LE SELECT (328 Queen West, at Peter, 416-596-6405) Since the late 70s, this venerable storefront café has delivered solid takes on French bistro classics. Some haven't weathered well - bread baskets suspended from the ceiling by ropes once seemed the height of Gallic sophistication but now just bump into foreheads - but its leather banquettes, gas fires and Left Bank charm make its mid-range noshes easier to swallow. Complete dinners for $50 per person ($35 lunch /$22 brunch), including all taxes, tip and a $6 glass of wine. Average mains: $20 dinner/$14 lunch/$9 brunch. Open Sunday to Wednesday 11:30 am to 11 pm, Thursday 11:30 am to 11:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday till 4 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Some things never change - style icons like Dolly Parton, Hudson Bay blankets or Le Sélect, the definitive Queen West boîte now well into its 27th year. Was a time tumbleweeds blew down Toronto's trendiest boulevard. And though dozens of restaurants have opened and closed here since, Le Sélect perseveres by doing what it does best: staying exactly the same.
Sure, it's expanded over the years and now includes a skylit rear space that's often used for media dos and a beautiful brasserie-style snug complete with roaring fire. But the zinc art nouveau bar still stands, bread baskets continue to swing from the ceiling, and chef Brad Clark's bistro menu remains as comfortable as a pair of faded slippers.
Sliding into an overstuffed burgundy leather booth for an early weekday lunch, we notice a full house of CBC types - many of whom have probably been loyal customers since day one - and a poster for a 1983 Vermeer AGO retrospective that pictures some chick who looks uncannily like Scarlett Johansson out of Girl With A Pearl Earring. Sunlight streams in from the street and conversation fills the otherwise silent room. So where's the Django Reinhardt CD?
We've decided to deconstruct Le Sélect's $27 three-course dinner prix fixe over two visits by ordering nearly all of its soups, salads and mains separately from its à la carte card. We'll start with the soup du jour ($4.50 lunch/$4.95 dinner) once our server remembers its name. First word... sounds like? It's three-bean pesto, a chunky navy bean potage thick with sweet peppers and tomato. Equally pleasant, French onion soup ($5.50/$5.95) comes cookbook-correct with a mandatory layer of melting Gruyère.
Here's the salade maison ($5.50/ $6.75), a perfunctory pile of garden greens doused in regulation balsamic, followed by Cassoulet à l'Ancienne ($12.95/$21), a white-bean winter tonic thick with shredded duck confit and garlic-scented coarse Toulouse pork sausage. But veggie ravioli ($12.95/$17) stuffed with minced eggplant, sweet red pepper and feta in a weak tomato sauce disappoints despite its tasty drape of grilled zucchini.
While there's more impressive bouillabaisse in town - Jamie Kennedy's nouvelle version, for example - Le Sélect's ($12.95/$22) is a serviceable seafood stew of a few shrimp and various de-shelled mussels strewn with red pepper strips, licorice-y fennel and crisp celery crunch. After a sad spoonful of dessert-course chocolate mousse ($5.95/$7.95), the words "instant" and "pudding" come to mind.
Back for brunch, we reject the usual breakfast suspects like eggs Benedict ($9.95) and French toast ($7.95) and continue our prix fixe investigation by again going à la carte. A starter of Pâtés de Foies Maison ($5.50/$8) - a pale slab of fridge-cold chicken liver spread - pales next to chef Clark's calamari salad (Poêlée de Calamars, $6.95/$9), an impeccable tangle of perfectly timed squid, tangy capers and roasted peppers.
Think bistro, and steak-frites is the first dish that comes to mind. Many try and fail miserably - there's more to this classic bistro plate than siding a sirloin with some spuds. But Le Sélect's Bavette ($13.95/$19) gets it just about right, from its first-rate fries to the appropriately chewy strip of hanger topped with sautéed shallots.
We're equally knocked out by the kitchen's duck confit ($12.95/$19.95), a moist mahogany-hued leg 'n' thigh paired with super scalloped potatoes, haricots verts and tart cranberry relish. Find the recipe online at www.leselect. com. More classic comfort, Le Sélect's braised lamb shank ($13.95/lunch only) arrives surrounded by milky mash, its meaty flesh falling from the bone and sauced with a Cabernet Sauvignon jus infused with prunes.
Prunes reappear in the house's boozy Armagnac ice cream that accompanies its superb tarte Tatin ($6.95/$7.95), a delicious caramelized apple upside-down cake and the best dessert on offer.
The biggest dud we sample isn't included in the prix-fixe meal deal anyway, a starter of fatty blue-veined foie gras terrine ($17/$18) that's not that discernable from the house pâté, though it's more than three times as expensive. A linen-wrapped basket of baguette ordinaire accompanies it.
And though we've polished off a bottle of the fizzy stuff (Perrier, $6) and a glass of Alsatian white (2001 Sparr Pinot Blanc Reserve, $9.75 glass/$38 bottle), why glasses of l'eau du Lac Ontario show up at the end of the meal and not the beginning puzzles. Finger bowls, perhaps?
Cute the first time, it has to be said that Le Sélect's famous hanging bread baskets are extremely annoying by the second. Nearly every tourist guide book gushes about them - "Le Sélect's most charmingly eccentric touch is the hanging bread basket at each table that you pull down from the ceiling," says some guy named Steven Davey in the NOW CityGuide To Toronto (out of print) - but they're not very practical. Once lowered by rope, they hover over the table at forehead level. Head-butting ensues. And after all that hype, their contents are a disappointing supermarket brown.
But then, if Le Sélect were to get rid of them, it wouldn't be the same.