HABITAT WORLD CUISINE (735 Queen West, at Tecumseth, 416-860-1551) Complete meals for $60 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $24. Open Tuesday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm. Bar till 2 am. Closed Sunday and Monday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
You can't help but feel trepidation as you approach a new Greg Couillard restaurant. After all, this is the quixotic cook who has opened and closed more joints - 23 and counting, according to www.chefdb.com - than he has appendages.
Factor in the fact that his latest spot, Habitat World Cuisine, is his first full-time gig since he left Sarkis to pursue other projects four years ago and you have to wonder if the peripatetic enfant terrible will still be ensconced in the kitchen by the time word hits the street that he's back in the saddle.
It's appropriate that Couillard has landed at what was once Future Bakery, one of the original meccas of the long-ago Queen West scene. This was the nascent nabe where he came to prominence in the late 70s for something the press later tagged "fusion" at the Parrot and the stellar Stelle. He simply called it shopping in nearby Chinatown and Kensington Market. His sister Gaye's venerable Vienna Home Bakery is just across the way, too.
Those familiar with Habitat's recent incarnation as a pleasant B-list lounge will be surprised by its swanky new decor.
The Modernist bar area has been left more or less as it was, but sliding white shoji screens have been added to separate the front from a beautifully appointed new dining room. Dimly lit and hushed except for Nina Simone on the hi-fi, it's possibly the most comfortable nosh zone in town.
And as you can see by looking through the window that opens to the kitchen, Mr. C is decidedly in the house.
We've heard that Habitat promises to be more accessible (read cheaper) than Couillard's previous cantinas, where entrees topped 40 bucks, but we're still taken aback by his current card's generous portions. For $12 most anywhere else, Goan Crab Fritters - a crispy pair of pakora-like cakes thick with shredded crab claw, corn kernels and green chilies bound with chickpea flour and partnered with tart tamarind sauce - would likely be microscopic.
Here, they're so hefty they could double as hockey pucks. Incredibly edible ones, though.
Both it and Ole Mole Duck ($14), an even more sizable and exquisitely executed leg of Latino-spiced confit glazed with a reduction of Mexican chocolate and chipotles - come sided with shredded mango-napa slaw and garnished with a toss of pomegranate seeds, the lot plated on bitter heart-shaped Vietnamese la-lot leaves. It takes three of us to polish off an enormous bowl of fabulous Smoked Turkey Mulligatawny Soup ($7), an autumnal curry-spiked purée textured with crunchy split yellow dahl.
Back in the day, I anonymously attended a cooking class given by Couillard where he taught us how to make what he jokingly referred to as Vietnamese Kraft Dinner. At Habitat, the same thing now goes by Danang Yellow Curried Rice Noodles ($14/$16 with shrimp), a deeply delicious dish of tiger-striped grilled chicken breast, baby bok choy and sweet bell pepper over linguine sauced with lemongrass-licked coconut cream.
Variations on Couillard's East-meets-West signature Madagascar Flambéed Pepper Steak ($20 4 ounces/$32 8 ounces) have appeared on many of his menus, but it has never been more inspired than the version presented here. It's a melt-in-your-mouth rare medallion of beef tenderloin flamed in cognac and distinctly dolloped with sharp gorgonzola, served over a coral mound of mashed potato 'n' pumpkin.
Another visit begins with an amuse-gueule, a quartet of chickpea mini-muffins that would be far more amusing if a tamarind dip or raita accentuated the snack's Indo roots. We follow with chopstick-skewered Tuna Negami Warm Salad ($14), two sushi-grade loin fillets crusted with toasted seaweed and sesame seeds that recline on a bed of wilted bok choy and a pool of tomato-pink miso. Decorated with flowers fashioned from gari ginger, this impressive platter also features sheets of wonderful marbled nori unlike any I've seen or eaten before.
Also imititable is Couillard's Thai Seafood Bouillabaisse ($9), a plentiful collision of chubby shrimp, mussels and whitefish in a smoky, sour red-curry-paste-based broth flecked with kaffir lime leaf and strewn with strands of rau ram. Where are those muffins when you need them, to savour every last drop?
Though it seems that nearly every bistro and boîte does it, they can all take a back seat to HWC's definitive Moroccan Braised Lamb Shank ($24). A helping of Flintstonian proportions, the succulent pink flesh - wrapped in tissue-thin lengths of purple Asian eggplant and smeared with intense tomato concasse - seems to fall from the bone of its own volition. Big enough to split, it's sided with Israeli couscous studded with dried apricot, and a heap of first-rate wok-fried designer veggies.
We finish with borrowed Vienna pastry chef David Kozicky's Fat Lady On The Beach ($9), an over-the-top finale of paper-parasoled chai-poached pear reclining on a molten reef of chocolate galette, phenomenal house-made eggnog ice cream and lusciously ripe Chilean cherries. But, then, considering what's gone before, even a Ritz cracker would be overkill.
So what if the otherwise thoroughly professional and friendly staff are a tad too excited when describing the food (dishing superlatives is my job, gang) and an overexposed copy of Sade's Greatest Hit happens to be stuck in the CD player on eternal repeat?
Here's the good news: Couillard has clearly come home to his natural Habitat.