Saying your restaurant has the "soul of Paris in the heart of Toronto," is a pretty lofty aspiration. Undoubtedly, diners are going to expect a lot. And from an aesthetics point of view, you won't be disappointed with La Societe.
Certainly, the new Bloor Street bistro breathes new life into The Colonnade and just screams the kind of quality and showmanship that club kingpin and restaurateur Charles Khabouth is famous for. Who else would bother to buy real leather to cover banquettes when such f
ine fakes are out there? Who else would insist on hand-laid floor tiles and a ceiling practically covered with stained glass?
Too bad all the money was spent inside. The patio has as much design flair as a local pub - only with less character. What might have been the most coveted seat in Yorkville is instead typically ordinary. City building restrictions were an issue, but that is no excuse for near-dead boxwood and "designer" tables that make Canadian Tire patio sets look attractive.
The menu is as predictable as you'd expect from a classic bistro: steak frites, moules, nicoise, pates, etc. But exec chef James Oldberg (Queen's Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake), exec sous John Gramarossa (who apprenticed under chef Alain Ducasse) and chef de cuisine Trevor Ritchie (Queen's Landing) have done absolutely nothing to highlight local or seasonal ingredients that mainstay bistros like Le Select Bistro does.
Read the menu and you might think it was ripped off from New York's Balthazar. And that should be a good thing. We set out to discover the similarities, but mostly we find disappointment. A huge bowl of steamed P.E.I. mussels ($18) have the rich taste and stunning fragrance of saffron, but the essential white wine and shallots, needed to cut the richness, are barely detectable. A butter poached lobster risotto ($21) may boast great taste and colour combos with al dente asparagus, but it so overcooked, it could be mistaken for your morning gruel.
Other than steak frites, steak tartare ($16) is a pretty dependable barometer for how good a bistro will fare (more on the steak frites fiasco later). Making patrons gnaw on stew-sized chunks of raw meat would be difficult for a hyena. Not to mention an overcooked quail egg whose runniness we've been robbed of and an overpowering portion of pickle and capers.
A retirement-home portion of frise salad with lardon ($12) arrives with yet another overcooked egg. Early days (open only 5 days the night we dine), but what does it take to get an egg cooked right with so many chefs in a kitchen.
It ain't broke don't fix it. So why on earth would you want to fuss with something as classic as a steak frites. Instead of grilling, some genius decided to prepare it sous vide, a 24-hour slow cook process. Upon arrival, it's surprisingly tasty and tender for being overcooked, but bereft it is of that charbroiled smokiness that makes your mouth water. If the kitchen wants to be adventurous, hands off the classics; try practicing with something else. And after so many complaints, I'm happy to report that steak frites a La Societe is now charred on the outside, and cooked to your satisfaction with perfectly thin, crisp and salty frites.
Thankfully, desserts get this repast back on track. A gateau chocolate ($8) is like a perfect soufflÃƒÂ©, light and fluffy with just the right moist consistency and time-released chocolate ooze instead of the all-too-common too-liquidy lava flow. A lemon tart ($8) also achieves top marks for its perfect pucker and beautifully odd rectangular crust.
To err is human, to forgive is divine. With a room as near perfect as this, it's a bit of a let down that the food could be so faulty. But location, location, location works as much for restaurants as real estate, and La Societe can probably survive on that alone. And when you add a consummate professional like restaurant veteran Tony Longo to handle the operation, it's pretty much a guarantee that these points will be addressed. Knowing him, changes have already effected.