TURF LOUNGE (330 Bay, at Adelaide, 416-213-2114) A dramatic, vaulted atrium lounge hung with plasma TVs tuned to the ponies and the Speed Channel gives way to a Vegas-hotel-style off-track betting joint. Win-win: a more than competent kitchen churns out New World Euro-Asian takes on boys' club surf 'n' turf at bistro prices. Warning: dress code. Complete meals for $50 per person, including all taxes, tip and a mint julep. Open Monday to Saturday, 11:30 am to 10 pm, bar till midnight, and Sunday noon to 6 pm, bar till 8 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
I've been thrown out of sweller saloons, but I never expected I'd be turfed out of Turf Lounge - the new Bay Street boîte that combines steak house, stockbrokers and off-track betting - before bad-mouthing the joint. I'm checking out Turf's luxe lounge - tall vaulted ceiling, massive modernist chandeliers and a gaggle of suits gathered around an illuminated bar glued to banks of large-screen plasma TVs tuned to the 3:30 from Santa Anita - when I'm asked to leave.
To keep the riff-raff out, Turf's dress code specifies no jeans, and since I'm wearing said offending trousers paired with a jacket and ironic T, that'd be me. I'm sure if a similarly clad Colin Farrell showed up dressed like this, drunk, with the Olsen Twins in tow, they'd get a table toot sweet. Besides, isn't it casual Friday, I whimper?
Back on the curb, I fume. As an autumnal sun casts long shadows down these canyons of commerce, I know when I'm not wanted. I probably won't like it anyway, I grumble. And c'mon, isn't the concept of a red-meat dinner accompanied by a parlay on the ponies a tad incongruous unless you're a cab driver splurging at the Tulip after winning the Triactor at Woodbine?
Since I plan a second assault on Turf, I'll need a disguise. I tear my wardrobe apart in search of restaurant critic camouflage, clothes that make us look old money but cool - I do have standards. I dress down in dark green slacks, grey wool shirt and unstructured beige cotton jacket. The Balkan goes vintage in brown polyester flares that pass for Prada in the dark, a burgundy button-down shirt and a blinding white Arnold Palmer golf jacket he picked up at Value Village for two bucks. Dress-code-ready, we look like we just stepped off the links.
On the cab ride over, we rehearse our cover stories. If we're asked what brings us to Turf on Thanksgiving in the middle of the afternoon, we'll lie that I'm in advertising and he's my out-of-town client. And since not calling attention to ourselves is rule number one, I remind the Balkan that if he drops his fork on the floor, he should leave it there, not pick it up, wipe it on his pants and stuff it back into his brunch-filled gob like he did recently in front of a rightly horrified server at Fressen.
Out of the cab and in through a glass art deco door, we casually saunter into Turf as if we belong here. Why shouldn't we? Other than the guy propping up the bar, we're the sole customers. The surprisingly friendly bartender leads us into an equally empty but comfortable dining lounge, explaining that since the regular menu isn't available today, we'll have to order from the bar card.
Oh, and there's no steak. There goes the Balkan's T-bone dinner bribe.
This windowless dining room has the feel of a very brown Vegas hotel lobby: overstuffed club chairs, low mahogany tables, display cases of steeplechase trophies, dim lighting and more TVs broadcasting the races on mute, the only noise a ventilator's hum. Along one wall, high rollers can occupy a row of padded booths complete with champagne buckets. I wander into the hardcore OTB arena next door, more stock brokerage than track with its Herman Miller ergonomic Aeron chairs, and spot Turf's lone gambler. In his hoser hockey jacket and corduroy pants, he could be a cabbie.
Back at the table, the personable barkeep returns with a linen-wrapped basket of warm, cornmeal-dusted rustic Ace Bakery baguette and slabs of spreadable unsalted butter. We've assumed that our dinner picks will be tapas-sized, but once the gigantic dishes arrive, we drag over the adjacent tables on each side of us to make room for the subsequent debris.
A culinary cliché on College, the chili- and coriander-kicked calamari arrives properly undercooked and tender on a sizable bed of delicious roasted corn salsa mixed with cherry tomatoes and dry-cured infornate olives. A tissue-thin papadam stands at attention, vertically anchored in a spoonful of cool butternut squash. Is there a better squid in town?
Another massive appetizer follows, eight thick Thai pork back ribs (both $11) glazed with syrupy house-made hoisin and white sesame. On the side, upright leaves of endive and frisée stand next to a crisp jicama carrot slaw in soy vinaigrette and squiggles of Srirachi hot sauce. Closer to ceviche or gravlax than sushi, and plated splayed like a mandala, raw thinly sliced farmed Atlantic salmon sashimi ($13) comes dressed with a frazzle of gingery pickled beet and carrot threads, green tobiko roe and pungent wasabi.
The last to appear and the least appreciated is a large basket of stone-cold Pringles-thin root vegetable chips ($8) - red beet, sweet potato, Yukon Gold and starchy taro. These would work best as cocktail snacks shared by a group, especially when dunked into Turf's smoke-fired chipotle aíoli.
After the earlier ridiculous ruckus at the door, we came to kick Turf's old-boys-club butt. Instead, we leave very impressed. Portuguese-born, Oakville-raised chef Eduardo Viana, who apprenticed under the legendary Albert Schnell at the Hilton (as did the Balkan briefly, he reminds me) and followed with hotel gigs in Zurich and Bermuda, deserves a 30-seat room where the focus is entirely on his interesting nosh and not the nags.
But until then, visit Turf for Viana's remarkable calamari and a cocktail. Just remember that unless you're Colin Farrell or an Olsen twin, you'll be turfed from Turf for wearing jeans.