared the queen of the canned sardine was French, the silvery, slippery nipper – caught at the Lolita stage and thus raised on a refined vegetarian diet  –   and made into a luxury food by Philippe et Canaud of Brittany .

What lese majeste. The sardine is the patron fish of Portugal where in season, the summer, a fresh grilled sardine as meaty as a tuna with the saline, pungent flavour of a fish proud to be a fish, is the diet of feast days. I channel Portuguese because of my long sojourn in a Connecticut coastal village dominated by a vibrantly coloured fishing fleet manned by immigrants from the Azores.  I’ve long wondered why the Portuguese are so under represented in restaurants here. Frustrated by my Salt experience, I think  well, it’s only October, and  the sardines will be still be flown in fresh at Albino Silva’s other place, Chiado, on College west of Ossington – Toronto’s legacy Portugese restaurant since 1991.

Chiado, named for Lisbon’s most famous square,  has a self-assurance any restaurant would thank its lucky stars for. Elegant without being stuffy. Formal,  dark pannelling, modern art, comfortable chairs, white tablecloths, waiters in trad black and white – yet pleasantly informal. Even as the waiter delivers sweet black  olives from Morocco but cured at Chiado, and spongey Portugese corn bread with an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dip, a link is formed. My companion has recently visited Nazare, a famous fishing village just west of Lisbon and snap! Our waiter it just so happens comes from Nazare…

We eat from the tapas menu. First up, salt cod, historic survival food,  what else? Three crisp little toasts topped with tangy ribbons of  tossed salt cod ceviche $7.  Next comes the grilled sardines $12, gracefully seasoned with lemon, garlic, parsley, a handsome mouthful.  Seared quail is awesome, tender and delicately seasoned $8.  The Portugese make a nuanced Chorizo (sausage)  from pork and paprika and we get  two kinds, light and dark along with a not-too-sweet plum chutney $7. Excellent toasted fresh goat cheese poised on a slice of eggplant and portadello mushroom $8. We end with the artisan cheese platter $14.  Serra and Azetao are both softish sheep’s cheeses, pleasant enough, but Lourais, a crumbly cow’s cheese from the Azores, has a more distinctive character.

Chiado is famous for its choice of Portuguese wines. This is a chance to get away from ubiquitous Prosecco and  try the dryly piquant Luis Pato sparkling wine $13 a glass. When I scan the rest of the extensive list for reservatrol, I’m confronted with many unfamiliar names and prices starting at around $50 a bottle.  We’re lucky that Carlos, who has come to take our order, is such a smooth diplomat. Stumped, I suggest we’d like something that tastes Bordeauxish. Words hardly out of my mouth I wish to withdraw them – have I insulted Portuguese grapes?  I’d never know it because Carlos returns with very pleasing, dryish red, Lagualva Reserva and at the price we suggested, $60 – prices start here around $50.

Chiado has a certain demureness: low music is playing. Ordinarily, that would rate a fist bump.  But tonight is an exception.  What is a Portuguese dinner without  the lonely wail of fado music? Where’s Amalia Rodriguez? we ask. It takes a while to find the right tape, but finally,  the harsh demanding neediness of Rodriguez, comparable to the blues of  Edith Piaf, fills the room and bourgeois pretensions fall away.

Chiado Restaurant, 864  College St 416-538-1910 Not wheelchair accessible.  Tapas for Two, food plus tax: $58

National Post Restaurant Review Oct 9 2010 ** 1/2 LUMA

Will I eat well at TIFF Bell Lightbox – this is what I’m  worrying about as I duck into the Toronto Film Festival’s new hq at King and John. I’m already excited by the lobby. It’s channelling Giant  – a vast empty space. Great messaging.  This is an institution of OVERWHELMING IMPORTANCE.

