Shortly after 6 on a drizzly Tuesday night, Bouchon is nearly full. It's not the couple of fawning reviews that have created the heavily hyped buzz.
Some attention followed co-owner/chef J.P. Challet when he finally jumped here from the dismal Windsor Arms Café, the Yorkville hotel bo”te that hoped to recapture the cachet of the original celebrated room known to habitués as Café Yoo-hoo.
But after sampling the menu at his new spot, it's obvious that the real reason Bouchon is packed is that you can light up a Lucky while slurping lobster bisque ($8).
Well, not really. You still have to leave your table on the dining side of the low-ceilinged room to fix your nicotine jones. Just like the two after-work types across from us who head over to the bar for a smoke. In the middle of their salad course.
Legal, maybe, but the ventilation sucks. Or, rather, I wish it did. A chilly cross-wind from an open back door mixed with kitchen exhaust causes a woman a few tables over to put her parka back on, hood up. No one seems to notice. But the draft does allow the Literary Device and me - squeezed into a cramped, uncomfortable corner banquette - to get a good whiff of her Traditional Fish Soup ($7) served with three skimpy croutons and a ramekin of mild red-pepper rouille. Smells like fish.
Prices appear quite reasonable for this level of casual, upscale dining, but all portions, whether starters or mains, are appetizer-size, something that was stressed at lunch to encourage customers to order two courses (too much) and not mentioned at dinner (when it's not enough).
Tonight's soup ($6), an innocuous red-pepper puree strewn with a few white navy beans, is the same boring potage offered at lunch five days earlier. Beef Bourguignon ($16) tastes assembled, as if the tender, slow-cooked meat had just been introduced to the gravy and the pool of over-processed potato puree when plated. Perfunctory Bouillabaisse Risotto ($15) comes topped with two fillets of properly flaky red snapper. Delicious goat cheese tart ($9) with designer greens impresses.
Stunt cooking at its most ludicrous, Seared Foie Gras with Poutine ($17) is a pomo joke, right? Imagine four velvety duck livers draped over french fries and gravy, soft chèvre replacing squeaky Quebecois cheese curds. Funnily enough, the best dish of the evening - an amuse-gueule of gnocchi-esque Asian seafood cakes and lightly tempura-battered baby squid tendrils with a hint of heat - is complimentary.
We finish with a pleasant B-52 crème brûlée ($6) named for its boozy crust and not for my close personal friends.
Fancy a fag?
BOUCHON (38 Wellington East, at Jarvis, 416-862-2675) In a frayed subterranean room with cramped, uncomfortable seating, ex-Windsor Arms chef J.P. Challet's casual bistro offers appetizer-sized dishes at main-course prices. They range from not bad to dead boring to just plain silly (see foie gras with poutine). Complete meals for $50 per person ($35 lunch), including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am to midnight, Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Smoking allowed. Access: 13 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NN