LOBBY (192 Bloor West, at Avenue Road, 416-929-7169) Mimicking the bar of a New York City boutique hotel, right down to the luggage and black velvet rope, this wannabe celeb Lobby leads nowhere. Sink into a sofa, sip a $12 mojito, but stay clear of a confused kitchen with a fusiony comfort food card that doesn't so much cook as assemble. Macaroni 'n' cheese with foie gras? Perhaps not. But look -- it's Lou Ferrigno! Complete meals for $75 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of bubbly. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch noon to 2:30 pm and dinner 6 to 11 pm. Bar open till 2 am. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: N Rating: N
In keeping with our world-class inferiority complex, certain local restaurateurs believe the sure-fire way to succeed in Toronto's cutthroat resto biz is to copy whatever's hot in New York City. Some just lift the look or the name (does anyone fight their way into Rain any more?), but these VIP venues all vie for an exclusivity that yokels imagine must be like rubbing shoulders in Manhattan with Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake in the library bar of Ian Schrager's Morgan Hotel.
Opened just in time for the film fest, Lobby is Yorkville's latest wannabe celebrity it spot. Once past its black velvet rope, you find what appears to be a hotel lobby, complete with concierge, sink-into-able over-stuffed sofas and fake luggage. Trouble is, this lobby leads nowhere and is as phony as a film set. Ever see Alain Resnais's Last Year At Marienbad, the pretentious French flick whose cast seems eternally trapped in hotel hell? Welcome to Lobby.
That's owner Corey Mandell, Toronto's foremost bar mitzvah planner, working the room in a baseball cap. His entertainment group also runs the Capital and York Event Theatres. No doubt he knows how to throw a catered affair for the young folks. Think of Lobby as a chi-chi Chuck E. Cheese for the fabulosi.
It is a beautiful space, its transition from the dreadful Wrap 'n' Roll quite astonishing. A long lit-from-below onyx bar lines one side of the tall-walled lounge and makes a suitable perch for sipping several Sex And The City-style mojitos ($12). Gauzy curtains lead to a lower-profile dining area decked out in beige-on-beige. Fashion tip: don't wear brown unless you literally want to fade into the background.
Sure, Lobby's expensive, but isn't that former first lady Mila Mulroney - in town to shoot Canadian Idol - and her hairdresser lunching at the next table?
Disguised as slumming eastern European movie stars, the Troubled Balkan and I get seated next to Lobby's kitchen. Only a thin curtain obstructs the view, and we can hear everything that's said. Someone in charge is instructing the joint's servers to "sell up." That means always suggesting the most expensive menu items and making sure to ask if the customer wants an appetizer or a salad with that. Let's see what happens next.
Affable server Anthony's first question after he introduces himself is, "Water for the table?" That's not Lake Ontario's finest he's proffering, but a more-than-10-bucks-with-tax-and-tip bottle of fizzy stuff (San Pellegrino, 750 ml, $7.82). At least Lobby doesn't charge for bread. Today's spongy, flavourless slices of alleged caramelized onion focaccia might be better described as Wonder Bread crusted with fried onion. I won't mention the olive oil.
We decide to split a salad of shaved Reggiano-topped beef carpaccio ($15), but since it's unavailable today Anthony comps us du jour's soup, chilled lychee watermelon. Better served in a martini glass with a shot of vodka, this pink watery broth has the taste and consistency of Kool Aid. Still, I'm expecting to be blown away by Lobby's macaroni and cheese ($19), but remain unimpressed by a handful of boiled Kraft Dinneresque penne in very ordinary parsley-speckled cheese sauce, even if it is topped with a small seared slice of incongruous foie gras. Isn't mac 'n' cheese usually baked?
The Balkan gives the thumbs-down to the tuna BLT ($15), a petite panini lightly filled with under-vine-ripened tomato, two slim rashers of prefab bacon, four postage-stamp-sized slivers of sushi-grade tuna and a pickled cocktail onion on a toothpick.
A few days later, we reluctantly return. Again, we're served by the more than capable Anthony. I only single him out here because Lobby uses a computerized billing system that can easily identify both us and him the second this review hits the street. Management should know that the kitchen gaffes are not the poor chap's fault.
I'm stunned by the size - or lack thereof - of Lobby's tuna tartare ($16), four minuscule bites of minced raw yellow fin garnished with microscopic taro chips and a few pine nuts. Delicious, beautifully plated with popcorn sprouts. It's a joke. We're not laughing.
Lobby's burger ($26) does produce snickers, more for its ludicrous price tag than for its tasty hand-massaged Kobe beef. But what's with the McDonald's-style sesame seed bun? Our kitchen-forgotten à la carte side of potato salad ($4) eventually arrives, comped, as we finish. Ineptly executed, it should have stayed in the refrigerator.
People laughed when Chippy's took fish and chips upmarket. Lobby's version ($16) will have them crying in the heavy beer batter that renders its halibut mush. And Island Thyme does far superior sweet potato frites for two bucks.
We're divided on dessert, a pan-Asian-sounding combo of caramelized dwarf banana and pistachio-crusted vanilla ice cream ($7) that's more banana split, right down to its Nutty Buddy-like tuiles and commercial-tasting chocolate sauce and aerosol whipped cream. On a brownie. With a chocolate-coated cherry on top. I'm sure it goes over big at kids' parties. Fittingly, the Balkan polishes it off.
Lamentable Lobby gets one thing right. In its effort to recreate the cachet of a boutique hotel, it succeeds in reproducing the inconsequential and expensive hotel food found in those joints. Minus the hotel. Funny, that.