Only Bistro 990 maître d’ Fernando Temudo stands between you and the stars.
BISTRO 990 (990 Bay, at Wellesley, 416-921-9990) Complete dinners for $85 per person (lunches $55), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $30/$19. Open for lunch Monday to Friday noon to 3 pm, for dinner Monday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm, Sunday and holidays 5 to 10 pm. Licensed. Rating: NNN
Fernando Temudo. Remember the face and memorize the name. For the next 10 days, if you hope to hang with Hollywood glitterati at some of the hottest TIFF parties - and after-parties - in town, this is the man you're going to have to get past first. As the long-time manager of Bistro 990, the Film Fest's "official restaurant," across from TIFF headquarters at Sutton Place, it's Fernando who guards the velvet rope and decides who gets to schmooze with the A-list.
"I know most everyone, so crashers are never a problem," laughs the amiable Temudo. He's been running the show at Bistro since 1988. Before that, he did the same at legendary local hot spots Prego Della Piazza and Fenton's.
"Kiefer Sutherland is a sweetheart," says Temudo of the home-grown star of TV's 24 when asked to name the least snooty celeb. "He feels comfortable here. He says it's like home."
And the biggest pain?
"No one, really," replies the consummate host diplomatically. "Even Sean Penn behaved like a gentleman last year."
Temudo wouldn't know me from Adam - or Adam Sandler - but at a recent meal at Bistro he has nobodies like us feeling like bold-face somebodies. He smoothly shows us to one of the better tables in the room, just off to the side but with a full view of the house. Sinking into our ultrasuede banquette, we're almost immediately attended to by a series of very polished servers.
The blond du jour and I are soon tucking into Bistro's Caesar ($9.75 lunch/$10.75dinner). We've asked to share the properly composed salad (uncut inner leaves of crisp Romaine, a tiny dice of pancetta, and long thick shavings of parmigiano in a roasted garlic dressing lightly kissed with the barest suggestion of anchovy) and are taken aback when we receive two separate plates piled with lovely roughage.
At most of the joints we frequent, when we say we'd like to share, we usually just get a second plastic fork.
We barely need a knife to polish off our 6-ounce medium-rare black Angus strip loin ($21 with frites and sautéed baby bok choy), while chef Franco Belvedere's daily risotto ($19/$21) - today, correctly cooked arborio luxuriously laced with duck breast, crunchy walnuts, apple and creamy Brie - is simply perfection on a plate.
However, lunch a few days earlier falls far short of the mark.
The reason: it's Fernando's day off. Despite our reservation and a half-empty Bistro ("We're dead in August," we'd been told), we're given a choice of only two tables, one the worst in the house, next to the open kitchen, where half an hour later a hapless staff member drops a stack of dinner plates where our heads would have been, and the other behind a pillar. We take option two.
Our order quickly taken, we're soon nibbling on Bistro-baked ficelle. And then we wait. And wait. Clearly, something's amiss when a basic starter takes more than 45 minutes to arrive. But that gives us plenty of time from our vantage point in Siberia to check out Bistro's dated decor, all faux French country, complete with fake cobblestones and Matisse-ish art on nicotine-yellow walls. I'm surprised no one's playing the accordion.
The celebrities here this afternoon are strictly Z-list: Rick the Temp and someone who looks like Alex Trebek's younger brother. Oh, look, it's our first course! Listed on the card as "Nems au foie gras" ($11.75 lunch/$12.75 dinner), these three skinny deep-fried spring rolls would be better described as egg rolls stuffed with chopped chicken liver.
"You know that's salad, right?" asks a server with all the warmth of Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein when taking our order of Eminence de Boeuf Campagnard ($17/$18). Why, yes, we do - it's thin slices of rare black Angus sirloin plated over halved new potatoes and organic mesclun in a grainy Dijon vinaigrette. Rather good, too.
Even better is Bistro's steak haché ($15 lunch only), a AAA sirloin cheeseburger in all but name, minus the bun, topped with a cheesy mushroom fricassee and sided with more of those fabulous frites. But the combination of a terrible table, unexplained delays and cold-shoulder service leaves a distinctly bad taste in our gobs no matter how tasty the grub.
Are we not as worthy as Marlon Brando, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone, Fiddy Cent, Elvis Costello, Debbie Reynolds, Omar Shariff, William Shatner, the late Don "Nots," Jon Voight, Angelina Jolie (though not together), Barney Miller's Max Gail or the three lesser Baldwin brothers (minus Alec) - just some of the more than 300 bigwigs listed on 990's website who've done Bistro?
"These things happen," apologizes Temudo, who'll be leaving Bistro after 20 years on the front lines when the Film Fest finishes. "I'm heading up north."
I'm guessing Eglinton.