Casual Gallic

Rating: NNNLegend has it that a small local restaurant serving simple, inexpensive meals was first called a "bistro" by a.

Rating: NNN

Legend has it that a small local restaurant serving simple, inexpensive meals was first called a “bistro” by a Russian soldier after the Napoleonic Wars almost 200 years ago. Hankering for a Royale With Cheese during the allied occupation of Paris, the hungry chap supposedly shouted “Bistro!” — Moscow slang for “Quick!” — at the confused restaurateur while placing his order. The name stuck.
Casual dining

Ever since then, bistros have been synonymous with casual dining, albeit of a certain style. Think Gitane-smoking servers dressed in floor-length aprons serving up French fare like boeuf bourguignon. Foodie fuddy-duddies, the same old farts who long for the days when “gay” meant “merry,” may wonder why Spaha calls itself a bistro.

Taking its name from the nearby intersection — Spadina and Harbord — the Wallpaper-inspired eatery goes against the obsolete stereotype. The walls haven’t been faux-painted nicotine yellow they’re floor-to-ceiling glass. The CD system sends its regrets to Edith Piaf instead, Barry, Kelis and Aretha duke it out on the decks. Most significantly, lapdogs — and laptops — are strictly taboo.

At Spaha (or sPaHa, as its logo pretentiously insists), modern versions of bistro classics like white-bean cassoulet with veal chop, sausage and ham ($12.50) may sound textbook trad but arrive at table thoroughly 21st-century.

But even the spoil-sport purists will stop quibbling when they discover that the entire menu, everything from dill-hollandaise-bathed poached eggs on halved croissant ($7.50) to broiled entrecôte steak frites ($10.50), is available every day from mid-morning till the wee hours.

Besides, you can’t get any more Gallic than French onion soup ($5), a fabulously rich beef broth thick with sweet caramelized onion and crowned with sourdough croutons and smoky Gruyère. Follow that with a dozen and a half mussels ($7/$10 with frites) steamed in an intense, garlicky tomato puree spiked by a thyme sprig. Make sure to sop up every last drop with Ace’s superior baguette.

No worries

Although they won’t cause Jamie Kennedy any worry, Spaha’s Yukon gold fries are grease-free and bistro-correct eaten with a dab of sharp Maille mustard. But what’s with the pricing? Similar-sized portions cost $4 as an a la carte side dish, $3 with mussels and only $2 with the first-rate rare roast beef sandwich slathered with raspberry Dijon and sauteed red onion ($6.50/$8.50).

This same perplexing sticker price affects Spaha’s all-pervasive supermarket mesclun dressed with dead-boring balsamic. Say, whatever happened to Miracle Whip?

A few days later, early in the evening, the kitchen and floor staff clearly outnumber the customers. But that’s a good thing. When the club kids show up fashionably late, Spaha needs the help to keep up with the chaos. Now, the noise level borders on serene, but add a roomful of screaming scenesters and watch the volume red-line. But then again, with all this sound-bouncing glass and concrete, Spaha seems designed to be loud.

The Literary Device bumps up her lime-zapped black bean soup ($4.50) with a resuscitating shot of Tabasco. My unusual mix of a large hunk of red-wine-marinated portobello mushroom comes with sweet steamed beets, crushed walnuts and crisp watercress strands ($7.50).

My fellow gastronaut follows with a perfectly cooked striped bass ($14.50) filet that’s been steamed en papillote in a grape leaf instead of the customary parchment paper. A nutty wild rice timbale finishes the plate alongside buttery baby bok choy and carrots. Another update, slow-cooked then preserved duck confit — a whole leg and partial breast ($13.75) — arrives garnished with flash-fried peach and pear sections and another pile of Spaha’s faboo fries.

Desserts need work. Upside-down tarte Tatin ($5.50) approximates the Loire Valley version served in bistros around the world, but straight-from-the-fridge chocolate mousse ($5) resembles pudding, with its whipped-cream sploosh and raspberry tip. What, no maraschino cherry?

Spaha’s clever round-the-clock lineup makes for great grazing. Peckish? Try the coarse house paté ($6), a meatloaf-like mixture of crudely ground lamb sausage, duck liver and veal chop tenderloin wrapped in red-wine-infused gelatin. Equally ingenious, a bed of spinach sprinklered with sesame seeds and alfalfa sprouts comes topped with a pinwheel of mango slices and a toss of both palm and artichoke hearts ($7.50).

Fixed gaffes

The price might be right, but the terrine of grilled zucchini, eggplant and sun-dried Roma tomato layered with creamy goat cheese ($5.50/$8.50 with salad) and the dish of five sea scallops, three bitter endive leaves and a solitary tomato swimming in lightly curried pesto ($6.50) both offer slim servings.

Despite a few easily fixed gaffes, chef Hani Ben-Shabat — a young cook who’s worked her way up through the ranks at North 44, Canoe and To Go — is clearly a chef willing to take on the old guard.

And if your Larousse defines “bistrot” as a small nightclub, sashay down Spaha’s sweeping terrazzo staircase to the more intimate chocolate-coloured lounge. There, you’ll be surrounded by chic young things swilling cocktails, all perched on vinyl banquettes. And no matter what, don’t miss the soon-to-be-famous powder rooms.

Obviously, Spaha owner Anwar Mukhayesh is one savvy restaurateur. Besides running Kensington Kitchen, his family’s popular eatery down the street, he’s also a partner in Precipice Studios, the interior designers responsible for his new joint’s nostalgic late-90s look. Couple this on-the-pulse know-how with the 150-seat wrap-around patio that’s due next spring and Spaha can’t miss.

In fact, Spaha’s impossible to miss. Under construction for some time, it’s located on the first floor of U of T’s latest retro-brutalist building. Cantilevered from it out over the street is a huge letter “O,” perhaps standing for the last letter in bistro.

stevend@nowtoronto.comSPAHA (66 Harbord, 260-6133)

If you’re so hip, why aren’t you here? Instant-nostalgic 90s decor, servers in sky-high platforms and a basement lounge decked out in chocolate brown make this the trendiest spot in town. Opens early and continues till really late, with an all-hours brunch-to-supper menu showcasing reasonably priced better-than-most modern takes on classic bistro. Bingo! Complete dinners for $22 ($15 at brunch or lunch) per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Sunday to Wednesday 10:30 am to midnight, Thursday to Saturday 10:30 am to 3 am. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN

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