DELUX (92 Ossington, at Humbert, 416-537-0134) Complete dinners for $50 per person (brunches $25), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $17/$10. Open for dinner Tuesday to Thursday 6 to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 pm, Sunday 6 to 10 pm. Brunch Sunday 10:30 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN
Paris has Dans le Noir, Berlin has Nocti Vagus and Zurich the Blind Cow, but until the recent launch of Delux on newly fabulous Ossington, Toronto has not been home to a restaurant where diners eat in the dark.
Mind you, those European eateries intentionally offer meals in pitch black darkness served by visually challenged staff. Delux does so inadvertently. Blame exceptionally poor lighting.
Not that we notice at first, finding the former Sparrow quite charming, a candlelit row of tight-fitting booths down one length of the Victorian storefront, a comfier banquette facing roomier tables along the opposite side. Above, light fixtures cleverly fashioned from recycled fluorescent tubing add a romantic glow.
It’s not until we’re presented with owner/chef Corinna Mozo’s inaugural card – call it sophisticated French bistro fare with occasional Cuban tweaks – that we discover we can’t read its oversized type, the room’s so damn dim. We ask them to crank the lights a notch. No can do.
“They want it like this,” says our otherwise accommodating server, placing a second votive candle on the table as if that’s going to make any difference. “It’s part of the effect.”
If that’s the case, I joke, I should have brought a flashlight. Overhearing our complaint, a passing server reaches into his trousers and pulls out a pocket torch.
“Here, use mine,” he kindly offers before disappearing into the murk. Obviously, this has happened before, which is a shame, because Mozo – who helmed Boston’s similarily themed Chez Henri and Truc before relocating to Toronto last summer – is definitely a chef to watch.
See her bread basket, exemplary slices of warm, crusty house-baked Cuban loaf that also come toasted and spread with gorgeously fatty shredded pork rillettes, grainy Pommery mustard and crunchy cornichons as a first course ($9).
Don’t miss organic field greens and thinly sliced baby beet in a tangy lemon vinaigrette topped with a hockey puck of local Woolwich chèvre, whose crisp pulverized walnut shell gives way to a creamy ambrosia inside ($10).
Mozo’s superb wild mushroom tart ($9) in near-perfect pâte brisée is another essential starter, its meaty fungi laced with smooth ricotta and caramelized squash.
Since I’m not really all that hungry, I figure I’ll just have the house’s Cubano sandwich ($12). So much for downsizing! Sided with a pile of chunky golden frites and a whack o’ watercress in that same fab lemon dressing and layered with succulent molasses-cured pork loin, deli-style ham and gooey Gruyère, it’s a main big enough to share.
More conventionally portioned but no less tasty, duck confit ($17) rides a bed of tart Alsatian purple cabbage alongside sweet-roasted turnips and a slab of pan-seared pork belly, while slow-braised beef short ribs, ($19) plated over a brilliant potato-and-celery-root purée and dressed with wilted Swiss chard and sharp horseradish cream are so fall-from-the-fork tender their bones are MIA.
But there’s nothing lacking in Mozo’s bouillabaise ($20), a delightfully delectable Pernod-splashed fish stew thick with plump butterflied shrimp, mussels, clams and monkfish, the lot correctly coupled with grilled Cuban bread and fiery red rouille.
Armed with four forks, we quickly polish off a pyramid of warm chocolate cake drizzled with espresso crème anglaise, and a menu-described free-form apple gallette (both $7) – think topsy-turvy turnover – finished with whipped Chantilly cream and spidery caramel brittle.
A few days later, I contact Mozo and ask what’s up with the 40-watt bulbs. I’ve seen brighter interiors in a refrigerator. Mozo seems genuinely taken aback (“They gave you a flashlight?!”) and explains that she’s been expecting the delivery of a custom screen that fits in front of a massive light box built into one wall (it’s since been installed).
She also agrees that allowing staff to select the CDs played during dinner – emo whiners, we think not – is never a good idea.
Delux is still finding its feet, and service gaffes and dim lighting are easy fixes. Food this astonishingly delicious deserves to be seen as well as devoured.