LI'LY (656 College, at Grace, 416-532-0419) Saddled with one of the most ridiculous handles for a Toronto restaurant yet (it's "Little Italy" truncated), this slim, stylish space wants to have it all: a sophisticated menu of global fusion tapas early in the evening and, once the supper crowd splits, a 260-seat house-tastic nightclub complete with basement womb chill space. Sometimes it succeeds. Complete dinners for $40 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Sunday to Tuesday 6 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 6 pm to midnight. Bar open till 2 am. Licensed. Two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Since my first restaurant review on these pages, author Sarah Dearing has been my ace in the hole. When I did my very first review, Dearing agreed to ride shotgun on a trip to a Portuguese boite. Bonus -- she had a credit card.
A stickler for detail, I was dutifully examining the cutlery when, from left field, Sarah mentioned she'd just returned from Lisbon, where she'd been writing The Bull Is Not Killed, a sardonic novel set against the canvas of Portugal's non-violent overthrow of the fascists in 1974. Apparently, my dog appears on page 55.
I remember listening to her back story and glancing down at the menu to see that the joint's specialty was a paella for two called The Revolution, honouring that same peaceful uprising. Kismet or coincidence, the review almost wrote itself.
Here we are six years later at Li'ly, celebrating Dearing's Toronto Book Award win for Courage My Love, her second novel. (I appear on page 119.) Sarah's in a mischievous mood, and after glomming onto the tapas-style menu at this happening hot spot with the ridiculous name -- a truncated "Little Italy," doncha know -- she suggests we order the most outrageous-sounding stuff on the card.
I'm game, but as there is none under the section labelled "meat and game," I opt for a quartet of perfectly pink-centred lamb chops ($12) crusted with crushed pistachios. These plump little fuckers look like miniature T-bones and are the best I've tasted lately.
Of course, because these are tapas, there are no sides unless they're ordered separately. And given the alternative -- black olive and hummus tapenade on garlicky crostini ($6) -- who'd want to spend four bucks on an order of rice?
Grilled portobello with caramelized onion and blue cheese polenta ($9) just doesn't work, the texture of the meaty 'shrooms clashing with grainy cornmeal and too-strident fromage. Purists will pooh-pooh duck confit ($10), served shredded and sautéed with spinach and caramelized new potatoes, but the kitchen pulls it off with a squirt of hoisin and a squeeze of lime.
Closer to salmon croquettes, crab cakes ($11) battle uphill against their pleasant gingery tomato jam and squiggles of sour cream. At least there's no potato filler in these golf- ball-sized nuggets.
A modernist deconstruction of ravioli ($8) wrapped over goat cheese and arugula and sauced with pulpy tomato is just silly and inconsequential.
But it's hard to ignore the loud generic house music playing tonight, which seems to be more for the staff's entertainment than for the six customers dining here on an early weeknight. On a second visit, the testosterone's under control, and in its place, comfort-level jazzy sambas make far better dinner music. We commandeer our now-regular booth with high-backed ribbed banquettes. The decor's effect -- pale, institutional green walls and double-sided bar with moulded plywood stools -- is very Bar One.
Now knowing that Li'ly's portions are much more substantial than the cocktail-snack-sized bites we'd expected on our first visit, we still order way too much food and end up doggie-bagging it again.
But first, we scarf down a lovely arugula salad ($8) dressed with champagne vinaigrette and plated with solid balls of nut-encrusted chèvre and translucent slices of tart Asian pear. Spicy Italian sausage ($8) turns out to be rather milquetoast but tasty nonetheless, especially when combined with balsamic-sweet apple and beet relish.
Avoid chicken satay ($7), five sad skewers dipped into timid coconut curry, and allegedly "chili" tempura shrimp ($12) with wimpy plum sauce. But don't miss the fries, shoestring spuds garnished with chives and frazzled shallots, dunked in saffron aioli. These, the arugula salad and the lamb chops make a spectacular supper that's big enough to share.
And that's Li'ly's point: a few tapas, a Stella ($4.70) or three and some Californian Gewürztraminer (2001 Fetzer, $8 glass/$32 bottle) add up to a light but very good dinner for two for well under a C-note.
As we leave, Dearing spots NOW rave reviews posted in the nearby windows of Veni Vidi Vici and Eat My Martini, both former it spots.
The write-ups are nearly three years old and the chefs praised have long since left both eateries.
Things change quickly on the College strip.
Here's hoping Li'ly's not just another flash in a very flashy pan.