ACCOLADE (225 Front West, at Simcoe, 416-597-1400) This stuffy, formal hotel dining room near the Convention Centre attracts a crowd who like it safe. Superchef David Chrystian makes a sometimes inspired effort to get the moribund room off the ground, but it disappoints when compared to his earlier work at far more affordable Café Societa and Patriot. Tasting menu $250, complete à la carte dinners for $125 per person ($60 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:45 am to 2 pm, for dinner Monday to Saturday 5:45 to 10 pm. Closed Sunday. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
David Chrystian can do no wrong. First at Café Societa on College, then at Patriot upstairs from Chanel in the Colonnade, this ridiculously young chef has proved himself one of Toronto's most innovative cooks. Who else would have the audacity to put poutine (with veal jus and artisanal curds yet) on a supper-club menu? When Chrystian left Patriot this spring, many figured he'd open his own spot. Instead, he replaced Michael Potters -- who took over from Vancouver's Ned Bell -- at Accolade, the luxe hotel restaurant in the Crowne Plaza. The reason? Better hours, bigger budget and more control.
Until a quarter-century ago, hotel dining rooms were the epitome of Toronto's epicurean scene. Think beef Wellington and crêpes Suzettes. But in the wake of the culinary revolution started in the early 80s by Michael Stadtlander, Greg Couillard and Susur Lee, only tourists eat in these safe, stuffy tombs of conformity.
Accolade looks the part -- deep, plush carpeting, overstuffed banquettes, Royal Doulton china on starched linen, gilt-framed pseudo- Group of Seven oils on dark burgundy walls, and poor, tired old Ella 'n' Louis scatting through tinny Muzak speakers. As expected, the service is flawless, knowledgeable and discreetly flirtatious. Try finding that on College .
Tonight, I dine solo, wanting to experience Chrystian's calling-card tasting menu (seven courses, plus occasional intermezzos, with wine pairing, $185) at its fullest, unencumbered by distractions. I plunk myself down at a corner table and wait with a mixture of hope and dread. Does Chrystian still soar, I wonder, or has management dumbed down his Stadtlander-inspired Canadian cuisine to make it more acceptable to middle-American tastes?
The answer begins with bubbly (the same Nicolas Feuillatte served on the Concorde) and a solitary nori wrapper stuffed with cured salmon and quinoa. A lightly pickled daikon slaw adds punctuation, and a pea shoot tendril provides decoration. A glass of smoky sparkling white (00 Vouvray Chateau Gaudrelle) fits perfectly with slightly seared foie gras seasoned with sea salt. Pure heaven on the tongue. More foie gras -- this time terrine -- comes layered over a tiny buckwheat blini and tart contrasting rhubarb compote scented with saffron.
Next up, sliced grilled octopus sandwiched between seeded and vinegary mahogany-hued heritage tomatoes and English cuke served with a spoonful of creamy feta and olive-caper tapenade. Very summer, very delicious. A much-hyped Sauvignon Blanc (00 Denis Jaumier Quincy) doesn't live up to its press. But a rich Washington Chardonnay (97 L'Ecole #41) works swell with a small, firm halibut steak draped in bacon. Divine puddles of artichoke purée and truffled cream push this one over the top.
The server then announces "the pièce de résistance" -- two conjoined Ontario lamb chops in rosemary reduction. A timbale of insanely tasty porcini flan rests on a bed of wilted baby spinach and tender green limas. A healthy pour of ruby-red Syrah (95 Hermitage La Chapelle, Paul Jaboulet Ainé) sets off this remarkable dish. In between courses, sharp lemon basil sorbet rejuvenates the palate.
Into the home stretch, a small round of Alberta's Natricia Dairy St. Maure goat cheese comes with pickled yellow beets and a tiny dice of ripe pear in syrup. With it, I sip a 20-year-old Tawny port (Taylor Fladgate) that recalls butterscotch cough medicine, minus the codeine. Just as I'm about to nod off, Chrystian emerges from the kitchen with a plate of "snow" -- crushed ice, really -- over which he then pours maple syrup. Swizzle it into the ice with a wooden chip-wagon fork for the full effect. Simple but wow-some.
A final glass of Henry of Pelham's Late Harvest Riesling brings things to a close alongside frozen raspberry and strawberry parfait sided with fresh basil leaves and black pepper gastrique (made with caramelized sugar and vinegar). I need a nap after this stellar nosh. As I get up to exit stage right, an adjacent table tucks into conservative Surf & Turf ($40).
A few days earlier, the Literary Device and I are the only diners for Friday lunch. We start with perfunctory tuna carpaccio ($14), two thin slices drizzled in oil and tossed with black olives. A turret of buttery Hass avocado resembles corn on the cob, while a tangle of baby greens and seedlings complete the plate.
The Device wants to try the foie gras terrine ($17) -- nothing seared at lunch -- and she really enjoys its ethereal texture. Beside it she finds a jumble of pickled chanterelles. Her main of Pacific halibut ($19 lunch/$30 dinner) gets dusted with pulverized herbs and joined by a stew of artichoke hearts, white asparagus and cute inch-long al dente carrots complete with tops.
My roasted spring chicken breast ($20) with one dainty wing bone side-kicked with a sort of deconstructed scalloped potatoes -- sliced purple fingerlings with lobster shards -- is nice. We expect more from Chrystian than nice.
The things that made Patriot so revelatory three years ago -- the deft and focused card, the all-Canadian wine list, the extremely popular $25 three-course prix fixe dinner (a loss leader, Chrystian now says) -- are missing here. It's not the chef's fault that despite some of his best efforts so far and the joint's exquisite service, Accolade -- like all antiseptic Toronto hotel dining rooms -- has the deathly hush of a funeral parlour in a mall.