call michael sweeney a rock 'n' roll restaurateur. Rail-thin with ginger, shoulder-length locks permanently topped by an artfully curled cowboy hat, this Axl look-alike has a wicked sense of humour. And a wicked sense of pop-culture history. He co-owns Ciao Edie on College, the 60s-style shrine to Edie Sedgwick, the iconic Andy Warhol superstar, Velvet Underground go-go dancer and Blonde On Blonde muse to Bob Dylan.Only a month ago, with partners Nanette Basic and Joseph Ramundi, Sweeney launched Airport Lounge, a super-hot boite across the street from Edie that pays tribute to the 70s. Though no one ever went to Ciao for the chow, word has it that Airport's a bargain-basement knock-off of Tempo, the chic Japanese joint down the block.
Instead, Airport couldn't be more different. Mocking the Wallpaper look that has stalled Toronto restaurant design for the past five years, Airport replaces former tenant Fruition's Nordic cool with wit.
The blinding red and orange room virtually winks. Next to floor-to-ceiling glass, Karim Rashid's Oh chairs in translucent cherry red ring a shiny red 50s formica kitchen table on maroon shag throws. An orange vinyl banquette faces a row of clear acrylic chairs by Philippe Starck spotlit by bulbous brown light fixtures -- from 70s sci-fi flick Soylent Green, no less.
With this much decor, the food's gotta suck, right?
Wrong. Think of chef Timothy Ng's pan-Asian take on traditional Japanese finger food as sushi, sashimi and yakitori twisted through Singapore and India. It's really quite unique. And sensational when it works.
Not a familiar name to most, Ng was on the ground floor of East-meets-West fusion, first at Café Asia with Andrew Chase and Camilo Costales, later solo as sushi MC at Canoe. Ironically, Tempo major-domo Tom Thai succeeded him at both spots. After jumping from the top of the TD Centre circa 96 (metaphorically, folks), Ng concentrated on low-key catering gigs until his return to the boards at Airport.
Three of us arrive early on a recent Wednesday evening. By seven, the room's a third full and chilling after work to jazzy house. Quite relaxed for a space jammed by 10 every night with alterna-swingers belting back Elvis-inspired Blue Hawaiian cocktails ($6.50) and 2-ounce gin martinis ($8).
Going full throttle, we order Ng's three sushi 'n' sashimi omakase (Japanese for whatever) dinners. No miso soup or iceberg lettuce prelude here. Instead, Le Sashimi Fantastique ($30) deliciously explodes all at once -- smoky mackerel fillets accented by slivered shallots and shiso leaf, a thinly sliced napoleon of sweet serrated scallops on a pink bed of see-through raw onion, blood-red tuna with cucumber lips, swordfish steak offset by Chinese chive and lime tips. On curly leaf lettuce, partially hollowed out half-lemons come tiered with flying fish roe -- coral coral -- their lemon pulp detonating this distant cousin of caviar.
Though unimaginatively named, Vegetarian Sushi Set's 14 pieces of nigiri and maki ($20) push the veggie envelope -- blankets of tiny fiddleheads over rice tied with nori ribbons, barely blanched yellow squash with black onion seed, young asparagus with daikon sprouts, scarlet baby beets wrapped in spinach over wafer-thin lemon points. Textured guacamole-ish avocado gets wrapped with tissue-thin lengths of Japanese eggplant while edamame wrapped in yellow zucchini come tossed with cubed vine tomato and shallot. Inspired.
But what's with L'Inspiration Du Moment ($30), a dead boring lineup of fresh fish fillets -- tuna, yellowtail, salmon, swordfish, fluke, mackerel and whitefish -- on sushi rice slightly tickled by wasabi? Hello, Bloor Street.
"I remember that order," Ng recalls. "It wasn't what I wanted at all, but you'd already tried the more interesting stuff."
His segue into North Africa -- Moroccan chickpea soup ($6) when he could have served his fiddlehead chowder swimming with all that fabulous leftover fish? -- diminishes Ng's strengths. He's off-target again with bland-on-bland rice pudding ($8), an overpriced cardamom-scented, sultana-less purée that would be shunned at a Gerrard Street all-you-can-eat buffet.
His basement kitchen's still under construction, so Ng achieves all this with little more than a camp stove and an austere assistant known only as Edwin. Watch Toronto go gaga for the chef's strawberry tempura once his deep fryer gets installed. That, plus more sexy Barry, Curtis and Sly in the mix, will make Airport ready for takeoff.
AIRPORT LOUNGE (492 College, at Palmerston, 416-921-3047) This 70s-inspired psychedelic funkateria is the hottest thing on the strip. Unlike neighbouring it spots, it's got more to offer than hyper-cool. Chef Timothy Ng, a former Canoeist, launches tsunamis of taste with globally twisted, tapas-style takes on Japanese tradition. Complete dinners for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a martini. Open Tuesday to Saturday 6 pm to 1 am, bar till 2 am. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN