Loire owner/chef Jean-Charles Dupoire (left) and sous-chef Marko Skof bring their elegant card to the Harbord strip.
LOIRE CASUAL GOURMET (119 Harbord, at Brunswick, 416-850-8330) Complete dinners for $65 per person (lunches $35), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $25/$17. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 10 pm, for lunch Tuesday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Launched exactly one year ago, low-key Loire deserves to be applauded as much for what it does - soberly priced contemporary plates with a decided French accent - as for what it doesn't do.
Walk into the welcoming 40-seat room and the first thing you'll notice is what's not there. There's no lineup, no snooty maitre d' at the door and no Technics turntable on the bar. Mixology is limited to a wine list divided into red and white, servers are more likely career vets than part-time pop stars, and reservations are gladly accepted.
Instead of sharing the trough communally with the hoi polloi under halogen, we dine at well-spaced linen-topped tables washed by natural light. And when the sound system shuffles almost imperceptibly from cheesy accordions to the Cure's wistful Friday I'm In Love - on Friday the 13th, no less - we find ourselves hopelessly falling for Loire.
The love affair begins with warm slices of St. John's Bakery baguette spread with soft unsalted butter and continues when, after we forgo a $7 bottle of mineral water for a robust Rioja (06 Bodegas Beronia, $10 glass/$50 bottle), our unflappable server returns with the wine and a frosted jug of l'eau du Lac Ontario.
Steamed in Steam Whistle lager along with ribbons of sweetly caramelized onion, a starter of PEI mussels ($12) may lack the Southeast Asian pyrotechnics deployed at Leslieville's Hanoi 3 Seasons, but demonstrates former Epic in the Royal York chef Jean-Charles Dupoire's considerable kitchen skills. His warm tangle of bitter endive 'n' radicchio slaw, watercress coulis and aged Sainte-Maure chèvre dusted with crumbled pistachio ($13) would be a deep-fried hockey puck of cheese over No Frills mesclun most anywhere else.
Though pork belly has quickly become a culinary cliché, Loire's slow-braised take rises above the norm, near tenderloin in texture and surprisingly free of fat other than the crunchy deep-fried rind layered over a mustard-laced succotash of yellow-eyed beans and shaved Brussels sprouts ($15).
Follow that with the charcuterie board - salami-sliced summer sausage, an ambrosial chicken liver parfait sided with tissue-thin toasts, a mini-Mason jar of shredded pork rillette sealed with lardo and a handful of house-made cornichons and pickled beets ($16 dinner/$15 lunch) - and a defibrillator.
Mains are just as impressive. A pale green riot of eggy linguine comes tossed with nutty arugula pesto and wilted kale, the lot draped with expertly grilled partridge ($25/$17). At lunch, fillets of Lake Huron whitefish arrive equally à point, their sides of roasted chestnuts and creamy Savoy cabbage chiffonade spiked with whelk - snails to the squeamish - surrounded by a moat of textbook sauce diable ($19).
Served on thin slices of toasted Harbord Bakery challah rather than conventional buns, Loire's burgers - either beef ($17/$16 with frites) or New Zealand lamb ($19/$18) dressed with a soupçon of ketchupy tomato jam and Quebecois Brie - are big on flavour but look small for the sticker price, especially once they're unnecessarily cut in half and their crusts removed. Other than a dollop of chipotle mayo, pulled pork sandwiches on multigrain ($14 lunch with frites) are oddly sauce-free though those of rare-as-requested steak with sweetly sautéed onion and 'shrooms on chewy baguette show up bursting with jus ($17 lunch with frites).
And what magnificent frites they be! Made from the Agria super-spud, they're first blanched in water before being air-dried, then deep-fried in oil "the old fashioned way in a pot," as Dupoire explains. Strange that one visit they're full-size, the next chopped into little bits.
Desserts stick to the classics - witness chai-flavoured crème brûlée that suggests pumpkin pie by way of the Subcontinent and straight-forward caramel bread pudding with vanilla ice cream (both $9). If our anniversary nosh is any indication, lucky Loire is here to stay.