AVALON (270 Adelaide West, at John, 416-979-9918) Complete meals for $100 per person ($60 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $35/$20. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 9:45 pm and for lunch Thursday only noon to 2 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays and December 24 to January 4. Licensed. Access: nine steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
During my critical reign of terror at NOW, I've usually been on the lookout for cheap eats. But now that the holidays loom, I have to rack what's left of my brain to think of somewhere nice to take the Literary Device for our annual festive slap-up, somewhere that won't require me to type the words "formica," "fluorescent" and "deep-fried."
That's when I remember Avalon. The last time owner-chef Christopher McDonald's swellegant downtown supper club was appraised in these pages - April 25, 1996, to be exact, just before my gig began - NOW called it Toronto's best restaurant.
Although it does lunch Thursday on a regular basis, come the celebratory season Avalon, like many other high-end haunts, opens for weekday noontime noshes December 14 to 17 and 21 to 23. Not only is it a great way to make an impression on those who need it, but dining earlier in the day also allows you the opportunity to experience the work of a chef cooking at the top of his form at prices that aren't geared to expense account dinners.
Getting a jump on this hot ticket, the Device and I arrive chez Avalon one grey day promptly at noon. Located a few doors down from the Adelaide fire station, the smart townhouse's first-floor room is a cocoon of sophistication, in contrast with the surrounding circus of Clubland. Everything's very beige and padded, the room itself a part of the pampering.
Some unseen cocktail pianist tinkles away in the background as formal servers decked out in white bistro aprons top up bottomless goblets of Reidel and Spiegelau stemware with San Pellegrino fizzy water ($3.95). Gazing out from our window table, we trust that the $9.95 Ribsday Fullrack advertised on the marquee above Hooter's across the street refers to a pub grub special and not the cleavage of its scantily clad female employees.
Eyes back on the lunch card, we scan the lineup while sipping a perfectly presented aperitif (Ricard, $8.95). Our superb server, never obsequious but there when needed, returns with a bread basket filled with briquette-sized biscuits that "just came out of the oven 40 minutes ago" and tongs us one each.
The Device's starter soon follows. Almost as much an intoxicating foam as a supernal purée, Sweet Mama squash soup ($8) takes its name from the extraordinarily sweet gourd from which it's made. Puddled with nutty pumpkin seed oil and strewn with toasted Mexican pumpkin seeds, this gorgeous vibrant cream best exemplifies chef McDonald's aesthetic.
Drawing on a career that spans busboy at Julie's Mansion to local stints with Michael Stadtländer in the 80s as well as Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Mark Miller's Coyote Café in Santa Fe, McDonald riffs on tradition, fine-tuning it into a signature style.
See it in the Mediterranean-inspired first course of grilled sardines crumbled with coarse, mild sea salt and sided with a sizable tangle of a Moroccan-inspired fennel slaw tossed with a fine dice of preserved lemon, green olive and flecks of mint ($9 lunch/$10 dinner).
Or catch the Southwestern undercurrent of the light mole-referencing cocoa-bean ragout that's pooled under the main of a fall-from-the-bone braised lamb shank ($18) paired with McDonald's marvellous house-made merguez sausage, buttered asparagus and a sculpted baby turnip, its miniature green topknot intact.
The only misstep comes with the chef's beef tenderloin tartare, an only palatable monochromatic hockey puck of cress-strewn raw meat topped with a halved and pepper-strafed poached quail egg ($20). It's sided with a bed of exquisite greenery and a bowl of requisite skinny fries, but the tartare desperately needs the toasted brioche points that accompany McDonald's rabbit and foie gras terrine ($17). Or that basket of rolls that's now more than likely cooling in the kitchen.
Is Avalon still the best restaurant in Toronto? Going by lunch, the Literary Device seems to think so. But, then, she's always happy when formica and fluorescent lights are not a factor.