THE LAURENTIAN ROOM (51A Winchester, at Parliament, 416-925-8680) Complete meals for $60 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $16. Open Thursday to Sunday 6 pm to 2 am. Licensed. Access: 23 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NN Rating: NN
In its extremely short life, much has been written about the Laurentian Room. Launched softly last month, this art deco saloon in the most unlikely of locations - above the Winchester Tavern in Cabbagetown - already has the style sheets clucking in unison.
Yes, it's fabulously chic in a clandestine way. One enters up a darkly lit rear stairway past a roaring refrigeration unit. With its truncated Thursday-to-Sunday hours, the Room (as we call it) is sure to be the hottest spot in town for at least the next three weeks.
But until now, or rather NOW, no one has mentioned the food.
The Room has a chequered past. It was formerly the ladies and escorts lounge of the well-watered watering hole. Younger readers will likely find it unfathomable that up until 1972 it was illegal for women to drink in an Ontario bar without a male companion, and even then they had to sip their Singapore slings in a separate room. The room had been boarded up for decades, but back in the 30s it was the Lobby of its day. Why, even original gangsta Al Capone was said to frequent the joint between contract killings.
Enter restaurateur Trevor Berryman (whose c.v. includes names like Xango and Ba-Ba-Lu) and company, who have done a commendable job in bringing the old gal and her escort back to life. The size of the space is what surprises initially. Under a tall, glowing recessed ceiling, a shiny black bar runs the length of the room, while on the opposite side a very padded banquette is flanked by formally set mahogany-topped deuces. Potted palms and dimly lit wall sconces add further comfortable familiarity. In other words, the Paddock, Part Two.
As we unwind with a somewhat sour preprandial Mojito (a sobering $10, before tax or tip), we note that the Room's short card, instead of being traditionally divided into starters and mains, features several "small plates" including sage-laced potato gnocchi with sun-dried tomato and cream ($10) and a house melt of Fontina over crab on an English muffin ($12). Just the thing to nibble, I suppose, while knocking back a bottle of bubbly (Veuve Clicquot, $120 bottle).
Our beer budget necessitates that we begin with the sensational oyster stew thick with six plump molluscs in a delightful sherry-kicked cream strewn with celery ($10). We'd love to sop up every last drop but aren't offered bread, so we resist the urge to lick the large white bowl clean. Like most everything we try, a first taste of chef Neil Lomas's roasted asparagus and myriad mushrooms ($10) in a buttery vinaigrette elicits swoons. But because of the dish's one-note delivery, by the course's end it bores.
Advised by our exceptionally polished server that the kitchen's three-cheese lasagna with fennel and artichoke ($12) is unavailable tonight, we settle for Forbidden Rice ($16, and considered a "larger plate") in its place. When we ask what's so taboo about the stuff, we're informed it's wild rice. It's not. Try nutty Asian black and sweet basmati grains studded with tart cranberries and chewy sultanas. The sugary jus from the meaty rack of guava-glazed back ribs intensifies the entrée's overall sweetness to levels only a dentist could appreciate. And anyone tackling this beautifully plated plate really should be provided with at least a finger bowl. A moist towelette, perhaps?
The same fate befalls an otherwise nosh-worthy knuckle of tender braised oxtail ($16), it's sweet meat undermined by buttery parsley-flecked orzo riddled with even more buttery pearl onions and varnished 'shrooms.
Funny how the Room overloads nearly every dish we test with artery-clogging cholesterol yet doesn't seem to do bread. Must be that low-carb craze we've heard about on CNN. Where's the balance, some crunchy developing-world slaw, anything to counter the relentless saccharinicity?
We finish with Banana Tres Leche ($8), an amateurish, home-ec shortcake topped with syrupy dwarf banana and oozing with so much booze it makes us think of Betty Crocker on a bender. Again the taste references are too sweet and off-puttingly sour. The latter wins out, and we leave this finish unfinished. Insult to injury: an already pricey if unremarkable after-dinner café au lait - Caffe con Leche, according to the menu ($4) - appears on the bill at an exorbitant $4.50.
Having previously enjoyed Lomas's Mediterranean-inspired work during his short stay at Li'ly on College, we can only assume the blame for the Room's lamentable Latin lineup lies with co-owner Berryman and consulting chef Aristedes Paspakis. Yes, the same Aristedes that Byron Ayanoglu was constantly promoting in these pages back in the days when the hula hoop was revolutionary.
For now - and NOW - the Laurentian Room appears to be a case of too many cooks.