ALICE’S RESTAURANT (856 College, at Concord, 416-534-7500) Complete dinners for $50 per person (lunches/brunches $25), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $20/$10. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday 11 am to 2 pm, for dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 9 pm, brunch Saturday 11 am to 2 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Mention “Alice’s Restaurant” to anyone over a certain age – oh, 48, say – and they’ll immediately start singing Arlo Guthrie’s protest song of the same name. Back in 1967’s Summer of Love, it was a big hit on alternative FM radio.
Who can forget the 18-minute-long epic about the hippie who, after being arrested for littering, ends up in a military psychiatrist’s office dodging the draft by singing, “You can get anything you want down at Alice’s Restaurant?”
But say those words to most anyone else and you’ll get either a blank stare – “You mean that place on Church Street?” – or maybe “Alice has a restaurant?”
The Alice in question at the two-month-old resto on the College strip just west of Ossington happens to be owner/chef John Pekka Woods’s seven-year-old daughter.
Unlike the original, this Alice’s Restaurant isn’t outfitted with barnboard, church pews and stained glass windows. The room’s an anonymous 80s black box obviously decorated on the cheap, and the servers are endearingly amateurish. Out back, a massive 70-seat walled-in patio shaded by tall cedars could easily, with a little work, be one of the loveliest al fresco spaces in town.
Like the joint, Alice’s food – while not there yet – shows potential. Fancy it up a little and it could be fantastic.
A graduate of Stratford’s chef school, Woods apprenticed at that burg’s Rundles, locally at Mark McEwans’ North 44 and at Montreal’s acclaimed Toque. His most recent gig was an eight-year run at the Epicurean in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
All those years catering to tourists may be why Woods, who’s obviously talented, plays it safe. On his website, www.alicesrestaurant.ca, he states that his food is “meant to please, not dominate.” Frankly, I’d rather my dinner playfully slapped me around a little bit than complacently patted me on the head.
French onion soup has all the elements in play – sweet caramelized onion, full-bodied beef stock, unctuous gooey Gruyère – but lacks the wow factor. Ceasar salad (both $8 dinner/$5 lunch) seems merely perfunctory, a mix of the correct (inner romaine leaves, quality bacon, shaved parmigiano) and the mundane (a virtually anchovy-free dressing).
Pekka Woods’s card comes into focus with his crab cakes ($12), by far the best thing here. Plated over a spray of capers, diced cornichons and parsley oil, they’re deliciously loaded with great chunks of crab and minimal filler. Mains like roasted Cornish hen over slightly overprocessed buttery mash also grab the eye but somehow fail to reach the flavours they’re capable of.
See the opportunity in lamb shank (both $20), an otherwise gorgeously slow-braised section of leg sided with a near-cassoulet of white beans and out-of-context salsa. (Better a fruity Moroccan chutney, surely.)
“It’s like there’s something missing,” says the Literary Device, picking at the bones.
The simple answer is that the lamb’s been cooked in stock instead of wine. Woods says a number of his customers (my guess: people who attend theatre festivals in tourist towns) have complained about dishes containing alcohol. Allergies and all that – all those nasty preservatives, too. Luckily, no one’s yet complained about his astoundingly rich Warm Chocolate Cake or sugar-coated crème brûlée (two for $8, opening special).
Intrigued and back for brunch, we start with a double order of scones ($3 each), which arrive straight from the oven fabulously flaky and, sadly, after our mains.
Huevos Rancheros ($11) – poached eggs over a hand-formed tortilla with black beans, guacamole and that salsa – may be beautifully presented but rates an 8 out of 10 for taste.
But crisply pan-seared rosti ($7) dressed with lemony hollandaise, topped with more poached ouefs and optionally sided with house-made all-spiced pork sausage patties ($6) scores perfect marks. Alice’s burger ($9 brunch/lunch) also impresses even though – blood pressure be damned – its accompanying frites are ridiculously oversalted.
The steak pot pie ($12) is mighty tasty, too. Topknotted with a dome of puff pasty and served in a tureen complete with paper doily – how NOTL! – it brims with tender steak and myriad mushrooms. What’s the secret to its remarkable gravy?
“Beer,” laughs Woods. “You can’t make a good pot pie without it.”
My point exactly.