REGAL HEIGHTS BISTRO (1077 St. Clair West, at Lauder, 416-651-2109) Complete meals for $45 per person ($20 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $18/$9. Open for dinner nightly 5 to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Licensed. Access: short, inclined step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Toronto is a city of neighbour hoods, some exclusive, like Wychwood Park, others inclusive, like Kensington Market.
But until I visit Regal Heights Bistro, a new noshery on one of the less bustling stretches of Il Corso Italia, I didn't know that the enclave of expensive piles south of St. Clair near Dufferin had an official designation as well as an eatery named in its honour.
Opened three months ago by restaurateur Tony Marente (he also owns the Algonquin Grill on north Yonge), the Regal looks from the street like one of several generic sports bars nearby. Until recently, these two rooms were exactly that, Mr. Kohl's Sports Bar. Since then, its been transformed into a surprisingly sophisticated space, all brasserie yellow walls over dark wainscotting and heavy velvet curtains. Art nouveau lamps cast a warm, dim light. Period French poster reproductions complete the picture.
Four of us arrive early one snowy Wednesday evening and, except for a couple of locals knocking back after-work pints of Mill Street Organic ($4.95) at the bar and Frank Sinatra locked in permanent rotation on the CD player, pretty much have the place to ourselves. Probably for the last time, too, because once word gets out about first-time solo chef Mark Zimmer - late of Acqua, Jump and Centro - and his confident, reasonably priced card, the Regal will be packed to the rafters. And not just with folks who happen to live down the street.
I should have spoken up when one of our group takes our server's suggestion and orders today's soup, seafood chowder; in most restaurants this usually means leftover fish. And that's what she gets, a few pleasant shrimp, scallops and mussels in a somewhat wan bisque that tastes like the main ingredients hadn't been acquainted with each other for very long before showing up for dinner. The broth could use a boost, too. Saffron, perhaps? But except for that one fishy flop, our meal at Bistro is a categorical success - regal, you might say.
Glorious would be an apt description for Zimmer's cookbook-correct sherry-drizzled French onion soup (both soups $6.95). Over-the-topped with an eruption of souffléed fontina, mozzarella and Gorgonzola, it's a veritable Velveeta Vesuvius. Darn tasty, too. Pithiviers Pie of Duck Confit ($6.95), a puff pasty stuffed with sweet shredded duck, caramelized apple and onion, comes layered with contrasting bitter grilled radicchio di Treviso and a pool of tart red currant glaze.
I also warn the gang - before they go ahead anyway - about ordering the Regal's shoestring yam frites ($3.25), remembering my recent encounter with Susur Lee's similar matchstick potato version that were so brittle they were next to impossible to eat. When the impressive 6-inch-tall tangle of chili-peppered taters turns up, I instruct everyone to dig in quick, as they'll likely be stone-cold momentarily due to their skinniness. Wrong again. Because of their thickness - crisp outer core, slim meaty centre - they retain their heat until we've polished off every single one.
The mains disappear as quickly. Grilled medium-rare Flat Iron Steak ($18.95/$15.95 brunch) finds the ultra-tender top layer of blade marinated in potent Irish stout before getting sauced with a whiskey-infused reduction and plated with roasted fingerling spuds, asparagus and oven-cured tomato crumbled with breadcrumbs.
Lovely pink beefy slices of roasted Hudson Valley Muscovy duck breast ($19.95) get a Moroccan twist from toasted cumin and come paired with a gingery potato purée, braised wild cippolini (onion-like grape hyacinth bulbs) and king oyster mushroom, all squiggled with a Mediterranean-inspired red lentil butter.
Cooked to flaky perfection - no easy feat that - a trio of grilled grouper ($15.95) fillets comes glazed with cider and orange marmalade and tiered over chunky deep-fried Pont Neuf fingerlings as well as al dente kale and fresh string beans seasoned with beurre blanc infused with apricot nectar.
While they're not quite in the same league as close-by Marcello's superior pies, the Regal's medium-crust pizza - we go with pesto, multiple mushrooms and Gorgonzola ($12.95) - is generous with its toppings, so much so, though, that they tend to make the centre of the 'za soggy.
Which isn't the case with the house's terrific tiramisu ($7.95), the booze-sodden dessert that's as mandatory in these parts as a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle. Substituting savoury ricotta for the recipe-required mascarpone, the multi-layered torte tastes more like Boston cream pie than an Italian trifle. And better for it, too.
A week after our anonymous visit, I call owner Marente and ask why someone who owns a pub-style family joint in Newtonbrook - formerly the Algonquin, the notorious biker roadhouse of my suburban youth - would hire a talented first-time chef and open a comfortable, reasonably priced resto on St. Clair.
"I live down the street," he replies.