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Ortolan chef Damon Clements puts the finishing touches on dishes.
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ORTOLAN (1211 Bloor West, at Margueretta, 647-348-4500, littledrunkbird.com) Complete dinners for $45 per person, including tax, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $16. Open Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Cash only. Access: slight bump at door, tight tables, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
Ortolan's Damon Clements and Daniel Usher consider themselves purveyors of fine taste. To prove their claim, the two former chefs de cuisine - Clements most recently at Delux, Usher at Pizzeria Libretto - launched a pint-sized bistro in Bloordale last April.
"We've spent a lot of time drinking wine on each other's back porches," explains Clements. "We've spent enough time working for other people. Now's the time to do it for ourselves."
Ortolan has been worth the wait. All of 26 seats (eight of them at the bar), the claustrophobic space seems packed even when there are only six customers and two more-than-affable servers in the joint, one of them ex-Brockton General chef Guy Rawlings.
From the large chalkboard menu that looms over the room, we start our light summer supper with pâté-like rabbit rillettes spread on chewy slices of Thuet baguette, a handful of mild Taggiasche olives on the side. A half-dozen grilled green onions - and one organic purple spring onion - come with a bowl of garlicky Catalan almond chili sauce (both $8), while a surprisingly tasty red radish and kohlrabi salad ($7) in lemony cumin yogurt dressing gets finished with freshly snipped dill and slivered scallion tops.
Polishing off the last of our house-made rhubarb sodas ($3), we move on to the shareable mains. Clements and Usher hop on the rustic Italian bandwagon with beautifully executed gnocchi in a rich mascarpone cream thick with foraged Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms and a final shaving of parmigiano ($14). Yes, it's half the size of a plate of something similar at Sugo, but for the same price it packs twice the wallop.
A good 8 ounces of gorgeously rare skirt steak ($18) arrives pre-sliced in a pool of spicy house-made harissa and piled with wilted ribbons of raw celery stalk marinated in olive oil.
We side the bordering-on-sweet beef with a tasty stir-fried side of bitter dandelion greens, pine nuts and raisins ($7) in yet more olive oil and garlic.
They say the perfect panna cotta wobbles like a woman's breast. If so, Ortolan's lavender-scented custard confection strewn with stewed strawberries ($8, all tax-inclusive) is an unqualified success, seeing as it jiggles like one of Simon Cowell's man-boobs.
Now for the bad news. Ortolan doesn't have air-conditioning, so if the temperature's soaring outside, it's a Swedish sauna in here. And they don't take reservations, so scoring even a two-top on a slow Tuesday night without a wait on the sidewalk is a bit of a gamble. But for a meal of this quality for less than 75 bucks a couple (not including drinks), it's a risk many will be willing to take.