Le Select (432 Wellington West, at Spadina, 416-596-6405) Complete meals for $50 per person ($25 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $21/$13. Open Sunday to Wednesday 11:30 am to 11 pm, Thursday 11:30 am to 11:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to midnight; brunch Saturday and Sunday till 4 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
After nearly three decades on Queen West, long-running French bistro Le Sélect has relocated to more spacious digs not far away on Wellington West. The move planned for last year was delayed by bureaucratic red tape.
Located across the street from the Globe & Mail's loading dock, the new two-storey building's hard to miss. Architect Ralph Giannone's recreation is uncanny, duplicating every detail of the original, from the art nouveau facade to the welcoming zinc bar to the posters plastered on its pale faux-nicotine-stained walls. Only one thing's missing.
The very first thing that pops into my mind this chilly winter eve once I've settled into a familiar curved leather banquette opposite an appropriately roaring fireplace is, "Who killed the fucking baskets?"
I singled them out for criticism the last time I scrutinized the old girl a couple of years back. They were cute as the dickens initially, but raising and lowering them in order to avoid swinging baguettes to the forehead soon became a chore. Still, they were legendary.
In their stead, a rather hesitant-looking chap in a black apron wanders the tin-ceiling'd room with a pannier of house-baked dinner rolls still warm from the oven. His duty is to dolefully dole out exactly one bun per bum in the house. And a full house it is, too. Although Le Sélect has only been open two weeks, the relaxed room's packed with long-time regulars here to check out Jean-Paul Challet's inaugural card.
I've never been a fan of the former Fifth chef, finding his work at Bouchon pedestrian at best. But Challet and Le Sélect make a good fit and should keep the punters happy. Once, that is, they get past the escalated prices.
We begin with Challet's intoxicating fish soup ($7.50 lunch/$8.50 dinner). Coral-hued and coupled with garlic crisps with a sweet red-pepper rouille, this supernal purée grows tiresome around the 23rd lovin' spoonful. Half the portion would be plenty, perhaps ladled into the chic black demitasses that the house uses for its exemplary espresso ($3.50).
Salade Mesclun Maison ($7.95) is one salade mundane, a rudimentary assortment of designer greens doused with balsamic and vinaigrette. But a deliciously dressed tangle of feathery frissée ($10.50) redolent of smoky sesame impresses, especially when paired with a mille-feuille of buttery scalloped potato generously garnished with a gratinée of whipped chèvre.
A starter when we visit but now an entrée, al dente house-made ravioli ($15.95/$18.95) stuffed with puréed pumpkin sweetened with maple syrup come sided with marvellously sculpted and roasted veggies carrot? parsnip? with such unique textures and shapes that we couldn't identify them.
Our otherwise helpful server likens an entrée of poached salmon quenelles teamed with tiger shrimp dusted with cocoa butter and sauced with a thin cream bisque ($13.95/$20.95) to bouillabaisse. He's wrong. The menu's incorrect, too, in claiming that confit de canard ($13.95/$20.95) consists of free-range duck legs instead of the single appendage that eventually arrives under-plated with three slender slices of terrific pommes Sarladaises fried in duck fat and half a dozen crisp haricots verts.
We hit paydirt with poutine á la Tomme ($11.95/$17.95), the house's remarkable skinny frites covered with spicy merguez sausage, jus and a healthy toss of the mild unpasturized cow's milk cheese from the Savoie region of France that gives this tasty dish its name. But might we suggest someone consult an English-French dictionary toot-sweet before ever serving tarte tatin tiède ($8.95/$9.95) warm apple tart baked upside down, with a scoop of house-made vanilla ice stone-cold again?
Earlier in the week, we do brunch in the middle of another mob scene. The runny Brie omelette ($10.95) recalls room service with its side of plain salad, while Oeufs Frites ($9.95) two over-easy eggs and a couple of rashers of merguez sausage are unfortunately frites-free , sided instead with some anemic, evenly cubed hash browns that might as well be McCain's. But here are those fabulously skinny fries alongside the house bavette topped with chopped shallot ($13.95 lunch or brunch/$20.95 dinner), now fabulously tender, aged and marinated flat-iron steak instead of chewy hanger.
Desserts are still hit and miss, a parfait glass of chilled chocolate mousse ($7.95/$8.95) recalling pudding, the lemon tart a wan flan embellished with ripe berries ($9.95).
We can forgive the kitchen for that cold tarte, the lukewarm Earl Grey tea ($3.75) and the blast-furnace effect of the fireplace. After all, it's early days yet for Le Sélect, and there's likely five times the drama going on behind the scenes you can read about the resto's widely reported battle with the AGCO over its wine cellar at www.leselect.ca as there is out on the floor. But where are the bread baskets?
"They're in storage upstairs," laughs Frederic Geisweiller, who, with partner Jean-Jacques Quinsac, is gearing up for another season of Winterlicious. "We're planning to have a few set up soon, maybe at a couple of booths in the back. But until then, if someone is feeling especially nostalgic, we can always have a really tall waiter dangle one from a rope over their table."