It's no coincidence that the Museum Tavern is like stepping into a time machine and through the doors of Bemelmans, a Manhattan-style Yorkville landmark that sparkled for the last time almost 20 years ago. Fact is, co-owners Kyle and Glen Kristenbrun are the sons of Tom Kristenbrun, who for decades, with his company Chrysalis, virtually dictated where A-Listees whined and dined; places like Bemelmans (now Tiffany), Bel Air Cafe (now Sassafraz), Rhodes (now Didier) and the recently shuttered Bist
ro 990 (soon to be a condo, sigh).
Lucky for the bros, daddy hung on to some of the exquisite Noakes-Cohen furnishings that made Bemelmans a mecca for the '80s high-haired glitterati, like French gilt chandeliers, a pair of life-sized bronze deer, and of course the famous Bemelmans brass street plaque. Coupled with chocolate brown banquettes, white marble table tops, mirrors, a tin ceiling and brass railings and this marvellous moment down memory lane is complete. Or so I'm told, being a mere youngster at the time?.
Yet as much as Museum Tavern may harken back to Bemelmans, that's where the similarities end, full stop. Where Bemelmans may have changed the way high (snort, snort) society noshed at night, Museum Tavern just rubber-stamps current culinary trends -- and not all that well either. Yes, a white fish tostada ($12) is a delicious wet mess loaded with adobo mayo, red cabbage and cilantro. The fact that it doesn't fall apart with every bite is miraculous enough. But an order of stuffed chicken wings ($16) puzzles: first of all, four wings at this price is a crime against the 99%. But then again maybe they did us a favour; not only are they overcooked and over-breaded, but the so-called stuffing hardly has a hint of bacon and only scant traces of blue cheese. On the other hand tiny nuggets of deep-fried sweetbreads the size of popcorn shrimp ($15) are so pop-in-your-mouth perfect, you'd never know you were eating battered pancreas and/or thymus gland.
A spicy sticky maple sauce on baby back ribs ($18) delivers a nice kick, but they're dried out and chewy from overcooking. They go back, thankfully with a smile. But why are we experiencing such inconsistency with chef Stephen Gouzopoulos at the helm? I don't recall him serving a bad meal while at L'Unita. Already with more than a month to work on the menu, there is little excuse for such dizzying fluctuations in quality. But then he goes ahead and delivers one of the brightest moments of our meal, a spicy sausage torpedo ($15) sandwich with charred onions and peppers, smoked mozzarella and pimento. Crafted in house (thank you, pastry chef Cora James), this pork-y link is so moist, its juices ooze out all over the plate, something you will gladly sop up with an equally impressive house made bun with just the right amount of Wonder Bread-like squishiness. Alas, the fries are overcooked, some to an almost burnt brown colour.
Glad they called it a Hearts of Romaine ($12) salad and not a Caesar. This way I can't accuse them of tarnishing the reputation of that too often-imitated emperor of salads. Literally drowning it in fresh lemon juice and freshly ground chunks of black pepper is the only way to resuscitate this bland mix of lettuce, anchovies, croutons and teensy specks of double smoked bacon from a messy mayo-like dressing. It bad enough to omit the garlic, but to bastardize it with the addition of mayonnaise is inexcusable. Release the tigers!
A Tamworth pork chop ($27) is moist, tender and tasty and the size of the state of Texas. Delicious it is, but why on earth side it with a cold fingerling potato salad? This isn't a picnic, Betsy. And for goodness sake, if you are going to slice and dice the potatoes use russet or yukon gold spuds, not the lovely fingerling whose beauty lies in its sexy slenderness. And a deep fried strawberry pie ($10) is really just a glorified pop tart. But it's so yummy delicious it'll be devoured before you decide on what to call it. But is it too much to also ask for a little variation in presentation between courses? Pshaw, serving the sweets in the same cast iron pot you used for wings and sweetbreads is sheer laziness.
As much as I admire these brothers for trying to follow in their famous father's footsteps, they still have some pretty big shoes to fill if they don't want to let down their daddy's legacy. And here I was hoping this stretch of Bloor was finally ready to relinquish its reputation for fast food. But the execution will seriously have to improve if it aims to be anything more than just a place to stop in for few drinks and a quick snack after an afternoon at the ROM.