HONEY KAFFE AND EAT BOUTIQUE (492 College, at Palmerston, 416-962-5111) Complete meals for $40 per person (lunches/brunches $22), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $12/$8. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Open for dinner Monday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Lunch Wednesday to Friday 11 am to 4 pm, brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
With his lanky, likely bottle-blond locks and trademark cowboy hat, Michael Sweenie cuts an imposing figure on downtown's resto lounge scene. When I spotted him at any one of his rock 'n' roll rec rooms - Ciao Edie, Andy Pool Hall, the recently departed Airport or the Boom Boom Room - my first reaction was to wonder what a fashion-challenged rocker dude was doing in such a chic boîte, let alone owning the joint.
His latest venture, Honey (not to be confused with Honey Supper Lounge on John), known as Honey Kaffe and Eat Boutique in full, should be just as baffling. Promising "Louis XIV on acid," Sweenie shuttered his successful Airport Lounge after only two years to create a casual, country French bistro with a twist. Although the savvy restaurateur hasn't gone so far as to sport a powdered wig under his Stetson, Sweenie has replaced the room's former sleek sci-fi decor with an eclectic mix of shabby-chic antiques that would make Martha Stewart feel like she was under house arrest after a couple of drinks and a Xanax.
Instead of the expected washed-out pale yellows and teals of Provence, Honey comes tarted up in saturated egg-yolk yellow and robin's-egg blue. Gone are Airport's futuristic Philippe Starck barstools, replaced by wrought iron café chairs that face a now stripy-velour banquette. Chandeliers and votive candles cast romantic shadows. Like so many things, Honey's overall theme is cock - roosters, rather, best represented by the pair of majolica cockerels preening on a bar lit by cut-outs of glowing leghorn.
Against this lurid if comfortable backdrop, Honey's infinitesimal kitchen wisely keeps it simple. Although chef Robert Bechard describes his previous Vancouver oeuvre as "West Coast vegetarian fusion," there's little of it on offer here. Sticking with tried 'n' true tradition (French onion soup, $6, baked Brie wrapped in puff pastry, $8), Honey manages to breathe new life into often tired territory.
We begin with a quite wonderful shared starter of sliced oyster and shiitake 'shrooms sautéed in garlicky butter plated over baby spinach leaves, crumbled with Woolwich chèvre and dressed with a syrupy balsamic vinaigrette ($10).
Three of us fail to make a dent in a more than generous shared serving of quail, pork and pear terrine ($8) that we later learn was out-sourced. Plated with the five-fruit chutney that the joint's in-house grocery sells alongside pot pourri and scented soap, it also comes with a dozen or so crunchy gherkin cornichons and an equal number of crostini. So the only thing made on the premises is toast?
Bechard also informs us that not only has the terrine been removed from the card, but the portions of most dishes have been reconfigured and prices adjusted accordingly since our visit.
This would have been helpful to know beforehand. Tonight we've ordered way too much food from Honey's à la carte lineup and end up doggy-bagging the leftovers.
Since mains and sides are listed separately, we pair boeuf bourguignon - a slow-simmered county stew thick with whole button mushrooms, pearl onions and great whacks of carrot in boozy herbed gravy ($12) - with terrific pimento scalloped potatoes ($5). Baked in individual ramekins, these meaty slices of Yukon Gold, layered with sharp old cheddar, could make a fabulous meal on their own.
Slightly salty and very rich, cookbook-correct coq au vin braised in burgundy ($12) gets coupled with deliciously lumpy old-school mashed potatoes ($5). Changed nightly, tonight they're given a South Asian accent with curry powder and coriander leaf and would probably fit very comfortably on the card across the street at chi-chi Xacutti.
Duck confit ($14) has become so common on local menus, it's bound to show up inside a tortilla alongside some refried beans at Burrito Boyz any day now, but Bechard's rendition of the fat-rendered bird is truly exceptional. Crisp-skinned from pan searing, two large legs and thighs arrive at table alongside an earnest pilaf of wild and brown rices ($5) studded with slivered toasted almonds. A linen-covered basket of baguette shows up halfway through our mains, but we shoo it away since we're already stuffed and haven't even thought about dessert yet.
When we do, we opt for what the menu not so modestly hypes as Ultimate Butter Tart ($6). Sided with Häagen Dazs French vanilla, she's unquestionably the tastiest tart in town. She also happens to be brought in from Wanda's Pie in the Sky, something our otherwise charming server fails to mention.
But despite the limitations, Honey is still one sweet deal.