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Affordably priced sharing plates mark the arrival of this newly unveiled seafood-heavy stand-in for Lucien.
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Review: Aww, shucks

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on November 14, 2013

Remember the Mercer Street Grill? How about YYZ restaurant? Well, you would if you'd eaten at either. The man we have to thank for those much-loved and much-missed culinary gems is Simon Bower, who since the 1980s, quietly and without fanfare, made his own credible stamp on downtown's dining out circuit.

When Mercer closed to make way for the Hotel Germaine and the stylish YYZ was shuttered, Bower took a breather only to return with the lush Lucien that for six years impressed with a revolving door of respected guest chefs like Grant van Gameren, Guy Rawlings, Robbie Hojilla, and Scot Woods, to name a few. Bower has worked with some of the best, but he's not had the love he deserves for his decades of tireless devotion, delivering Toronto foodies a finer dining experience.

Not surprisingly, in order to survive in these troubling times even higher end restaurants have had to make their offerings accessible to the masses. A troublesome trend but, it seems, a necessary evil. So it's a bit of a surprise, though a pleasant one, to see Bower waiting his own tables on a cold Monday night at his new Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster Bar. Visually, not much has changed except that the space looks a bit tired, a hodgepodge of the old dark and alluring Lucien, velvet curtains and that signature chandelier brightened up with more current accents like white subway tiles that I am not totally sure belong. It almost looks a bit like a '90s nightclub after last call when the lights are turned up. Not exactly what I expected considering Bower is known for spending scads on getting his dining rooms just right.

Calling the place an oyster bar is a bit misleading. While there are most certainly fresh oysters on the half shell to be had, none are smoked, breaded or even fried, let alone displayed at the bar. Though Bower assures me that later in the week when the restaurant is busier oysters are freshly shucked at the bar. A lot of good that does me on a Monday night. That being said, a dozen oysters ($29) are a super value and there's a nice array of choice like Rasberry Point, Mystic River, Village Bay and Merigomish Harbour. A great house-made hot sauce and a red wine mignonette is a pleasant deviation from the classic white.

In the kitchen is chef Keith Hosein, an east-ender from mid-range mainstays like Table 17 and Goods & Provisions, and sous chef Damien Hayes from Earth and Globe Bistro. So expectedly, the food has a welcome simplicity to it. But perhaps the bistro-focused menu is a bit too simple with dumbed-down dishes like tempura shrimp ($11) and smoked salmon ($10). Bread ($2) from Thuet is the only thing not made in-house. But this sourdough and dark rye is pretty unremarkable. Add to that a shallow dish of olive oil and balsamic, yawn, and I find myself asking where is the home made butter Bower used to serve his patrons. Ahh, cutbacks.

The menu is comprised of mostly sharing plates with a beef rib and steak frites to sate those of larger appetites. Completely divine is an insanely cheap chicken liver parfait ($9) with a concord grape jam, bacon pieces and a warm chicken rillette with housemade mustard (swoon!) and pickles. To describe it as being sinfully rich and creamy doesn't even come close. Attention to detail like this is what gets you noticed. Seared jumbo scallops ($12) are also crazy-priced: three plump tender scallops served with softened leeks, a light chili sauce and juicy red grapefruit segments makes for yet another elegant, perfectly executed plate.

The salad ($9), a lovely, delicate combo of kale, frisée, blue cheese and chewy dried cranberries, is a trifle overdressed for my liking, and a sweet potato gnocchi ($17) is quite hearty, with Brussels sprouts petals and other fall veggies making it almost stew-like. Too bad about an heirloom carrot jus that lends a sickly sourness to an otherwise stellar effort.

Steaming a Lake Erie whitefish ($18) with swiss chard may be a novel idea, but it can't mask the swampiness of the fish. Sided with a lightly creamed corn and miso makes this dish a bit too timid in the flavour department. And as much as kale is the new "it" food, why add an additional green instead of perhaps a starch like fingerling potatoes? Not all of us are carb-phobic.

West Grey Farms beef short rib ($19) is served with a rich red wine demi glaze. A little on the tough and chewy side, yet the meat nonetheless falls off the bone. But its cauliflower puree has been so finely processed it practically runs like water.

Desserts, however, are a delightful "up" to this teeter-totter meal. A deep, rich, flourless chocolate tart ($9) with a creme anglaise has just enough sweetness without being cloying. And a classic house creme brulee ($8) is not only the tallest you'll ever see, the hard top is as thick as a skating rink, protecting a deeply perfumed vanilla custard.

Bower has been in the restaurant business so long, and accomplished so much it must be humbling to have to bus your own tables. But then again for all the fancy shmancy places he has conceived of and operated over the years, to know Bower is to know a very humble guy who looks like he'd rather be fishing than serving high-end food to fickle foodies like me. Bower has certainly earned a place of respect in my heart, but whether or not the Olde Towne Bistro and Oyster Bar will succeed depends entirely on whether Bower has both feet in rather than one foot in and the other on a boat. More accolades will hopefully follow, but in the meantime, some of mine will have to do.

Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
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3 Comments for Olde Towne Oyster Bar

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Richard Paul Profile Picture
By Richard Paul

Richard Paul recommends Olde Towne Oyster Bar

Very sad to see this close. Enjoyed the two dinners I managed to squeeze in in the short time it was open. Meanwhile, for some reason Papillon is doing fine... WTF???
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eduardo riviezzi Profile Picture
By eduardo riviezz...

eduardo riviezzi may recommend Olde Towne Oyster Bar

Regarding the review done to Olde Towne Oyster Bar, Aww, Shucks. What is wrong to wait on tables? I had been doing that for the last 17 years, when an owner works around the table, he or she is able to give good service and also able to answer all type of questions about the menu, and the wines. Do you know that most of the people that work in restaurants, [ 80% ] don't know any thing about what they serve, and even if you teach them, still don't want to know. They are there, for just because. It's beautiful to go to a restaurant, and ask question about what you about to eat or drink, and get the right answer, why to criticize or make a comment, of some one that is trying to survive is this bad times that our industry is going through, the majority of the food critic, are excellent writer, with a lot of imagination, but when it come to food, wine and service, I always have my big doubt about them sorry for my English.
Posted on

graeme litteljohn has not yet visited this restaurant.

My, my--Alan A. Vernon's review of Olde Towne Oyster Bar is certainly "teeter-totter" too. He has a delightful, if somewhat high handed style of writing seemingly spurning "offerings accessible to the masses" to quote the gustory gentleman himself. Why that should be "troublesome" or a "necessary evil" makes we plebians feel we should storm the barricades. I thought--and certainly hoped--good food no longer was reserved for the aristocrats while the rest of us peered through the lattice work. But this is starting to sound political not food oriented. And what's so wrong with a good olive oil and balsamic?? But there I--or Alan--go again. All in all, the fresh oysters alone would entice me to visit Chef Bower's accessible bistro. Oh by the way Alan, you need to correct your subject/verb agreement in the second sentence of the 4th paragraph!
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