JAMIE KENNEDY WINE BAR (9 Church, at Front, 416-362-5586) One of Toronto's top chefs triumphs again at this casual, contemporary 50-seat bistro that offers mix 'n' match tapas-style plates of upscale comfort food at surprisingly low prices. Since reservations are only accepted for groups of six or more, expect lineups at lunch, dinner and late. Complete meals for $35 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Tuesday to Saturday 11:30 am to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Some eight feet wide, it stretches from the floor of this former sushi restaurant right up to its current flat black ceiling: Jamie Kennedy's wall of pickles. Row upon row of spotlit mason jars crammed with organic veggie preserves line the wall beside the chef's just-launched open kitchen. They're just a small portion of the 80 bushels of red bell peppers and 1,200 jars of tomatoes he produces every fall. No mere piccalilli these. At times they appear on his exquisite over-sized Jasper Conran-designed plates as briny garnish, and other times they form the base for the intensely flavoured sauces that underscore his remarkable takes on bistro-style classics. Baby cukes become crisp cornichons, tangy accompaniments to a dainty steak sandwich on thinly sliced house-baked sourdough toast slathered with creamy Gorgonzola blue. Gossamer gaufrette potato wafers complete the picture ($10).
Side this delish 'swich with the chef's legendary fries, the same acclaimed cookbook-correct spuds dusted with fresh thyme and kicked with lemony Dijon-scented mayo ($5) that have travelled with Kennedy from Scaramouche - where he shook up Toronto's moribund resto scene 20 years ago with Michael Stadtlander - to Palmerston Garden and JK ROM. Yes, you read those prices correctly. Possibly the best steak sandwich and fries combo in town now costs a mere 15 bucks.
That's the good news about Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar. Here's the bad: this stylish right-downtown 50-seat room only accepts reservations for groups of six or more, so just try grabbing a table for two at lunch or dinner without waiting in line. Open two weeks and with only word of mouth, JK WB turned over 120 seats last Saturday night alone.
The feeding frenzy has commenced. But the Literary Device and I show up a few days earlier just before noon and, other than the joint's easy-going all-in-black crew and Kennedy himself behind one of the room's two former sushi stations, now lunch counters, the place is empty.
Instead of plunking ourselves down in front of the boyish chef at one of the 20 barstools that can accommodate both solo diners and group scenes, we commandeer one of several generously proportioned tables across the way.
Their size soon makes sense. Since all of Kennedy's rather short card is served separately, tapas-style, we're soon facing four jumbo plates as well four glasses of wine paired specifically with each, another two tumblers and a bottle of San Pellegrino fizzy water ($4.50/750 ml) a pair of linen napkins and an array of cutlery. The menu has a logic, too: as dishes aren't designated starters or mains, customers can assemble them any way they like, either as light lunches, substantial suppers or late-night snacks.
The wine pairings by sommelier Rob Kent are equally clever. Available in four pours - 3 or 6 ounces, 500 or 750 ml - they provide the appropriate counterpoint to every course, like the robust Tuscan Chianti (1999 Pacina Colli Sensei, $6.45/$13/$35/$52) he matches with the kitchen's inspired take on poutine ($7). Nearby Bouchon might do an absurd foie-gras-topped version of the Québécois junk food, but JK WB has reinvented poutine by way of Morocco, topping the superb fries with a slab of spicy merguez sausage, shards of sharp pecorino cheese and a splash of luscious lamb jus.
We've coupled it with a vegetable tajine - zucchini, chick peas and onion in a sweet cumin-scented tomato broth dolloped with minty yogurt ($6) - strictly because it rhymes with poutine. Who knew it made the perfect foil for Kennedy's extraordinary fries and gravy?
Back the next afternoon, we begin with a buttery slice of the house paté sided with Jardinière Vegetables, crunchy pickled green beans and cauliflower over a slaw-like julienne of celery root ($6). Note how the 3-ounce flute of sweet Hungarian dessert wine (1995 Tokaji, $2.90) accentuates the subtlety of the smooth terrine, especially once spread on paper-thin toasts made from the house's walnut baguette.
Kennedy's swoonsome Mediterranean Fish Soup ($10) tastes like it's caught to order. A tremendously flaky white filet of flounder-like fluke swims in a rich near-bouillabaisse cream garnished with eggy saffron aioli, a tangle of fennel threads and slim Melba toasts. Similarly balanced, melt-in-the-mouth braised oxtail ($7) arrives deboned and shredded in a puddle of deeply flavoured jus scattered with diced carrots. A wisp of wilted leek offers visual and textural contrast, while a pair of crisps slathered with marrow add salty bite.
Though it's often duck, today's confit of fat-preserved Cornish Hen ($8) finds several petite legs and thighs joined by cider-poached apples that dissolve on the tongue next to a few Asian greens in a hint of hoisin. By now we're as stuffed as the overflowing logo-stamped paper cones that deliver the famous Kennedy fries. So we pass on chocolate fritters gussied up with vanilla ice cream and sour cherry glaze ($5). Fab, no doubt. By lunch's end, staff still outnumber customers.
No stranger to success, Kennedy puts his money where his mouth is. When JK ROM closed last spring due to the museum's expansion, he announced he was temporarily giving up the local restaurant biz to concentrate on his catering concern, his soon-come vineyard in Prince Edward County and the organic and environmental causes he actively supports, among them the Knives And Forks food fest and the Evergreen group's renewal of the Brickworks wetland site. Good works aside, Toronto diners are lucky his break didn't last longer.
As we leave the lower Church Street bote, we're invited by our polished server to take a copy of JK WB's menu as a souvenir. Checking the fine print, we notice a message at the bottom, signed "Thanks, Jamie."
No, the pleasure's all ours.