If anyone ever truly earned the honorific of "veteran restaurateur", its Johnny K. Long before nightlife kingpins Charles Khabouth and Nick Di Donato took control of Toronto after-dark, there was Johnny Katsuras who's been setting the style standards of Hogtown since the '70s. They include lone-gone haunts like the Tazmanian Ballroom, The Blue Angel, King Curtis Room and The Claremont to more recent successes like Pan, Fancy Shoes, Lolita's Lust, the Chinchilla Lounge and Tomi-Kro.
His rich con
tribution to putting Toronto on the foodie map is one that legends are made of. Almost 35 years and more than 30 restaurants/clubs later, he still finds the energy to reinvent himself by opening a new restaurant in a strip mall in a run-down corner of town looking on to an auto body shop and a No Frills. With such a seedy view, you might wonder what he means by calling his new Playpen "a restaurant and full service lounge." But happy to report that Playpen is indeed serious about giving its patrons what they came for - none of which includes a massage with a happy ending.
Playpen's retro '60s decor may recreate what a former Playboy Club might've looked like, sans the sexy bunnies. For the frustrated set designer in all of us, it's worth the trip just to see the gigantic octopus-like chandeliers salvaged from the late '50s Imperial Oil building condo conversion. But captivating Mondrian-like wall art, upon closer inspection, appears to be constructed with corrugated coloured plastic that you'd expect to see at children's science fair. Other tut-tuts include chairs that scream The Brick, but Playpen in its own charming way is really just paying homage to the old tavern, replete with white table-cloths and formal-like service. What princess doesn't like having their cutlery replaced between dishes without having to ask.
As at many Johnny K. haunts, wife Laura Prentice helms the kitchen with a menu that Johnny calls "big city cuisine." But if you think that means trendy and precious, nuh, uh. Don't expect to see any sea asparagus or heirloom beets; no bison burgers or jicama slaws; no pomegranate reductions or purple potatoes. It's old school all the way with everything from gravlax and steak tartar to old classics like rack of lamb, osso bucco, filet of beef and various fish and seafood with sides like creamed spinach and scalloped potatoes. Ironic or uninspired? Who cares, at Playpen execution is king.
Other than an over reliance on feta and one too many seared items, most selections underscore this kitchen's finesse. Like a plate of near-perfect seared chicken livers ($9), each morsel practically melting in your mouth. A crispier exterior might have added textural juxtaposition to a silky centre doused in a port glaze, but that's just being finicky. You'll finger lick this plate clean and not care who is looking. The rich miso broth of a seafood hot pot ($17) with the added bonus of umami makes slightly overcooked whitefish, shrimp, scallops and mussels forgivable, but a ricotta gnocchi ($11) is more dense and chewy than permissible this typically pillow-soft pasta, probably because it was rolled out rather than hand-formed. More damaging to the dish, however, is a too-cloying cream sauce with not enough sharpness from a supposed addition of parmesan, not to mention a sprinkling of walnuts that would've been better toasted or sauteed. But then focus shifts to a filet of Black Angus beef ($24), seven ounces of the most perfectly prepared cow eaten in eons. How can they charge so little for this expensive tenderloin cut? But such a stellar slab deserves better than a grossly undercooked feta scalloped potato square.
A tender succulent Moroccan hen ($20) served alongside roughly hewn Yukon gold mashed potatoes sports a nicely crispy skin with an exotic mix of spices. Not much to go wrong here. But a slaw of finely shredded raw Brussels sprout ($7) with large chunks of Asiago is again a prime example of how cheese can overpower. Thanks to a light olive oil dressing and a generous smattering of double smoked bacon cubes this dish is rescued from disaster. And the finely sliced frites ($5) and gossamer thin onion rings ($5) are a table-must.
After a meal of mostly highs, desserts are probably a pretty safe bet. And with the exception of a Key Lime pie ($8) whose curd seems a bit tough to the touch, they are. A house-pressed yogurt ($10) served with grilled figs and honey is the perfect end to a gut-busting meal. A diminutive and delicate chocolate ganache ($6) with a slight hint of orange is another fine choice even if the cardamom is undetectable.
Katsuras and Prentice have lots to be proud of. Between the stress of decades of opening and closings, accidents and health scares, they've both been to hell and back. They are actually lucky to be alive, but local foodies should feel equally lucky as they continue to wow us without trying too hard to impress.