Amuse-Bouche (96 Tecumseth, at Whitaker, 416-913-5830). Complete dinners for $100 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $28. Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday 6 to 10:30 pm. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms through kitchen. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
First-timers Jason Inniss and Bertrand Alépée make this restaurant game look easy. In the scant six weeks since they quietly launched Amuse- Bouche, their intimate west-side spot has become the hottest boîte in town.
Naturellement, it helps that the room comes with a certain cachet. Although it spent most of the last decade in the guise of Nonna's, an old-school Italian trat whose output was only as good as whoever happened to be cooking, the small side-street storefront is best remembered for its 10-year run as Susur Lee's brilliant Lotus.
Factor in Inniss's and Alépée's track record - most recently as sous and pastry chef at the Fifth during Marc Thuet's reign of terroir - and it's small wonder that tout le downtown demimonde have descended on this charming manse en masse.
Back in the day, Tecumseth, a quiet quasi-residential street just west of Bathurst of rundown row houses and illegal artists' studios, was considered edgy. Now surrounded by condos and the King West cocktail scene, Amuse-Bouche boasts a desirable address. Out front there's a small patio complete with a cheesy DIY Canadian Tire water feature, but inside, Lotus's shabby chic design has been superseded by more bistro-correct art nouveau decor: deep persimmon walls, dark polished floors and incandescent chandeliers over crisp white table linens.
Ensconced at a window table, we three are still eyeballing the contemporary French card and quaffing the first of several heatwave-quenching Grolsches ($6) when our exceptionally capable all-in-black server arrives bearing Amuse-Bouche's, er, amuse-bouche. As beautifully plated as the rest of the kitchen's output, two tender rings of marinated squid are tossed with a tiny dice of tangy black olive, sun-dried tomato and artichoke in a truffle oil vinaigrette and garnished with buckwheat sprouts. Oh, that it amused the bouche as much as the eye.
That's our take on nearly everything that follows: looks great, tastes less so. Consider the starter of venison tartare, a small formed mound of gamy raw chop fortified with Dijon, capers, cornichons and shallot and doused with more Perigourdin truffle oil ($15). Tasty enough, the plate's completed with a diminutive samosa-style beignet stuffed with mild manchego-like Zamarano sheep's cheese and what's described as potato caviar, pan-seared grape-sized spuds joined with shredded duck confit bound with sour cream. Individually superb, together they come across as unrelated elements of a tasting menu.
We're less impressed with slightly over-poached lobster ($19) - more "hmm" than "mmm" - but swoon over its co-star, slow-braised pork belly sauced with citrusy tamarind and topped with a jaunty sweet potato tuille. Simplicity itself, seared Mulard foie gras sided with a few slivers of white asparagus in spiced cherry syrup ($18) has us requesting a second round of Alépée's remarkable rosemary-'n'-thyme-kicked breadsticks - make that "mini-baguettes" - so we can sop every last delicious drop of jus.
After a palate-cleansing golf-ball of pink grapefruit sorbet, we're braced for the mains. Thick, pink slices of duck breast ($25) get piled on a dark pool of liquified dates streaked with what appears to be mustard but is actually a Moroccan-spiced purée of summer squash. Further festooned with a topknot of so-called "potato papyrus," said 'taters turn out to be those impossibly thin frites - hello Hickory Stix - that quickly grow cold, brittle and impossible to eat. However, we adore the three sculpted carrots poached in allspice and bay that complete the plate.
A hefty slab of beef tenderloin ($29 and served medium-rare as requested) rides a smoky wave of charred tomato and burnt onion purée rung with a bitter-chocolate-stoked reduction squiggled over coins of baby courgette. Very Couillard in inspiration, a trio of meaty Bajan Grilled Shrimps ($19) may have good intentions - upscale French meets the Caribbean by way of Southeast Asia - but are seriously under-spiced and, again, somewhat over-cooked. And depending on taste, the accompaniment of thick, partially deep-fried sections of nori-wrapped, panko-crusted non-farmed salmon are too raw or not raw enough. Still, we'd gladly polish off a bowlful of the dish's small side of fabulously deep-fried wasabi gnocchi.
Although we've hit the wall, we make room for Alépée's three-course dessert degustation ($14). It begins with Strawberry Euphoria ($11 à la carte), the chef's take on strawberry shortcake built on a layer of crème pâtissière topped with green marzipan and puddled with berry purée. Raspberry Chocolate Gourmandise ($12) follows, a chilled chocolaty mousse with a scoop of rosewater ice cream, finished with raspberry sauce. The caramelized lemon tart ($10) comes crusted with milk chocolate and delightfully peppered spoonfuls of house-made Szechwan vanilla ice cream ($10).
As we leave, our server hands us a postcard asking for our birthday (?) and comments. Saving the postage, here's ours. We'll leave the fanciful wordplay ("Amuse amuses!") and inevitable dictionary definitions - "Larousse Gastronomique defines amuse-bouche as a one-bite portion meant to tickle the taste buds" - to others. An excited Alépée informs me that Toronto Life fusspot James Chatto has already been three times! Watch for his timely rave next November.
Sure, it's early days yet. But we'd like to see less showboating, the plates simplified and more consistent. A full house, the concentrated glare of the media and the limited kitchen set-up don't help. For now - and NOW - Amuse Bouche translates as a modicum of fun on the tongue.