FUZION (580 Church, at Dundonald, 416-944-9888) Complete dinners for $65 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $22. Open for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Sunday 5 pm to 2 am. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Although it specializes in sex on a plate all year round, come Valentine's Day Church and Wellesley isn't the first nabe that comes to mind when looking for Toronto's most romantic restaurant.
Line-dancing drag queens wrestling in pudding, no problem. But intimate candlelit boîtes designed for an evening of canoodling over cannelloni, we'd look elsewhere. The Meat Packing District, say.
At least that was the case until Fuzion - Fuzion Resto-Lounge & Garden in full - opened quietly late last fall in the renovated Victorian just north of downtown's gayest intersection. Originally home to department store czar Robert Simpson, over the years this stately pile has also housed such now-forgotten eateries as Robert's, the Mango, diabolical Diablo and most recently Le Petit Liban.
Despite the venue's lovely curbside patio, none could drag the crowd away from Woody's. But watch them flock to Fuzion once they learn that daytime TV talk show diva Oprah Winfrey's former personal chef, Patrick Wiese, helms the new kid's kitchen.
Anyone familiar with the manse's previous incarnations will be surprised to find a dimly lit and newly elegant supper club, all soft beiges and chocolate-coloured accents. Upstairs there's a small retro 70s-style lounge with low, backless sofas and a well-stocked cocktail bar for after-dinner libations. A unisex washroom, too.
Sadly, all of the old house's fireplaces have been boarded up - stylishly, mind - although there's still a considerable draft coming from somewhere. But servers are warm and informed, and the soundtrack uncommonly hip (punky bossa nova covers by Nouvelle Vague, though regrettably not their version of the Dead Kennedys' Too Drunk To Fuck, and current Pitchfork faves Peter Bjorn and John), with nary a Madonna remix to be heard.
Dinner begins with a basket of house-baked rolls straight from the oven topped with shreds of cheddar and spread with sweet whipped butter infused with ginger. To follow, my guests share the Chef's Collection ($22 for two), tonight a pair of crisp pomegranate-glazed potstickers thick with duck confit ($10 à la carte), two diminutive pink-centred lamb chops dusted with tamarind, sided with minty cilantro jelly ($14), and plump roasted scallops dressed with raw apple, frazzled leek and Calvados cream ($12). Double yum!
I soldier on with the sensible vegetarian appetizer, a flaky phyllo cracker piled with eggy truffled custard and buttery wild mushroom duxelles on a bed of bitter baby arugula ($10).
We move on to salads, the first slices of spicy roasted Seckel pear offset by creamy Rassembleu cheese and crunchy caramelized hazelnuts ($9). Next, Wiese layers ripe heirloom tomato with doughy buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and dense tomato jam, the lot wrapped up in sweet leaves of Boston lettuce.
As it's described on the card, grilled asparagus lavished with triple-cream chèvre and lardoons of bacon over endive sounds fantastic, but it arrives undermined by a timid preserved lemon vinaigrette ($10), the evening's only misfire.
Of the mains, we imagine that the ever weight-conscious Winfrey would opt for something low-fat like chef's sake-glazed and seaweed-wrapped wild salmon ($23), but we have larger appetites. Instead, we go for his slightly overcooked Cajun-spiced skate ($19) sided with a crusty wedge of tomato polenta, steamed baby corn, leafy wilted kale and tasty rhubarb compote. One of Oprah's favourites, apparently.
She'd likely blanch over Wiese's locally sourced bison short ribs, a remarkably tender and beefy on-the-bone duo of Flinstonian proportions glazed in root beer and maple syrup. Plated alongside a "mélange" of Brussels sprouts and a terrific Yukon Gold gratin, they're a steal at $22.
Most carnivorous kitchens disdain vegetarian entrees, resorting to a half-assed assemblage of side dishes. Fuzion bucks the trend by offering a bistro-centric white bean cassoulet ($18) teeming with roasted veggies - zucchini, carrot, tomato, mushroom, whole cloves of garlic in a hearty vegetable broth, all blanketed with mashed turnip 'n' taters, that's not only delish but extremely filling. So much so that we have to pass on a three-way of crème brûlée - dark chocolate espresso, pumpkin and chai ($10). Our loss.
Despite the silly name, Fuzion is a surprisingly serious dining room in an unusually sophisticated setting. Those looking for wet T-shirt contests can nosh elsewhere, but we have a feeling Oprah and her gal pal Gayle would fall in love with Fuzion without reservation.
Check out Fuzion's $75 Valentine's Day prix fixe at www.fuzionexperience.com.