GAMELLE (468 College, at Bathurst, 416-923-6254) Complete dinners for $50 per person (lunches $35), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $25/$15. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 6 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Though I draw the line at aero-dynamic spandex, every July I get caught up in Tour de France fever. Sporting a jaunty beret and nattily knotted apache scarf, with a baguette tucked under one arm, I find myself compelled to take to the boulevard on my 70s-vintage Jocelyn Lovell 10-speed in search of la vie en rose and decent steak frites.
I used to hightail it to Pony on College for my francophilic fix. The food, though presentable, moderately priced and prix fixe, was never Pony's calling card.
We came for the ambience, what the French call un certain je ne sais quoi, for the secluded backyard terrace and, most importantly, for septuagenarian André Malibert's charmingly old-school service.
But Pony closed this spring, replaced by a trendy tapas lounge, and Malibert has, sadly, retired.
We'd head over to Batifole on Gerrard East, but it's just wrapping up another season of Summerlicious, and La Palette has become a soupçon less chic since owner Shamez Amlani parked a clapped-out K-car full of dirt in front of his retro Kensington resto as some sort of environmental statement.
Which brings us to Gamelle this hot summer's eve.
Like Noce, the Corner House or the Bo Peep Family Restaurant, Gamelle seems to be one of those time-warp establishments that has been around forever but no one will admit to having visited. I've never given the joint a second thought, especially after that National Post nitwit declared it his favourite T.O. hangout a few years back.
But, wound up from the Tour and jonesing for jambon, I'm cycling west on College when I notice a sign in Gamelle's large storefront window: patio in the back.
A quick peek over the fence reveals a hidden garden, all overgrown foliage, umbrella-shaded café tables and, apart from the subdued din of an exhaust fan, complete quiet. It's not Pony, but it's close.
Entering Gamelle for the first time, one feels welcomed back into the arms of a long-lost love. Under a pressed tin ceiling, bare tables dressed with gleaming glassware give way to a small open kitchen hung with copper pans. We make our way down a long hallway and settle on the shaded terrace, a summery glass of 05 Malivoire Gamay ($8.50/$33 bottle) in hand.
Shortly, a basket of warm, crisp-crusted baguette accompanied by an addictive garlicky black bean tapenade arrives, followed by a starter of plump escargots, shredded frog legs and shiitake mushrooms dressed with tart verjus.
Served in a cup fashioned from a thin, brittle crepe that resembles a papadum ($12 lunch/$14 dinner), it's definitely slightly out of the ordinary.
We're also not sure what to make of the kitchen's seared foie gras ($14/$15), an otherwise fab slab of duck innards that comes inexplicably plated with a thin slice of gingerbread; the overpowering spicing of the latter obliterates the liver's subtlety.
At lunch, a main of Andalusian-style seafood soup chunked cod, sliced calamari and a few tail-on shrimp in a robust tomato ragout goes for $15 and is too much for us to finish. We can't imagine the size of the $26 dinner portion.
But we do know that an uninspiring mix of garden peas, diced zucchini, carrot and de Puy lentils ($12/$20) would work better as a side dish than as the house's token vegetarian entrée, perhaps in place of the under-grilled yellow squash that props up a properly trimmed NY sirloin ($16/$28).
A few evenings later, dinner gets underway with an amuse-bouche of grilled baby asparagus swathed in salty prosciutto and dolloped with delicate saffron aioli.
Having been impressed by the gnocchi at Citizen, we can't resist ordering it again ($15). Sauced in a similar mushroom sauce, Gamelle's take substitutes braised guinea fowl for rabbit and manages the seemingly impossible trick of tasting both light and remarkably rich.
Thick with shiitake and dried apple, wild mushroom risotto ($22) becomes even tastier after a liberal shaving of cheesy parmigiano has been applied. But roasted lamb in a mild tomato and red wine reduction negligibly tweaked with Moroccan harissa seems a tad pricey at 30 bucks even if it does come from some fancy farm in Quebec. Ordered medium rare, it's almost too undercooked to eat.
A closing salvo of textbook tarte tatin ($7) swirled with crème anglaise, however, proves the kitchen can do the classics.
But what kind of French restaurant doesn't do frites? A lone rosti under the steak and a singular roasted russet alongside the lamb are the only spuds we see.
"It's a problem I've wrestled with from the beginning," says owner Jean-Pierre Centeno with a Gallic shrug. "My kitchen is so small, to put in a deep fryer I'd have to get rid of the grill. I love frites just like everyone else, but what can I do?"