FOOD STUDIO @ ROM (100 Queen's Park, at Bloor, 416-586-7926) Complete meals for $20 per person (kids $10), including all taxes, tip and a lemonade. Average main $9 (kids $6). Open Monday to Friday 11 am to 8:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4:30 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NN
On my first attempt to gain entry to Food Studio, the flashy new cafeteria in the basement of the recently overhauled ROM, I don't even make it past security.
Since I'm not carrying any aerosol cans, alcoholic beverages, illegal drugs, chains over 6 inches long, confetti, fireworks, flares (or other incendiary devices), sharp objects, laser pointers, sticks, clubs, firearms, knives, mace or pepper spray all items prohibited by the museum or riding a skateboard accompanied by a raccoon on roller blades, I don't see the problem. Turns out two cans of cat food were spotted in my shoulder bag.
"No outside food," barks the guard after giving me the once-over, adding that my knapsack man-purse, please! is too big and will need to be coat-checked. Good thing I'm not packing a can opener.
Back the following day with less baggage, I'm greeted at the door as warmly as if I'd just walked into Wal-Mart.
After a cursory glance into my bag, I'm given a clip-on tag that allows anyone visiting either Food Studio or Crystal Five (the luxe supper club on the top floor that's replaced JK ROM) to enter the building (but not the exhibits) for free.
Of course, you're supposed to immediately head to the elevator just off the lobby that takes you to both restos, but nobody stops us from having a quick look around the main floor.
Anyone familiar with architect Daniel Libeskind's rendering of the renovation are in for a shock when confronted with the results. Instead of glass the Crystal, remember? the museum's exterior walls appear to be covered in aluminum siding, resembling an A-frame ski chalet that fell over. Inside, the finish is just as shabby, with unpainted sheet rock the predominant theme.
To the basement! According to its website, Food Studio prides itself as a "casual family restaurant dedicated to providing healthy menu options in an earth-friendly environment."
To do so, it "sources organic seasonal ingredients from local Ontario food producers whenever possible and provides a selection of biodegradable containers and plates as part of a healthy planet initiative."
Sounds good to me. But like the ROM's much ballyhooed makeover, the closer you look at Food Studio the less there is to see.
The room itself is nice enough, a sprawling loft-like space that can accommodate up to 350 at a scattering of bare-topped tables and a few bare-bones banquettes.
Although currently shielded by tarpaulins, a row of large west-facing windows looks out onto Philosopher's Walk and bathes the airy space with light. Shame no one thought of busting out a wall to create an outdoor terrace on one of Toronto's most fabled green spaces, but then a patio would likely cause a security problem.
At first, Food Studio can be a bit overwhelming since there's no one about to explain the drill.
But eventually, I figure it out and grab a tray from a stack by the entry and make my way over to a display case of prefab sandwiches. There I encounter panini-like roasted turkey with apple and Brie on multigrain slathered with honey mustard ($8.95). I opt for a simple if sizable basic green salad, which I pair with a packet of Hellmann's Ranch.
At four bucks, it's the tastiest bargain in the house.
From the first of the three open kitchens that line the rear wall, I order the fish du jour, today a so-so filet of wild salmon seared à la plancha ($11.95) and sided with sautéed red new potato and green 'n' yellow zucchini. Still, it beats a mushy commercial Yves veggie burger littered with frozen peas and carrots ($5.25).
From the Global Table stir-fry station next door, I choose thick udon noodles rather than rice and top them with the works sliced chicken breast, broccoli, carrot, red bell pepper and a spoonful of toasted peanuts. I'm offered a choice of sauces including teriyaki, ginger and chili before settling on a Thai green curry that tastes oddly of butter.
So-called Rustic Tomato soup ($3.25) comes nicely spiced with basil, even if it does recall watered-down spaghetti sauce, while pasty seafood chowder ($4.25) does a disservice to fish. A glass of pink lemonade ($2.25), however, and one of Dufflet's wondrous chocolate tarts ($4.75) make an impressive finish to an otherwise unmemorable meal.
Now that I know the set-up, I return a few days later and head straight to the pasta bar, where I order a kid-friendly nine-inch pizza ($6.50) topped with bland chorizo, diced sweet red pepper and shaved ham. Thin-crusted, it could use some sauce. Rustic Tomato, say?
Any kitchen that caters to children would be foolish not to include french fries on its card, but to serve subpar spuds ranging from undercooked to well-done and over-salted in the same building where Jamie Kennedy's fabulous frites put the ROM on local foodies' maps is laughable, even if they are trans fat-free and only $2.25.
Thirsty, I ask the cashier where I can find a glass of water.
"Free water? Like from a tap?" she asks before pointing beyond two galvanized tubs of $6 (!) Molson Canadians and $13 half-bottles of plonk ordinaire on ice. "It's the white button next to the Pepsi machine."
Unable to find it, I take my leave by an unfinished stairway where I notice a sign that reads "No food or beverage beyond this point."
Isn't this where I came in? And that reminds me I'm out of cat food.