OMI (451 Church, at Alexander, 416-920-8991) More a casual local hangout than a severe Zen dining room, this Japanese joint is best when owner/chef John Lee does his sushi thang with the day's fresh catch. Complete omakase dinners for $75 per person (à la carte menu $35 at dinner, $25 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a cold unfiltered sake. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday noon to 2 pm, and for dinner Monday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Access: eight steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNnN Rating: NNNN
I'm walking up the stairs and through a split traditional Japanese noren door curtain, worlds away from the bustle of the cruisey boulevard below. But I don't hear the expected sounds of a plucked koto and the burble of a Zen water fountain. Instead I make my entrance at Omi to Carole King's drag queen anthem You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman. Church Street, I'm yours. Before Toronto sushi hero Hiro headed for King East, this famed small space was his stomping ground. He left behind the room's ugly 80s pastel colour scheme, now cluttered with beer signs, movie posters and plastic fruit. But the impressive raised oak bar complete with glass-lidded display cases for the day's catch - a raised stage for piscatorial action - remains.
Bonus: a large front window overlooks what's jokingly known as South Beach, the hot sidewalk scene that's recently sprouted in front of the coffee shop and underpants boutique across the street. It's the new Steps, darling.
Swivelling back from the eye candy, I notice Omi's previously silent baseball-hatted chef, John Lee, take a cell call. He seems excited.
"Yes-s-s! I'm doing Ozzy!" he announces, punching the air. Lee will be slicing up fish for Mr. Osbourne's post-ACC concert nosh.
The CD player shuffles through Gladys Knight's Midnight Train To Georgia, segues into Bobbie Gentry's Ode To Billie Joe, followed by Melissa Manchester's Midnight Blue, the Staple Singers' I'll Take You There and Eva Cassidy's heart-breaking cover of Judy's Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
Like most of the after-work regulars joking at the bar, I forego Omi's à la carte menu - tempura ($16.95 dinner/$8.95 lunch) - for Lee's improvised omakase parade of plates that goes for about $75, depending on how much sensational chilled unfiltered sake is drunk.
Today, tuna comes two ways: briefly seared and ruby-centered tenderloin or pale pink topped with roasted garlic brittle. A mini-wok of steaming seafood soup - chewy squid tendrils, cultured mussels, watercress and sweet red bell pepper - leads to a beautifully plated solo shrimp suspended in a frazzle of deep-fried sweet potato thread.
Flaky whiting comes broiled in an aluminum packet alongside buttery, sake-soaked caramelized onion, while the best part of steamed freshwater pickerel has delicious yellow-flecked skin. To finish, a fabulous sextet of inside-out uramaki - deep-fried soft-shell crab lashed with lovely tamago-no-moto mayo.
Let's hope Sharon doesn't start another sushi-bar brawl.
The three-storey victorian pile that houses Angelini's (504 Jarvis, at Cawthra Square, 416-922-5811) has a long history with Toronto's gay and lesbian community. Built in 1891 for local booze merchant George Gooderham of Distillery District fame, it's since been a nunnery, a servicemen's club and a home to both the YMCA's Red Triangle Club - pink, surely - and Big Brothers. Today it's a sprawling Italianish resto that, although only steps from Church and Wellesley, fails to draw the local sweater set. Shame, that. The place's an unintentional hoot: a romanesque revival space crammed with ornate period furniture lit by garish art nouveau chandeliers and stained glass windows. The food's equally dated. But when has that ever been a prob for a Boystown beanery?
We're ushered into one of Angelini's several empty parlours for Sunday brunch ($23) and sink into deep wingback chairs at a linen-draped window table. It's all ridiculously luxe, but look closer and the grandeur fades - notice details like the ceiling mural overhead painted roller-marked beige.
Just as attractive and dull, our starters - a grilled portobello 'shroom with chip-dip-tasting wine sauce and rubbery-to-OK calamari in salty tomato sauce over suitably bitter greens - fail to impress.
Same with so-so salmon-like trout, a tasteless farmed fish in lifeless lemon sauce, despite the occasional caper. That and other mains like middling chicken parmigiano come sided with pre-roasted, sculpted spuds and crisply butter-sautéed carrots 'n' pepper strips. We're about to dismiss Angelini's completely when dessert arrives, classic cookbook-correct renditions of otherwise tired tiramisu and crème caramel.
Maybe there's still some life in the old girl yet.
there's not much life in the closed and broken dead mussels in tinned tomato sauce we exhume at the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch at Captain John's (1 Queen's Quay West, at Yonge, 416-363-6062). Just one of several culinary atrocities offered as part of this inept spread ($18.75), they make me question the galley's familiarity with basic food preparation. The meagre smorgasbord is set up in lidded chaffing dishes fuelled by roaring flames. Try lifting their hot metal handles and finding somewhere to put them. Nothing is identified. I think I'm eating soggy lasagna until a sailor-suited server asks how I'm enjoying the yellow seafood crepe.
Situated at the foot of Yonge, this land-locked Adriatic love boat obviously attracts tourists. They more than likely assume Captain John's seafood comes directly from the sparkling waters of Lake Ontario.
Witness frozen shrimp with their legs, heads and tails intact and skeletal crab legs that are too much bother to fiddle with for their limited reward. Eggs Benedict has been on the steam table so long the yolks are hard-boiled, the hollandaise is curdled and toast mush. Chocolate mouse could be the tasteless stuff found in frozen McCain pies made from oil by-products.
As we persevere in trying to find something remotely edible - salad, perhaps? - bored staff read. Might we suggest a cookbook?
After brunch, we poke around the ship's kitsch-filled upper decks and find a fantastic cocktail lounge that would make a swell setting for a Pride party. As long as no food's involved. Peering through its locked glass doors, I have a déjà vu moment. As a cub reporter for the Toronto star - I wrote the paper's alternating disco and punk columns (a gig's a gig) - I attended a record company party at Captain John's in 1979 for the Village People upon the release of In The Navy.
The YMCA must have been full.