THE DRAKE (1150 Queen West, at Beaconsfield, 416-531-5042) Twenty-something chef David Chrystian - ex of Café Societa, Patriot and Accolade - continues to shine at this stylish dining room located in Queen West's most happening hotel. Dishes range from ultra-haute to comfort food classics, all delivered with startling attention to detail. Reservations essential. Complete meals for $55 per person ($25 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and an $8 glass of wine. Average main: $20/$11. Dining room open Monday to Saturday for dinner 6 to 11 pm, brunch Sunday 10:30 am to 2:30 pm. Lounge open for lunch Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, lounge menu Tuesday to Saturday 6 to 10:30 pm. Café open daily 7:30 am to 6 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN
The knives are out for the drake's David Chrystian. This wunderkind, once hailed as the most innovative chef to emerge from the Toronto restaurant scene since Susur Lee, is no longer the critics' darling. They loved the barely 20-year-old prodigy at Café Societa on College, and then called his work at the late Patriot "audacious" (that'd be me). They even forgave his misstep into the corporate market at Accolade (a deservedly defunct hotel dining room with the romance of a mausoleum), still praising his skilfully executed all-Canadian cuisine.
When word spread late last summer that Chrystian - with long-time sous Grant Parry, Takesushi's Michi Tanaka and pastry chef Heather Pollock from Lemon Meringue and Queen of Tarts - would be helming the kitchen of a revamped Drake Hotel, local foodies predicted big things for the west-side supper club.
After construction delayed the projected Halloween opening as well as a rescheduled New Year's launch, the 60-seat spot eventually debuted on Valentine's Day following a series of media invite-only soirées.
Since I don't schmooze, as a matter of principle - this is NOW, after all, not the National Past - I didn't attend but heard favourable reports from those who do and did.
I was surprised when the opening salvos from the dailies were less than kind. Regardless of genre, critics love to build 'em up, then knock 'em down. But these broadsides read like they'd cranked up the Larousse Gastronomique 3000, the critical canon of choice, to crucify Chrystian: crappy food, inept service, loved the fireplace. Next!
With my standard-bearer the Literary Device in tow, I attended the Drake's very first Sunday brunch a few weeks back to see for myself.
Unlike the somehow forced boho chic of the main lounge, the rear dining room has a relaxed formality. White-on-white linen-topped tables face low overstuffed brocade banquettes artfully strewn with throw pillows. The only art - and the only sound other than animated conversation - comes from the random projection of a carousel of slides that even the Trachtenburg Family would have trouble incorporating into their act.
There's no ignoring our shared starter, Mussel and Clam Ceviche. Served in a tiki-tastic coconut, the marinated molluscs come mixed with shiso and coriander leaf. The Device continues with Spicy Four Cheese Omelette (both $9), a combo of chèvre, cheddar, Ermite and Gruyère folded over jalapeño-nipped black beans and sided with cute popcorn sprouts and thick toasted slices of Fred's Breads' excellent challah.
I opt for Chrystian's take on eggs Benedict, the eponymous Drake ($11). Served on Parry's superb cheddar roll, two elegantly poached à point eggs get sauced with chipotle-kicked hollandaise and impressively plated with shreds of delish duck confit and spice-charged chorizo. A handful of purple cabbage seedlings and a pile of double-cooked, red-jacket baby new potatoes complete the picture.
So Chrystian can do brunch. Well, how difficult is to fuck up an egg? I return a few days later to see how he botches lunch. Since the main room only does dinner and brunch, I take one of the few tables in the Drake's lounge that aren't knee-high. An awesome array of Fred's flatbreads arrives automatically, accompanied by the chef's inspired red-chili-and-lime-zest whipped butter.
I follow with today's soup ($5), a creamy leek and potato potage garnished with tiny, tempura-battered slivers of deep-fried leek and a last splash of heavy cream. I've heard the word on the Drake's burger - dry and stale - but instead find the best burger and fries in the city. Dressed with buttery bibb lettuce, ripe tomato and caramelized red onion, this pink-centred Whopper is so thick it comes skewered with a chopstick, so juicy it literally squirts ($9 lunch/brunch/dinner).
Consensus has it that Jamie Kennedy makes the best frites in town. But unlike JK Wine Bar's practice of serving soon-cold fries in a paper cone, Chrystian delivers his superlative version in a thick, high-walled bowl that keeps the spuds warm. Another relevation: asking for salt and pepper and expecting the pretentious pepper mill routine, I'm taken aback when the friendly and efficient server brings to table a small tray holding a pair of miniature wooden spoons and two lidded pots, one of freshly ground black peppercorns, the other extremely coarse sea salt. Why doesn't everyone do this?
A week later, the Device and I return for a 6:30 early weeknight supper. Every seat in the joint is full; so much for the power of the press. LD begins with Lobster "Taco" Salad ($12), a jaw-droppingly gorgeous starter built on a thick tuille-shaped deep-fried shell made from yam. It stands upright on a cool bed of tart tomato ratatouille and guacamole, its glorious cargo of lobster flesh lapped with cumin-scented sour cream and a snarl of fresh onion seedlings, coriander sprouts and fennel cress. Pickled green beans and crumbled Chèvre Noir, the dry Quebec goat cheese, add an unexpected palate twist next to a clump of bitter frissée.
Tied with overlapping paper-thin lengths of raw cuke, Tuna Parfait ($9) finds a base of chopped raw tuna and ripe mango layered with coconut-milk foam and a deliriously delicious scoop of cilantro sorbet. Soon to be a signature dish, and very Jennifer Italiano of Live.
The Device's main - London Broil ($24) - is definitely dead (and not London broil), a pinwheel roulade of slow-roasted veal and lamb roulade crusted with melted miso over wilted mustard greens. As drool-worthy as it is, an al dente heap of Atkins-approved Le Puys lentils doesn't add much to the plate.
Little's amiss with a massive strip of very meaty beef short ribs ($21) that nearly disintegrate on contact, its grated raw horseradish garnish a nice comfort-food touch, its overly processed mashed potatoes only occasionally revealing depth charges of wasabi. And it would have been nice if an otherwise first-rate side of cheesy cauliflower-chanterelle gratin ($6) had arrived before the course had nearly ended.
Our remarkable meal ends with Pollock's Roasted Apple Croustade ($8), a rustic near-turnover dolloped with house-made maple syrup ice cream flagged with a deep-fried sage leaf, pooled with Muskoka blueberry compote.
The only sour note comes from the wine list. Considering the Drake's reputation as an art bar, the Device orders some cheap red wine (2002 Starving Artist, Cave Springs $6 glass/$28 bottle), a vintage we pronounce afterwards unfit for cleaning paint brushes.
Otherwise, David Chrystian's cooking has never been better or more accessibly priced. What does he think of the critics who say he's all washed up at 29?
"You take it with a grain of salt," shrugs Chrystian.
Coarse sea salt, of course, ladled from a miniature wooden spoon.