THE PATIO @ CRUSH (455 King West, at Spadina, 416-977-1234) Complete dinners for $85 per person ($45 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and an $8 glass of wine. Average main $30/$15. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday and holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
I consider myself a bit of a boulevardier. In fact, I'm an authority.
As editor of NOW's Patio Guide, I get to check out every curbside cantina and backyard bote in town. So after a hectic spring schedule of new restaurant launches, I figure I'll take it easy over the summer and review a series of outdoor dining spots. What could be easier? I'll swan about in my usual fashion, drop a few amusing anecdotes, insult the furniture and/or music, mention the food briefly and be home in time for Dr. Phil. A piece of cake, really.
But as every al fresco restaurateur in town can tell you, this summer has been a disaster weather-wise. After last season's SARS paranoia and blackout punch, weeks of unending cold and rain have dampened their hopes for economic recovery. And my easy-street plans.
The Literary Device and I are lucky this August weekday noon on the Parisian terrace of Crush, the King West wine bar, when the sky above is cloudlessly blue and the thermometer hovers several degrees above room temperature. As curmudgeonly Lou Reed might croak, it's such a perfect day.
But things haven't been going so swimmingly at Crush of late. Since it launched two years ago, high-profile chef Masayuki Tamaru has jumped for a corporate gig at Azure in the Intercontinental Hotel (whose Web site modestly calls the French-trained cook the heir apparent to Toronto's culinary throne), and the media-inspired feeding frenzy that accompanied Crush's opening has long since subsided.
Now, long-time sous Scott Kapitan wears the big hat in the former bistro du jour's kitchen, and the once chaotic Lower Manhattan loft-style space has evolved into the sophisticated arena that owner Jamieson Kerr intended all along.
At dinner, those with larger wallets opt for Crush's weekly changing, four-course $58 prix fixe, or expense-account it on mains like leg of caribou with morel sauce and Brussels sprout leaves ($32) or honey-rubbed organic pork sided with an upscale trailer-trashy napoleon of ham hock and mashed potato ($26). The Device and I stick to the less expensive lunchtime card.
Crush's narrow, awning-covered verandah is located in the same warehouse courtyard as Brassaii but has a French postcard feel compared to its neighbour's South Beach cool. A server soon arrives bearing a remarkably refreshing bottle of mineral water (Goccia di Carnia, $6.25/750 ml), a basket of very good baguette and a saucer of unsalted butter pats on ice. Whatever will they think of next?
I've been on a Caesar kick of late, so naturally start with Crush's version of the Italian-slash-Mexican salad ($8). We'll give it 6 out of 10, judging it an average if knife-cut mound of dark romaine leaves, sharp shaved grano padano and the occasional crouton. Although its roasted garlic dressing is pleasant enough, the anchovies are AWOL.
The Device makes quick work of her starter, a delicious miniature tower of alternating minced smoked salmon and cookie-esque brioche dolloped with crème frache and garnished with a pair of baby asparagus tips and a delicately poached quail egg ($12 lunch/$14 dinner).
Francophile that she is, the Device surprises me by forgoing the duck confit in favour of Crush's take on steak frites. Next to a sizable pile of first-rate spuds randomly flecked with fresh chervil, her aged flat-iron steak - the ultra-tender top layer of blade - comes glazed with red wine, daubed with tarragon-scented beurre and pre-sliced ($16/$23).
I, on the other hand, have no fear of fowl and polish off my delightful duck confit with strawberry juniper glaze ($18) and its side of young spinach, snappy green beans and barely pickled baby beets in a sherry vinaigrette.
We finish with pastry chef Jackie Vickers's lemon tart ($9), a respectable rendition made tartier by the use of Meyer lemons in its custard and marmalade garnish. And though we adore its buttery meringue puffs and lavender-leaf embellishment, the tart's luscious filling is much too runny to capture completely without resorting to licking the plate clean.
As we do.