PONY (488 College, at Palmerston, 416-923-7665) Complete meals for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a $7 glass of wine. Average main $18. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Down a narrow alley to the west of Pony's storefront, the long-running College Street eatery just west of Bathurst, up a flight of dark wooden stairs, waits one of Toronto's loveliest outdoor dinner theatres. Pony's intimate shady deck is festooned with flower pots. A second flag-stoned grotto lies below, complete with built-in smoker and garden shed. From the rooftop terrace, gauzily draped French doors open to a more formal second-storey room, its walls painted a bistro-correct faux nicotine.
It's a room with a significant history, too. Back in the 80s and straight from his groundbreaking stint at Scaramouche, Jamie Kennedy opened it as Palmerston. For the next 10 years, it was one of Toronto's most influential kitchens, changing hands several times, with the likes of brash young Michael Stadtlander and Quartier's Marcel Réthoré at the helm. Pony's Marc Zegers remembers it well.
"I'm from Montreal, and I ate at Palmerston as an 18-year-old because a friend of mine's cousin was the bartender," Pony's garrulous owner-chef recalls. "We were a couple of hungry college kids and they served us nouvelle cuisine - two little pieces of pork medallion, a few Parisian potatoes and a turned baby carrot for $140.
"So we made a stink. Kennedy and Stadtlander were right in front of us, because we were sitting at the chef's table. After dinner my friend and I went upstairs to the patio and smoked a big hash joint - two young guys from Montreal, right? - and all the smoke went downstairs into the restaurant. They threw us out!
"A couple of years later I went back to Palmerston to apply for a job," he continues. "I went back to the shed where Jamie was and said, 'It's an honour to be in your presence, Mr. Kennedy, and I'd like to work for you.' Without looking at my resumé, he said something like 'I don't think so' and dropped it into a garbage can. How about 'Go fuck yourself?'"
Instead, he apprenticed at Centro, then worked with Michael Bonacini at Canoe and Jump before opening Pangaea with Martin Kouprie in '97.
"Three months later I bought Pony," he laughs.
He's also just lowered his prices to attract more customers. It works for club kid Rhoda Dendron and me. We're ensconced at the large round table in Pony's front window to essay the boîte's three-course $22.95 Monday-to-Thursday prix fixe.
From our padded chaises, we have a ringside seat for the streetcar construction out front. Except for another table of birthday-celebrating regulars, tonight we're the only ones.
Rhoda begins with a visually exceptional and equally palate-pleasing salade composed of bitter ripped radicchio, torn Bibb lettuce and house-pickled veggies in a peppery honey-ginger vinaigrette flecked with sun-dried tomato. I follow suit with a fabulous rustic, rough-hewn purée of mushrooms - cremini, button, oyster, shiitake - that's finished with a last-minute sautée of even more 'shrooms (both $5.95 à la carte), a splash of balsamic reduction and a final swirl of white truffle oil.
The prix fixe principals change weekly, but tonight Dendron does red snapper, a perfectly executed if rather ordinaire fillet crusted with a crumble of pine nuts, plated tall over buttery zucchini, peas in the pod and - what's this? - a baby carrot. Properly lumpy mashed spuds complete the main. Though it lacks the depth of flavour and finesse of versions served at 93 Harbord, Eat and, yes, Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Zegers's braised lamb shank ($17.95), presented over a first-rate Puys lentil cassoulet, only needs to ramp up its marinade of soy sauce, demi-glace, red wine and tenderizing Coca Cola (!) to be their equal.
We finish with tiramisu, a not unpleasant but pedestrian finish to an enjoyable meal - a quibble, really, considering that at these prices they're practically giving the grub away.
Thoroughly stuffed, Rhoda's gently chided by our charming old-school server - 73 year-old André Malibert, who despite having lived in Canada since 1958 retains his thick French accent - for not cleaning her plate. Earlier, we'd feared he'd pop a valve when he lifted his massive yard-long pepper mill over our first and second courses.
"I don't get it," Zegers later asks. "What am I doing wrong?"
Can't be the competent food, value for money and terrific secluded terrace. And so what if Pony's not the hippest thing on the strip? While its current playlist of bluesy rock dinner music certainly won't cut it with the DJ crowd, it's nothing an early-evening Rough Guide To Paris Café Music, mid-soirée Grace Jones's Greatest Hits and a late-night Malcolm Maclaren and Catherine Deneuve Paris CD wouldn't fix.