the style-mongers will have a field day determining if La Palette, a 10-week-old spot at the top of Kensington Market, fits Escoffier's definition of a bistro. Steak-frites on a Matisse-typeface menu? Check. Provenĉal-patterned tablecloths? 10-4. Moulin Rouge posters? Tri-colour flags? Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marlene on the CD player? Zut alors, c'est un bistro!Just don't expect anything remotely fashionable -- Teatro this ain't. Once the home of Ocean King, the cheapest Chinese restaurant in the city -- hardly a claim to fame -- La Palette has obviously been decorated on the cheap. Upside-down lamp shades cover bare ceiling fixtures. A dozen diners makes this tiny spot crowded. But the welcome is warm, the prices are right and the ridiculously cute chef is one to watch. For culinary reasons, too.
Though the room defines modest, suave server and co-owner Shamez Amlani personifies cordiality. An off-and-on 11-year veteran of Le Select, he graciously makes first-timers feel like regulars and regulars like family. Not sure of a wine? Try this. Thinking of soup? Here's a taste.
One satiny spoonful of partner chef -- and also a Le Select alumnus -- Michael Harrington's supernal butternut squash soup ($5, brunch $4) hooks us. Served in an octagonal bowl and garnished with a smoked salmon rosette, creamy puree and cured fish make an unlikely but delicious duo. Another evening's roasted tomato, fennel, mushroom (shiitake, button, portobello), zucchini, eggplant and celery soup displays great subtlety.
Other starters stay close to traditional bistro guidelines. Fromage Tiede ($8), two deep-fried Camembert triangles served on green apple slices with celeriac slaw alongside tart strawberry-mango compote, demonstrates control. As does Salade Basque ($6, brunch $7), velvety near-foie gras port-glazed chicken livers over greens in a red-wine vinaigrette with a sweet-basil-and-roasted-red-pepper relish accent.
Over the years, I've eaten a lot of steak, and La Palette's 8-ounce triple-A black Angus sirloin ($18) is one of the best I've run into. Topped with sundried tomato riddled with basil and brandied butter, the deftly grilled strip comes with first-rate Yukon gold fries and tangy tarragon mayo.
Equally skilful, Carré d'Agneau ($22) -- three herb-crusted and Dijon-spiked double lamb chops -- gets sided with silky garlic mash and wine-soaked mushrooms, as well as buttery carrots, snow peas and zucchini.
Harrington outdoes himself with a mixed grill ($16) of deboned quail, sliced pork tenderloin and chicken breast strips plated with roasted potatoes and sugary cranberry jus. La Palette also offers wallet-friendly ($23) three-course prix fixe specials such as garlicky Ragout d'Hiver ($14 a la carte), a boozy -- red wine, port, brandy, pastis and Marsala -- boeuf bourguignon thick with slowly simmered steak, carrots, mushrooms and onion, plus red, green and jalapeño (!) peppers. Soup or salad and dessert, too.
La Palette is a two-man show, so they can't do everything -- dessert, for example. Tri-coloured chocolate mousse cake, though adequate, recalls those chalky McCain frozen abominations. Slightly better, deep-fried crepes get stuffed with chocolate-latte tartuffo, hazelnut ice cream and syrupy Cassis-stewed strawberries, melon, mango and apple (both $6). Stick with the cheese plate ($5): English smoked Applewood, Danish blue Castello and Spanish chevre. Harrington deserves praise for refusing to crème brûlée.
Regardless, everything goes down a treat with red Rioja (97 Conde de Valdemar $6.25 glass/ bottle $30) or sweet Millstone Lager ($3.75). Figure in a weekend brunch that features salad-and-sandwich combos like garlic-marinated grilled chicken breast with jalapeño 'n' black-olive tapenade on a baguette (La Portugaise, $8) and a 7-ounce flank steak with more of those fabulous fries ($11), and La Palette transforms the drudgery of Market shopping into a pleasure.
LA PALETTE (256 Augusta, just south of College 416-929-4900) Forget the hype and hubbub. Here's a funky, low-key neighbourhood boite serving no-nonsense cafe classics that just happens to be French. Couple suave service with a young chef with a deft touch with grilled meats, and this unpretentious spot defies food fads. Complete dinners for $35 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or aperitif. Open for dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 5:30 pm to midnight, and for brunch Saturday and Sunday noon to 5:30 pm. Fully licensed. Access: three steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Also known as celery root and, er, celery knob, celeriac is the ugliest of root vegetables. Used raw and julienned in classic French salads like céleri rémoulade, or boiled, mashed and then baked in a Gruyère-topped gratin, celeriac must first lose its thick outer skin and any brown or soft spots before its off-white inner core is ready to use. This versatile veg can also be roasted or pureed in winter soups. Here's an unusual and delicious recipe for Celeriac Lasagna, published in Patricia Wells's At Home In Provence (Fireside). Cook 3 pounds of celeriac cut into very thin slices with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice in 6 quarts of boiling water till tender but firm, about 7 minutes. Stir to prevent sticking. Drain thoroughly. Combine 2 cups of your favourite tomato sauce and 3/4 cup heavy cream in a saucepan and warm over low heat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Butter a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish and layer with 1/3 of the celeriac, 1/3 of the sauce and 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Repeat layers two more times. Place the dish on a centre shelf in a preheated 400º F. oven and bake for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cut into large wedges and side with a green salad. Serves four to six.