OLIVIA'S (53 Clinton, at College, 416-533-3989) Located just a few steps from Toronto's hottest resto strip, this hip supper club in a converted row house is best when it loses the 'tude and you can chill in its beautiful backyard grotto. Warning: badly selected (Gypsy Kings followed by gangsta rap) and very loud dinner music. Complete meals for $50 per person ($22 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Wednesday to Sunday 5 pm to midnight. Brunch Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. Licensed. Access: four steps at door, washroom in basement down narrow stairs. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Seeing my party climb the steps to Olivia's, the west-side spot that's just opened in a house only a few steps from the epicentre of Toronto cool, our tanned server is clearly startled. "I'm surprised to see you again," she blurts, then pauses. "I mean, so soon."
We're amazed as well to be back for Sunday brunch, especially after the frosty inhospitality she directed at us the previous Thursday evening.
During our first visit, a series of missteps - an ineptly poured Pernod (see Fresh Dish), a gin and tonic (both $6.50) that's lime-free because "we haven't sliced the limes yet" - had us asking owner Olivia Mizzi if she'd like us to leave. We know when we're not wanted.
After that things started well - slices of delicious baguette from the nearby Riviera Bakery dunked into quality olive oil spiked with Malaysian sambal olek and whole cloves of mellow roasted garlic - but soon derailed.
As we anticipated splitting a starter - citrusy pan-seared scallops over bitter greens scattered with pink grapefruit and red onion ($13) - we checked out the house's converted front rooms.
High-backed wooden chairs, bare floors, amber lighting and an ornate dark bar give Olivia's the feel of a speakeasy during the Spanish Inquisition. Those damned Gypsy Kings didn't help matters. Since we were the only customers, we asked that the CD be changed, its volume lowered from full blast. In its place we got gansta rap.
Meanwhile, the scallops, pleasant enough, arrived, but there were five of them and three of us. You do the math. Mains up, we found a very ordinary wedge of salmon ($18) crusted with crushed coriander seed riding a barely scented basmati bed strewn with steamed broccoli spears and red pepper strips.
A half-dozen or so sautéed shrimp needed more than a not very "spicy" mango salsa - sweet, no heat - to give them any interest. Menu-touted as medallions, three thin slices of pan-fried beef in an unremarkable red wine reduction (both $19) would be better described as leatherlike rather than small, coin-shaped pieces of meat.
More interchangeable veggies came along for the ride, but the beef plate's superb mash of both sweet and new potatoes 'n' squash, further sweetened with tiny nuggets of bacon, impressed so much that we ordered a second side to share ($4).
We were also impressed by a medium-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay from the same California estate (2000 Mandolin, $7 glass/$38) but confused by their pricing. Most restaurants sell wine in a 1:4 glass-to-bottle ratio, but Olivia's offers an Italian Pinot Grigio (2002 Delle Venezie) for eight bucks a glass and $34 per bottle, while Prosecco (2002 Mionetto) works out to $7 per glass or $38 for the bottle.
Though we'd tried to make her lighten up several times, our stern server said little and smiled less. With her slicked-back hair, black long-sleeved shirt and starched white apron tightly strapped under her armpits, we almost expected her to emerge from the kitchen at any moment wielding a meat clever. Instead, Nurse Ratched silently left the bill with a glare, although she added a cheerful "Thank you!" at its bottom.
Through the next day, I replayed the events of the night before and still couldn't figure out what went wrong. Maybe we all got started on the wrong foot and the evening just spun out of control?
Fearing a repeat performance when we return for Sunday brunch, I warn the gang to remain calm no matter what the treatment. But when we're led with a genuine welcome through Olivia's kitchen to the beautiful, secluded backyard terrace, our misgivings evaporate.
We sit in dappled sunlight at a wooden table under a grapevine climbing a trellis. A bumblebee pollinates a flower. A monarch butterfly floats by. Far in the background, Afro-Cuban electro burbles. Bliss.
Now dressed in summer whites, the same server is faultlessly professional, offering drinks immediately (don't miss Olivia's pepper-rimmed Caesar ($6) garnished with a skewered trio of tangy tomolives, slightly pickled baby green grape tomatoes) after leaving a shiny platter of that fabulous bread.
Two plump slices of pesto-flecked roasted red pepper and feta frittata ($10) soon come with mesclun in a light vinaigrette. Tender pan-grilled quail ($12) gets splayed over leafy escarole and quartered fresh fig. Better yet, thick, eggy slices of Italian loaf morph into french toast ($10) tiered with warm caramelized mango and a lovely strawberry purée. Is there a more laid-back west-side brunch?
Obviously, Olivia's still learning the ropes: turn down the volume, dump the Dido CD, and smile, for heaven's sake, even if you're faking it. Until then, the difference between supper and brunch is like night and day. Literally.