KARUCHIE (924 College, at Dovercourt, 416-850-1729) Complete dinners for $50 per person (brunches $18), including all taxes, tip and a glass of organic wine. Average main $18/$8. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Brunch Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Taking its name from the Japanese characters for "wise gamble," three-month-old Karuchie is the best new bote to hit the College strip since David Chrystian's Café Societa had local foodies foaming at the mouth back in 98.
Some may remember the west-side eatery as the short-lived Ferrillo. Earlier still, the long 'n' lean storefront was home to popular Portuguese chicken churrasqueira Piri-Piri before it relocated to Dupont.
Today, the sophisticated space now all pale taupe walls with contrasting chocolate-brown wainscotting is divided into two rooms, the front area featuring French doors that open to the street when weather permits, the rear sky-lit and warmed by a fireplace. Tables are covered with starchy white linen offset by strips of black construction paper, while high-backed upholstered chairs make lingering a pleasure.
As one would expect from the resto's handle, first-time restaurateur and former Scaramouche apprentice Chris Thorn's contemporary card incorporates touches of Japonica. See it in the way he aesthetically plates a salad of crisp watercress and ruffled red lollo rosso lettuce tossed with slices of sweet mandarin orange and roasted almonds ($7). He splashes the lot with 12-year-old balsamic and decorates the final mix with a handful of fresh parsnip chips that recall nothing so much as a scattering of autumn leaves.
That same fruity vinegar shows up drizzled over a bed of arugula and radicchio piled with paper-thin strips of slightly salty prosciutto and wine-marinated mushroom caps ($8). Another visually stunning dish, we're not sure if we should polish the appetizer off or wear it as a corsage.
At first bite, impossibly rich house-made potato gnocchi in white wine cream layered with cubes of cured venison ($12) seems more like a main than a first course. By third, we realize that a full helping could likely induce cardiac arrest, but, oh, what a lovely way to go.
The only entrée that doesn't live up to Karuchie's concept sounds like the most interesting thing on offer. Served in a lidded earthen casserole, handmade duck and mustard fruit ravioli ($16) turns out to be eight or so round, translucent pasta packages lightly packed with braised bird as well as finely diced cherry, pear and melon in a sugary syrup intensified with mustard. They come garnished with a tangle of mirin-marinated daikon and recline over a bed of vibrant Swiss chard in anise-scented duck broth. Rather than a kicky pair of Manolo pumps, they're the sensible brown shoes of the menu.
But we're soon piling on the hosannas again for Thorn's astoundingly tender slow-braised beef short ribs ($17). Sided with slender stalks of al dente rapini and a fabulous mash of roasted chestnuts and Yukon Gold spuds, this positively brontosaurus-sized portion gets a final golden topknot of deep-fried leek.
Roast Cornish hen ($20) goes even further over the top, especially when coupled with a gorgeous pearl barley risotto studded with plump sultanas, green pistachios, double-smoked bacon and a final toss of those wondrous parsnip crisps.
Service throughout has been nothing short of stellar. Accommodating manager treats our table like long-lost friends and not customers she's never clapped eyes on before, attentively topping up our glasses of serviceable organic South African shiraz ($6.25,2005 Western Cape) without asking or charge.
We have hoped to finish with sous and pastry chef Shelby Brown's lemon tart (all desserts $7), but Delaire sadly informs us that since they've just been baked, they've yet to set. Instead, she recommends the house bread pudding. I consider myself a bit of an expert on the subject, having tried countless renditions over the years, and I rate Karuchie's take second to none.
Built on a base of creamy vanilla custard strewn with chunks of sweet caramelized apple and topped with a golden crumble of croissant, each serving comes straight from the oven and sided with hot caramel sauce. We decide to gild the lily by pairing it with a trio of Brown's house-made ice creams: figgy fig, rum raisin and lemon thick with pith. (Say that last one three times.)
Presenting the bill along with a complimentary stack of Brown's dense pistachio biscotti, Delaire mentions that Karuchie has just introduced Sunday brunch. Apparently, Thorn's three-egg omelette of opportunity with salad and toast goes for all of $7. But aren't the brunch bunch those usually too cheap to go to an upscale resto any other day of the week a notoriously difficult crowd?
"We put the strollers in the front room and everyone else in the back," the mukluk-clad Delaire explains. "I tell the parents that unattended toddlers will be force-fed caffeine and given sharp objects to play with. That usually keeps them under control."