Lemon’s zest

Rating: NNNNNThe citizens of Swansea, a quiet bedroom community just west of High Park, must be dropping like flies. How.

Rating: NNNNN

The citizens of Swansea, a quiet bedroom community just west of High Park, must be dropping like flies. How else to explain the funeral parlours on nearly every corner? But a brash upstart is breathing some much-needed life into this near-narcoleptic nabe. Over the past year, Lemon Meringue has developed a loyal clientele for its first-rate baked goods and gourmet takeout. From the get-go, owners Sonia Potichnyj and Slava Iwasykiw have served casual weekday lunches and Saturday brunch featuring a bistro lineup of French onion soup ($6.95) and roast beef on baguette with fresh horseradish ($9.95).

A bright, airy space by day, all chic chartreuse walls and moulded-plywood furniture, after dark it looks much the same, though diner-style light fixtures are dimmed and votive candles line the front window. Yes, wine goblets, classy cutlery and linen napkins dress spartan tables, but little else signals that two months ago Lemon Meringue evolved into more than a store.

While the menu’s quite short, it’s executed with panache by first-time chef Derek Strachan. A relative newcomer to the gastro game, Strachan trained under high-profile chef Chris Klugman at Oro, as well as with the Corner House’s Herbert Barnsteiner at Jump and Anthony Walsh at Canoe. The discipline shows.

We see it in ambrosial broth that arrives in deep, white plates: a supernal puree of velvety Jerusalem artichoke and potato ($6 dinner/$4.95 lunch and brunch). The honey-roasted ‘chokes get a further boost from a splash of cream and a fantastic crisp-skinned coil of salmon-belly garnish. Though it’s not a huge portion, a second starter of seared calamari ($9) makes up for it with an intense clarified nut-butter sauce zapped by lemon zest, capers, black olives and anchovies. We sop up every drop with house-made poppy-seed rolls.

The mains are equally polished. Slow-cooked in a cast-iron skillet, then oven-finished, lemon rosemary chicken breast ($16) comes with a thick caramelized syrup magnified by a grilled lemon half and a long branch of herb. On the side, sugary roasted veg: sweet potato, pearl onion, whole garlic cloves, beets, red potato ‘n’ onion.

Perhaps a concession to conservatives, LM’s 10-ounce strip loin ($22) arrives perfectly medium-rare. Layered with jus-marinated mushrooms and more pearl onions, then sided with pureed spuds and haricots verts, this terrific meat-and-potato plate is far from humdrum. Wish we could say the same about the Creekside Laura’s Blend ($36 bottle/$9 glass), a Niagara Cab-Merlot that our server recommends since it’s very popular. So’s Welch’s grape juice.

After splitting perfunctory maple- syrup crème brûlée (all desserts $7), we’re asked by both owners and chef Strachan how we’ve enjoyed our dinner.

I vaguely nod and mumble, but my greenhorn guest ­– this is her debut as an undercover arbiter of taste ­– volunteers her opinion: can’t hear the music, prices too high, kill the display case’s glaring fluorescent tubes aimed directly at eye level, butter’s too hard, fix the serious kitchen exhaust, why no inexpensive wine by the glass?, and that Laura sucks.

Hey, isn’t this my job?

On a return visit two weeks later, her suggestions have been heeded. Lights, music, exhaust ­– all fixed. Even Laura’s been dumped for a lovely bottled red (98 Chateau Les Palais, $30). The prices, however ­– which I find more than reasonable ­– remain unchanged

Again, the soup impresses. A mess of mushrooms ­– shiitake, cremini, oyster, chanterelle ­– float in a fragrant, parsley-flecked clear broth finished with truffle paste and truffle oil ($6). Equally remarkable, slightly bitter arugula salad ($7) finds Stilton and caramelized pecans tossed with champagne vinaigrette, the entire thing crowned with a whole roasted pear. Fabulous.

Tonight’s mains are very good, though a notch below our inaugural trawl.

Tasty cross-sections of hazelnut-crusted, pink-centred pork tenderloin come sided with free-form spaetzle and slow-roasted parsnips and carrots in minced-date jus.

I get lumbered with blond-miso-glazed salmon ($18), a flaky, fleshy fish further sweetened by honey. It rides a Japanese-inspired tangle of sautéd veggies, what Strachan calls “a wacky little salad,” including slivered hijiki, wakame, ginger, carrot, onion and spinach, all doused in a sesame-citrus bath. My doctor would be pleased by this dish’s health-consciousness.

Visiting a new spot when it’s virtually empty, it’s hard to gauge what could happen when the room’s full of hungry, demanding customers. But Lemon Meringue has the experience and expertise to pull it off even now, it’s easily the best restaurant on Bloor west of Goldfish. Two months from now, Lemon Meringue could be just as delicious. stevend@nowtoronto.com

LEMON MERINGUE (2390 Bloor West, 769-5757) By day an upscale patisserie and gourmet food shop, after 5 this chartreuse, candlelit room becomes a super neighbourhood boite with some of the best food for miles. While locals have yet to catch on, watch it become the hottest thing to hit dull-as-dishwater Bloor West since orthopedic socks. Complete meals for $40 per person ($20 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10 pm, for lunch Tuesday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, and for brunch Saturday only 10 am to 3 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN

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