ROUGE (467 Bloor West, at Brunswick, 416-413-0713) Sophisticated urban cool in an area known for sushi and falafel. In other words, Goldfish without the clutter. Complete meals for $50 per person ($25 at lunch), including all taxes and tip. Open for dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday to 11:30 pm, and for lunch Wednesday to Saturday noon to 3 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Masayuki Tamaru is considered by some the heir apparent of downtown's culinary throne, dauphin to the Fifth's Didier LeRoy.Tamaru -- Masa to the loyal -- is the young Japanese chef trained in the French tradition who struck out on his own (in both senses of the phrase) at the short-lived O-Do after spending time at le roi's court.
Then, last winter, he resurfaced at Rouge, a brazen carbon copy of popular Goldfish, the chic Annex restaurant with the warmth of a refrigerator.
Every report emphasized that this wasn't a permanent gig and that Tamaru was merely treading water until he'd helm Crush, the recently opened -- and universally hailed -- wine bar in the King West dot-com district. After two bewildering meals last week at crushingly average Crush (see review, page 29), I went back to Rouge to see how the place was faring in Tamaru's absence.
Dead-centre on falafel row, Rouge does look an awful lot like Goldfish. But instead of cold blues, this narrow off-white room gets warmth from deep crimson accents and sprays of tropical flowers.
A comfy ultrasuede banquette runs down one wall, and floor-to-ceiling glass looks out to the street. Calming worldbeat house whispers from ceiling speakers high overhead.
Brother and sister owners Leyla and Kami Kashani briefly replaced the ponytailed Tamaru with Avalon vet Doug Pennfold, and now former Accolade sous Christopher Duernholz. But tonight, Abdi Ghotb -- once with Goldfish -- is interpreting Tamaru's creations.
After pre-dinner vodka martinis ($8 each), we try a trio of golden-brown deep-fried salt cod croquettes ($10), their delicious texture offset by watercress and apple in grainy mustard. At first glance, a loonie-sized slice of seared Quebec foie gras ($16) gently placed on a pool of citrusy sauce bigarade served with half a roasted pear and a brioche crisp seems like a lot of money for very little. But after one lingering nibble, it's obvious that this fabulous starter's worth every cent.
I'm reminded of Vavoom's deconstructed lasagna when open-faced lobster ravioli ($18) arrives. With pasta sheets randomly placed on the plate and a pair of mock antennae made of chives, the dish is finished with layers of shredded shellfish and a lovely lobster bisque. Lamb done two ways ($22) -- three pink-centred Aussie chops and juicy segments of tender Quebec loin -- comes sided with creamy Pommes Dauphines gratin as well as al dente steamed spring veggies.
Back for lunch a few days later, we start with velvety fennel purée, a perfectly timed seasonal soup with an unexpected subtext of curry.
While the sharp Roquefort spread on toasted focaccia curries favour, its distinct flavour doesn't carry over to wimpily dressed romaine leaves (both $6). Today's risotto -- pinky smoked chicken with parsley ($11) -- takes so long to show up, it's obviously been made from scratch. And slightly overcooked.
But Steak-frites ($14) hits the mark, an 8-ounce char-broiled sirloin sided with roasted plum tomato and sauced with green-peppercorn aioli. The frazzle of matchstick frites piled high on the plate are the same great spuds that Ghotb first unveiled at Goldfish.
Unfortunately, because they're so thinly mandolined, they cool quickly. But that's not likely to happen -- your dinner guests will inhale them immediately.
"I went to Crush, but it's not really my kind of place," confides Kami Kashani. "Masa told me he likes his menu here better."