More practically, I’m hungry – Where’s Luma, the marquee eatery? On the second floor.   First,  what must be the longest escalator in the city has to be scaled. I’m humming hopefully “See what the boys in the backroom will have and tell them I’m having the same” but I quickly switch to the Red Flag when I see the number of state sponsors on the prominently displayed  benefactors’ list. Why I wonder does something so globally popular as movies require government support?  After all, as Alfred Hitchcock was fond of saying “  It’s only  a movie….”

Base camp on second floor then a further fifty yard recce only to be confronted by  the Blackberry Lounge which is closed for a party.  I am beginning to conclude that Luma is getting the bum’s rush like C5 at the ROM – another Overwhelmingly Important institution – and being tucked away out of sight.

An inauspicious entrance, but the host/manager’s welcome is warm, the service friendly but not intrusive. I’m wanting to like Luma, I’m willing to like Luma, I’m waiting to like Luma  (thank you Pygmalion, 1938) because I hope in the age of the DVD with homepopped corn, it may revive the anachronistic delight of a movie evening out.  I can imagine catching a re-run of  Fred and Ginger in Swingtime at one of the screening rooms and then continuing the buzz, something like dropping into Sardi’s on Broadway after a show. I’m looking forward to wall-to-wall iconic stills  – Marilyn Monroe, her skirt swirling above her head in The Seven Year Itch , James Bond cradling his favourite Walther PPK, the martyred Vakulinchuk in Battleship Potemkin, Groucho romancing Margaret Dumont in A Night at the Opera, The cut eyeball in Bunuel’s  Un Chien Andalou, Orson Welles running through the Vienna sewers in The Third Man…and of course a smoldering Simone Signoret in Casque D’Or… the indelible images of a century, too many to count.

Pardon me, I must have the wrong address.Luma doesn’t have anything to do with the movies.   It is as divorced from its context as is JK at the Gardiner ceramics museum. KPMB, the designer of both, is a champion of the penitentiary style, grid layout, neutral colours. Conrad Black would be comfortable here. The only tremor of sensuality comes with a glimpse of King West’s funky bistros, Mistral and St. Tropez seen through the long windows.

Still we’ll always have Paris, I mean the food. Luma hasn’t stinted here. The bankable executive chef is Jason Bangerter, formerly of Auberge du Pommier, a polished cook. Perhaps a little too subtle for the rough and tumble of the entertainment district. I’m surprised at the dinner menu’s predictability,faves tweaked rather than reexamined: braised lamb shank with blackcurrent jam, mustard greens, curried lentils. Trusty cod, roasted with sweetbreads, celery and porcini cream. The lunch menu strikes me as livelier.

So we dive in. From five appetizers, we pick cured ocean trout,cubes of rosy trout, lemony creme fraiche, avocado, grapefruit and pickled daikon $16. I’ve never eaten cured ocean trout before but this sample’s intense fishiness suggests it may be past its prime. We follow up with elegant ricotta gnocchi in a slick tomato fondue, a sniff of basil, roasted garlic and halved jerusalem artichokes on the branch $12/16. Now I’m beginning to really appreciate Bangerter’s depth, the way he mingles flavour and texture.

The seared sea scallops are cooked a point, bolstered by warm potato salad, cured ham and a sting of acid in lemon vinaigrette $23, wholly estimable.  Finally, we go for the lobster burger $26. An inch or so of compressed lobster meat on an artisan soft roll with crustacean mayonnaise and a sensational coriander/cucumber slaw  – and some freshmade potato crisps offered with a nonchalance that describes Bangerter’s understated style.

For dessert? Can’t resist the classic Opera cake,$10, chocolate, coffee cream sandwiched between almond sponge served with caramel pop corn and popcorn ice cream! Atlast, a movie fan – and a new starlet, pastry chef Lindsay Haddock.

The Variety Review: Pic should do whammo biz when topliner finds his competish mojo.

2 1/2 stars. Luma, 2nd Floor, Tiff Bell Lightbox 330 King St W 647-288-4715 lunch for two, food plus tax $100