MANYATA (55 Avenue Road, at Yorkville, 416-935-0000) Complete lunches for $35 (brunches $50), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $15/brunch buffet $25.95. Open for lunch Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm; brunch buffet Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN
It was bound to happen. Yorkville, Toronto's original counterculture enclave, is suddenly hot again.
Sure, the tony area is still the haunt of the too rich, too thin and too tanned, but the noxious nabe's culinary cred is on the rise now that quixotic Greg Couillard has set up camp in Hazelton Lanes.
Together with co-owner/chef David Ng'Ang'a, Couillard has launched a pair of side-by-side eateries in this home of conspicuous consumption: the pricey Spice Room (Greg Couillard's Spice Room & Chutney Bar, in full), and the far less expensive lunch-only Manyata.
The Spice Room is the more formal of the two, an intimate oasis of chic that looks like the love child of the Sultan's Tent and the Rainforest Café. There, the Yorkville set dine on Couillard's signature Jump Up Soup ($10) a dish the peripatetic chef said two years ago he would never cook again and a variation of the Asian-spiced beef tenderloin ($42, now sided with tandoori-seared foie gras) he's had in his repertoire for nearly as long.
Located in the Lanes' glassed-over atrium and former ice skating rink, Manyata is an even more impressive space. Recalling the Palm Court at the Ritz, the gorgeous resto is all 30-foot ceilings, cascading tent-like drapes and wicker loungers. Over in a corner, a pianist tickles the ivories of a baby grand for the ladies who lunch.
But what really sets Manyata apart from its sibling is the prices. For the first time ever, Couillard's acclaimed pan-global cuisine is accessible to the average pocketbook.
Lunch begins with a linen-wrapped basket of house-baked bread squares of rosemary-freckled focaccia and corn muffins dusted with powdered chipotle and continues with a skewered trio of grilled tail-on shrimp brushed with incendiary Indo spice paste.
They're plated next to a mound of garlicky green quinoa and another of ripe mango, bell pepper and jicama coleslaw tossed with toasted macadamias. At a reasonable 12 bucks, this sharable starter's big enough to be a main.
That same sweet slaw accompanies most sandwiches, including pan-seared red snapper on a Patty King-style coconut bun ($14) and jerked turkey breast slathered with curried mayo on multigrain ($12, both with pakora-battered sweet potato frites). The lamb burger's a good deal, too, a thick, meaty patty stuffed with herbed Stilton, garnished with unseasonably ripe tomato and leaf lettuce ($15 with salad or frites).
Here's another favourite from the Couillard canon Vietnamese Kraft Dinner ($14). Thick with creamy coconut milk and laced with coriander masala, these comfort-food-like rice noodles are dressed with baby bok choy, spring zucchini and boneless grilled chicken breast as well as an unfortunate overkill of too-strong sesame oil. Similarly, Hokkien Noodles ($12) suffers from too much hoisin, while its $6 upgrade to ostrich might as well be sliced steak.
And "sliced steak East African-style" would be a much better description than what the menu calls "steak frites," as there are no spuds, sweet or otherwise, involved.
The entree also goes by the name Nyama Choma ($20), which, unless you speak Swahili, will give you no clue that it's barbecued beef. Whatever the handle, it's still one fabulous dish, perfectly grilled point slices of tender, grilled beef splayed over wilted Swiss chard, assertive salsa ("kachumbari") and Parmesan-nipped cornmeal polenta ("ugali").
Over the last of our tasty dwarf-banana bread pudding with caramel sauce ($8), the Literary Device wonders aloud why, though she's seen all the hullabaloo about the Spice Room, she's never read anything about Manyata. Apparently, that's about to change.
"We had Toronto Life in here the other day," our attentive server says, clearing away the last of our lunch.
How did you know who it was ?
"Restaurant critics are always easy to spot," she cryptically replies.
Q&A Greg Couillard
Revered and reviled, loved and loathed, Greg Couillard has long been Toronto's most controversial chef. Gay before it was fashionable, he has helmed 30 local kitchens in the last three decades. We grilled the out 'n' opinionated Spice Room's spicemeister - even his sister's name is Gay - about his take on downtown's queer culinary scene.
Has being an avowed homosexualist been an advantage or a hindrance in your culinary career?
I've always considered being gay a gift, but a restaurant kitchen is a pretty manly world. Because I grew up in a military family, I know how to get along with just about anybody. I guess it's the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in me that makes straight guys take me seriously.
Any idea why so many gays and lesbians are drawn to restaurant life?
I've never understood that "gay waiter" thing. Maybe it's because we're extremely smart and know how to work a room.
You were an auxiliary member of Parachute Club, the multi-sexual Queen West combo known for its anthemic Rise Up, and played percussion at the very first Pride Day celebration in Grange Park in 1982. Remember the day?
I think I was on acid. There were only 700 or 800 people there. People forget that it all started on Queen West, at the Peter Pan and the Parrot and the Rivoli. Church Street didn't even exist back then! We were the first to marry the new wave/gay/punk movement with art and make it our own. You see it today at the Beaver and the Gladstone. We may have laid the groundwork, but the new generation of Queen Street queers are carrying on where we left off.