PICNIC (2411 Yonge, at Broadway, 416-487-8609) Complete meals for $40 (lunches/brunches $25) including all taxes, tip and a Red Stripe in a stubby. Average main $12. Open for dinner Tuesday to Thursday 6 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 6 pm to midnight, Sunday 6 to 11 pm; brunch and lunch Saturday and Sunday from 11 am; bar nightly till close. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Remembering my previous experiences at such high-concept cantinas as the Rainforest Café and Planet Hollywood, I approach Picnic with a certain dread.
Why the trepidation? Well, Picnic specializes in picnics, or what the six-week-old upscale eatery's menu describes as "a variety of small plates which will come to the table at a steady pace for you to taste and enjoy amongst your group."
That sure sounds like tapas to me and definitely no picnic.
Branded with an appropriate red-and-white-gingham logo, Jennifer Cardella's (Li'ly, Chinadoll) latest venture replaces MEATing, another resto with a theme - in MEATing's case, steakhouse. But two recent meals at her offbeat beanery suggest that there's more to Picnic than gimmick.
The room hasn't changed much since its days as MEATing - blood-red walls, dark supper-club lighting - but the club-like space now sports a couple of picnic tables up front as well as several with more conventional seating. Servers manage to be both efficient and flirty while an au courant soundtrack ranging from James Brown to Amy Winehouse gets played at a volume that still allows for conversation.
Keeping with the red-and-white concept, we start with a round of retro Red Stripe stubbies ($6) before digging into the first of many, many plates. Here's a trio of diminutive hamburger buns stacked with black Angus mini-burgers ($9) and garnished with onion sprouts and spiced-up ketchup. Perfect for sharing, they'd be even more palatable if they hadn't been slightly overcooked.
Those same buns show up as the base for Picnic's grilled peanut butter, Nutella and grape jelly sandwiches ($6), an almost too-sweet main that works better as dessert. Beautifully plated, chef Casey Cruickshank's take on a lobster roll ($15) packs a visual punch but not much seafood clout, a fate that also undermines his very clever translation of lobster corndogs ($12, all for three). Full points for effort, though.
Plates continue to arrive rather haphazardly, but soon we're helping ourselves and assembling a remarkably tasty, well, picnic. Served in a large bowl, frites are not to be missed, skinny, perfectly crisp and lightly dusted with sea-salt ($5), though lightly battered onion rings ($6) are sadly greasy.
But who can resist ordering the pickle plate ($5) - whole crunchy green chilies, stoned green olives, sweet cabbage - even if it does come straight out of a jar? Hey, it's a picnic!
We're not crazy either about the commercial-tasting barbecue sauce slathered over pizza-esque flatbread ($10) tossed with boneless chicken breast, slivered red onion and pineapple chunks.
But Picnic's massive baseball-sized Italian meatball zapped with citrus zest in superbly pulpy tomato sauce ($9) hits it out of the park, especially when tag-teamed with the macaroni du jour - today strips of sun-dried tomato in a velvety cheddar and parmigianno cream ($9) - and grilled asparagus with lemon ($6).
There's even a DIY picnic platter called the Funkadeli ($16) of Italian-style charcuterie and fromage from Cheese Boutique, and a lineup of 10 different ounce-and-a-half bloody Ceasars ($8 to $9), including one with dill pickle juice.
"Chinadoll had fantabulous food but failed," says Cardella, who describes her style as fresh quality ingredients presented with a sense of humour.
"I really enjoy this subculture of weirdo kitchen help and bizarre bar staff," the savvy foodie laughs. "I'm thinking of writing a book about my restaurant experience called How To Do Everything Wrong And Lose Your Life Savings."
We're guessing that she'll have to postpone that book because, funny thing is, Picnic gets a lot of things right.