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National Post Restaurant Review Nov 6 2010 *** ICI BISTRO

Ici Bistro is open.

Whew. For more than year now, Ici Bistro has been the phantom of the West Annex, appearing and disappearing like the Cheshire Cat, now opening, now not opening, the victim of municipal red tape. Neighbours longing to taste chef J.P. Challet’s boeuf bourguignon were frustrated when the liquor license was refused. The city feared the smell of lobster bisque might distract pupils at the school next door from shooting – up or each other. Next thing for god’s sake, the kids will be demanding Beaujolais to perk up the cafeteria’s cottage pie. And that was just for starters.

Bon Vivant can’t wait – Ici’s travails fit right into his thesis on why people eat. Not because they’re hungry? “ Too tea parties” he sniffs “I got the grant to write something loftier — our hunger for community.” I move the chewing gum from one cheek to the other.

So now we’re bonding knee to knee with neighbours. Ici is delightfully small, only 24 seats, soothing grey with a stripey banquette for serious eaters. We’re going the whole nine yards – we’re eating French. You may have heard that the Spanish are now the great innovators, that foraging is the new rave, that the Italians have taken over the restoscape. Hmm. When I dream of gustatory pleasure, I wake up hungry for sweetbreads financier. Not that I kid myself I’ll find anything so rich today. Like other great empires, the luxe French cuisine, butter, cream, truffles, foie gras, caviar, has had to adapt to changing times. The classics on Ici’s carte sound the same as those made by Escoffier a century ago, but they’ve been reinterpreted to suit the Canadian palate – and in a bow to grazing, each dish comes in both small and large sizes. Need more explanation: ask the server Sukaina who has a PHD in food and charm besides.

We start off with a glass of celebratory fizz, 13th St Cuvee Rose Brut ($12)the right way to begin a French dinner. So is the platter of oysters (Maritimes at $3 per). We toast oysterman Rodney who has made Toronto the queen of oyster cities. As we butter a slice of Challet’s angelic baguette (no charge) we notice the plates are all shaped like tear drops. Yes to steak tartare $18. A platter of six elegant ovals of hand-cut raw beef – tart and creamy, mustardy, a whisper of chili and a few potato croquettes as counterpoint.

A baby-pink torchon of foiegras with floating figs, a crisp black trumpet mushroom croquette $18/28 is the kind of food that is so good you can’t bear to finish eating it.

Lobster thermidor is one of the showgirls of the classic cuisine, the crustacean baked in the shell with a sauce bolstered by lashings of cream. Challet’s version (18/30) is lots skinnier with emphasis on lobster’s taste which evokes the antiseptic smell of the ER. The claws and tails are steamed, shelled and set out on a long platter with mayonnaise kissed with chili and accompanied by tender lobster/bechamel croquettes and a deep red flower of a beet.

We’re sipping one of those soft shouldered Cote de Rhones (Vignerons D’estezargues ‘Terre de Mistral’ $48) which is perfect for our next dish. Blanquette de Veau is a stupendously rich white veal stew. But what is this? A platter displaying a large cannellono shrouding a brown stew.($17/29) Of course – today chefs use rose veal , the calf given a kinder, gentler death. I cut into the pasta to find strands of pulled veal, silky button mushrooms, black trumpets all bathed in a bronze-toned veloute sauce which tastes just as inspiritingly earthy and profound as the old super-enriched one. A little pumpkin mousse provides another texture. So does the traditional boiled potato with the firm consistency of soap.

Of course we must end with a souffle, the classic cuisine’s Koh-I-Noor diamond.. Grand Marnier souffle ($16) is just a few mouthfuls of orange-tinctured bliss. Then Bon Vivant spots the chocolate platter $12 on the next table. A must. Dark and medium chocolate mousses puckered up with a sweet-sour red currant ice cream.

Choc’s too heavy for me. I prefer my chocolate mousse ultralite, made from just eggs and semi-sweet chocolate with Cognac trace.

Over Armagnac, another estimable tradition, Bon Vivant says he’s uplifted by the spiritual sustenance from sharing food. But not any food. In future, he’s only going to eat in three star restaurants.

NOTEA new star system is in effect. One star: worth a detour. Two stars: Exceptional cooking and/or unique surroundings . Three Stars: The Package – signature cooking/style, atmosphere, service.

***Ici Bistro 538 Manning Ave 416-536 0079 jpco.ca/restaurant

Not wheelchair accessible. Dinner for two, food plus tax: $140