INSPIRE (491 Church, at Maitland, 416-963-0044) The menu at this stylishly minimal all-glass-and-chrome space tempts with contemporary takes on affordably priced Asian fusion fare. But over-the-top plating can't disguise the kitchen's many misfires. Still, a great spot for a champagne cocktail or three. Complete dinners for $40 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open daily 5 pm to 2 am. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Like Joan Collins's shoulder pads, tall food refuses to go away. Since the 80s, chefs with architectural aspirations have been piling food on plates higher than the B-Girlz backcomb their bouffants. But Inspire, a swanky, minimalist cocktail-lounge-cum-noshery on Church, takes towering chow to new heights.Picture this: rectangular white ceramic trays hold 3-inch-thick black concrete bricks that in turn support fluted Japanese laquerware plates piled with fusion fare like Thai-style grilled flank steak sided with spicy roasted rice and a chili dip ($16.95). Total altitude: 10 inches.
Not only are the Poncey Pseud, club kid Jennifer Convertible and I equipped with tape measures (in this neighbourhood you never know when you're going to have to size things up), but we're also packing flashlights.
We need them to read Inspire's lengthy pan-global menu, which is printed on brown linen, rolled in a bamboo placemat and impossible to read by candlelight.
What we can see of our environs looks quite lovely, even if the lighting is only slightly brighter than the back room of the Black Eagle. Or so they tell me.
The walls are tastefully painted taupe -- the new beige, Poncey informs us -- and the room is virtually free of decor except for a few calla lilies and the odd mirror. We're ensconced on black slatted chairs at a glass-and-chrome table, nodding along to one of those now-ubiquitous Buddah Bar-type CDs.
Dressed in regulation black, our slim server decants the house's perfunctory red plonk, a vintageless Cesari Merlot ($5 glass/$17 half-litre/ $32 bottle), into Dutch designer Droog's amusing Wobbly Vase.
"All that's missing are dribble glasses," cracks the Pseud, always the wiseacre.
The starters soon follow. Served in five small mounds surrounded by small pools of oil infused with wasabi, beet and carrot, lemon grass (see Secret Ingredient), ginger and Thai basil salmon tartare ($6.95) sports silly deep-fried rice-vermicelli antennae.
Alongside this pleasant ap, the menu promises "vegetable crisps." True to its word, there are exactly two: one taro, one red beet.
Said to side steamed-spinach-and-beet dumplings ($5.95) as well, these same veggie crisps are a no-show. Instead, we make do with five rubbery potstickers stuffed with wilted spinach and lumpy beets.
Roast duck and enoki mushroom wraps ($6.75) put dry duck meat, carrot strands and 'shrooms into halved mu shu pancakes.
Menu-described "condiments" turn out to be a ramekin of bottled hoisin sauce that should really be spread on the pancakes' interiors.
Next up, the tall mains sail into view. Pan-seared duck leg ($14.95) finds a sizable if somewhat tough drumstick and thigh on a bed of blanched bean sprouts and button mushrooms. It's joined by deep-fried cubes of potato 'n' taro and a blob of chili sauce that tastes remarkably like ketchup.
Grilled black cod ($15.95), a perfectly just-undercooked, flaky fillet lightly glazed with miso and sake, shows the kitchen can occasionally get things right. But the deep-fried handroll stuffed with salmon tartare, mango and daikon that comes with it returns things to just acceptable.
Same with baby back pork ribs ($15.95), six meaty five-spiced marvels let down by greasy sweet potato and onion tempura cooked too long in oil that's not hot enough.
A week later, we begin with crab cakes ($7.25), an OK trio of piping hot breadcrumbed patties made with what our server assures us is real crab. It doesn't taste like it. A half-dozen sake-infused grilled littleneck clams ($8.75) form a chorus line on upended sake cups. Cute if chewy, they're joined by more of those disappointing tempura fritters.
A tangle of cross-legged oolong-tea-smoked boneless quails ($13.75) comes complete with bones and minus any tea scent. Served at room temperature, two of the birds are cooked through and one's blood-red. Cold blanched spinach and two sushi-esque rice cakes half-wrapped in toasted nori dotted with black sesame seeds complete the picturesque plate. Grilled French-cut pork chop ($15.95) with mustard-miso glaze shows up nicely char-marked but slightly overdone. Good luck trying to figure out how to unwrap its accompanying lotus leaf packet of buttery long-grain rice, hijiki, daikon and carrot without spilling it all over yourself.
Co-owners Steve Wong and Kitty Lee (ex-Spiral and Ginger Wasabi respectively) know better. Yes, they've created a welcome addition to the area with a far-reaching and moderately priced menu. But somebody had better start supervising the kitchen with as much attention as they've paid to the flower arrangements.
Otherwise, Inspire will never live up to its firstname.lastname@example.orgFood & Drink