JAMIE KENNEDY AT THE GARDINER (111 Queen's Park, at Bloor, 416-362-1957) Complete meals for $60 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of Ontario wine. Average main $18. Open daily for lunch 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
How noisy is Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner, the recently relaunched dining room in the ceramics museum across from the ROM? Why, the din emanating from the half-full room of ladies who lunch - and a few of us who dinner as well - in this acoustically challenged space is so cacophonous, I can't hear the Gipsy Kings CD on the sound system.
"That's not the Gipsy Kings," says JKG manager Nicole Podbury dismissively.
And my point exactly. Call the local wunderkind's return to Yorkville a work of art in progress. The building and its galleries are still very much under construction, but the museum reopened in June and should be completed more or less in time for a heavy schedule of exclusive film festival parties to which we're not invited.
The serene space is minimally appointed, all concrete walls surprisingly free of ornament, hard wooden floors and modish stacking tables and chairs. All it takes for JKG's noise level to rocket to that of a high school cafeteria is one dropped fork.
But does it matter, when said clunky cutlery is put to such stellar use?
Although executive chef Kennedy is often in the house today the boyishly photogenic chef can be seen by the resto's bar hamming it up for a cable TV crew he's put his former sous, Michael Dixon, in charge of the everyday operation of the kitchen. Tellingly, Dixon's also worked under Michael Stadtlander at Eigensinn Farm.
See that influence in the thick slices of rustic-crusted house-baked multigrain that arrive plated on a chainsaw-fashioned wooden plank, coupled with a ramekin each of whipped butter and heavenly roasted eggplant-sweet bell pepper spread. However, the purée like most of this midday menu is pure Kennedy, a locally sourced and often organic cuisine that he conceived with Stadtlander 20 (!) years ago at Palmerston.
A plump, exquisitely grilled scallop swims in an intensely fresh and buttery cream of Ontario corn soup ($10), strewn with a tiny chiffonade of chives. Thirteen bucks for a green salad is a bit much even for a swanky joint like dis, but it only takes one bite of the home-grown heirloom tomatoes coupled with rich Quebecois chèvre and leafy arugula in a simply herbed vinaigrette to remind us what tomatoes used to taste like worth every Proustian cent.
Dixon's bouillabaisse ($19) wows, a fiercely delicious tomato consommé scented with fennel and Pernod, brimming with fingerling potato, more multicoloured heirloom tomato, a trio of sweet mussels and a tiger shrimp of Titanic proportion.
Our otherwise attentive server has delivered the considerable bowl side of house-made mayo instead of the intended rouille (hint: it's red) alongside dried bread sticks that recall a baby's rusk. But who notices when it tastes this good?
Another main finds gorgeously fatty but easily trimmed slices of seared 'n' roasted duck breast exploding over wilted red stalks of Swiss chard and oven-tender wedges of incredibly coloured summer squash ($18). An artfully puddled pool of cassis-kicked jus and another of plum reduction provide counterpoint.
That's a hard act for a cheeseburger to follow, but the JKG burger ($14) nearly pulls it off. Topped with Cheese Boutique cheddar, its hefty lean patty rides an onion bun that wins points by being baked in house but loses them when its too hard to bite through.
And while the burger does arrive sided with spoonfuls of Kennedy's corn relish and Dijon-laced potato salad as well as diner-issue lettuce, tomato and onion, it doesn't come with the maestro's world famous frites ($5).
They're just as good as the spuds that put the JK in ROM back in the 90s. Presented in a logo-stamped paper cone, these first-rate fries are still worthy of their reputation so much so that they're the first thing we order to start lunch the following day.
We continue with a textbook salad nioise ($14) before moving on to a sizable slab of pink sockeye salmon ($18) that's nicely crisped on the outside and sushi-raw within.
Sure to become JKG's newest signature dish, Kennedy's spectacular charcuterie platter ($14) showcases substantial slices of house-cured duck alongside gauzy Serrano ham and a dazzlingly rich scoop of chicken liver pâté. His farm-pickled veggies, some sheep's milk cheese and an oversized tuille made from a length of walnut loaf complete the plate, er, log.
The kitchen's only misfire is its well-meaning vegetarian take on the Sri Lankan hopper ($13), a thin rice-flour crepe topped with an innocuous veggie curry augmented by a thali tray holding bowls of raita, coconut sambal, mango pickle and a decidedly non-vegetarian onion relish spiked with dried ikan bilis anchovies.
And after a 20-minute wait, our made-to-order dessert lemon Bundt cake with blueberries ($7) turns out to be a cupcake.
Still, I can't help wondering how a restaurant that describes its reasonably priced regional by-the-glass wine list as "a careful selection of harmonies made to enhance your gastronomic experience" can be so loud.
"It's the architects," says Dixon, referring to Toronto firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, which has done an otherwise excellent job in transforming the Gardiner from dowdy to downtown. "Change so much as a doorknob and they freak."