Busy busy Bayview Avenue is littered with nail salons, flea market antiques and Asian fast food haunts. Yes, there also sits McSorley's, my favourite watering hole, and I will concede that there are also a few finer Italian and Indian mainstays. But I can't remember the last time this tiny hood had an upscale-ish joint actually worth schlepping to.
With the recent arrival of L'Avenue, this well-heeled enclave can finally reposition itself for a restaurant renaissance. Amid a bustling street of
shoppers, baby strollers the size of Hummers and golden retrievers sits this quaint little unassuming French bistro. Staggered wood boards hung alongside Louis XIV-style mirrors and unique Parisian prints display a quirky juxtaposition of the rustic with the regal, a welcome departure from the norm of just throwing up some "vintage" French posters in cheap IKEA frames et voilÃ . It's the small signature touches like these that make all the difference.
And what's this, a French restaurant that plays classic French music softly in the background so you can actually have a conversation without having to yell at a DJ to pipe it down? And a wine list that features many intriguing varietals that you'd rarely find elsewhere, let alone order by the glass at affordable prices. No surprise since owner Otta Zapotocky (formerly of Nota Bene) happens to be a sommelier.
Also worthy of mention is service that is equally attentive, informative and gracious. Only open mere weeks and already they have their "regulars"; a very good sign. But what we are mostly here for is the food by chef Nicholas Sward whose resume runs the gamut from Loblaws to Park Hyatt's Annona. His small, but tres focused menu is all about the classics: cheese plates, escargot, French onion soup and steak frites, a breath of fresh air from the preciousness of molecular munchies with ridiculous ingredients and pretentious presentations. Sometimes, you just want to eat, y'know.
So what that it took two orders of baguette to get some fresh bread, but the room temperature herbed butter would taste sublime spread on shards of glass. A parsnip soup ($8.50) is textbook perfect, pure silky refinement with a slight peppering and delicate garlic slivers. Moules ($12) in white wine and garlic is pretty standard fare even among non-French food eateries. But did chef hand-stuff every mussel by hand? Unbelievably, each mollusk is filled with a mound of diced fennel and tomato all in a boffo bouillabaisse-like broth that you'll sop every last drop of, and gladly dribble down your chin.
I never thought I would live to see the day that an overcooked Cornish hen ($22) could still be considered brilliant. Overcooking poultry is so easy and often an irreversible blunder. Miraculously, though, this bird's flavour is intact, including its nicely fatty and crispy skin. A classic French stew such as Beef bourgignon ($19) might seem a tad wintery for early spring, but it's a classic that when done well should never be turned down and sniffed at. With the exception of this one: how could have these tough, dry chunks of beef been "slowly braised"? And the root vegetables , i.e. potatoes and carrots, while serviceable, feel as if they had been cooked apart then thrown in together at the last minute. GrandmÃ¨re would not be pleased.
Thankfully, this was the only disappointment of the meal. And even though we finish off this repast with a poached pear ($7) that could be a trifle softer, an accompanying lavender-scented fresh cream is so exhilarating it is good enough to bathe in.
The famous French Laundry cookbook sits proudly on a table just outside the restrooms. Inspiration, no doubt, as L'Avenue doesn't even come close to that level of culinary sophistication. But this early on it has lots going for it, not the least of which is a warm and welcoming place to drop in for a quick home-cooked meal by a chef who thankfully is not trying to reinvent our palettes, but just deliver some French food in an unpretentious yet refined manner. A few small fixes and it could easily become a dining destination.