BISTRO CREATIONS (35 Baldwin, at Henry, 416-351-9015) This intimate 24-seater used to be the venerable Gaston's, a landmark bistro with a lineage stretching back to the 60s. Stripped of frou-frou -- think stark, not Starck -- it covers several culinary bases but generally plays it safe. When it's on, it's on. Complete dinners for $25 per person ($15 at lunch and brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10 pm, and for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Fully licensed. First floor smoke-free. Access: two steps at door, washrooms upstairs. Rating: NNNdrizzle falls on the theatre dis- trict as the excited suppertime crowd darts across slick, wet streets lined with tour buses. The occasion: the boys are back in town. The Backstreet Boys.
Here in the shadow of the Skydome, I find Rain (19 Mercer, 416-599-7246). Hyped as downtown's hippest haunt even before it opened, this hot spot attracts visiting Hollywood glitterati like Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito and Robin Williams.
But after sweeping through the joint's revolving door, I'm surprised to find the Literary Device sitting by herself at the glowing white translucent bar. Except for nearly 20 impossibly thin staff all in black, she's the only person in the place.
"Since we don't have a reservation, they won't give us a table," she says, rolling her eyes. "They say they're booked up months in advance."
Now I'm starting to have reservations. Looking around the celebrity-free zone, I see a third-generation carbon copy of New York City's Asia de Cuba in Morgans Hotel. Toronto designers II by IV have knocked off Philippe Starck's look, right down to the waterfalls, bamboo stumps and cafeteria-style communal dining table.
And chef Michael Pataran's 80s retro fusion menu -- stuff like omelette-wrapped five-spice Peking duck with red date and tamarind sauce ($18) -- reads like watered-down Monsoon, the stylish-but-shame-about-the-food Simcoe Street supper-club where he last cooked.
After being told that we could eat at the bar, we finish our drinks -- a pricey Stella Artois Pilsner ($5.50) and a glass of Argentine Cab (96 Fabre Montmayou, $14/ $55 bottle). Then, as we ready to leave, a bus person tells us that if we come back after 9:30, Rain might be able to squeeze us in. Thanks, but we won't be returning.
Spun through the revolving door and back into the real world, the Device and I laugh at Rain's ridiculous pretension. Knowing when we're not wanted, we head for a month-old eatery on Baldwin's restaurant row with the endearingly lame name Bistro Creations. This tiny 24-seater in the townhouse that for decades was home to Gaston's opened with zero PR. Though you won't rub elbows with Jennifer Lopez, BC offers a no-frills lineup that sometimes shines.
Stylistas won't drool over the decor. Think stark, not Starck: rough, neutral walls that recall cave drawings, no paintings, unadorned mahogany tables, windows free of frou-frou.
Instead of triphop Muzak, Louie Prima and Keely Smith jive on the stereo. We collapse into our chairs and order drinks from a refreshingly ingenuous server with a Louise Brooks bob.
She apologizes in advance for the fact that it's only her third day working in a restaurant, but it's unnecessary. Hell, after the rude downpour at Rain, she could've horked a big one into the minestrone ($3.50 lunch/$4.50 dinner) and we'd still high-five her more-gracious service.
As I sip a pint of Amsterdam Honey Nut ($4.50), the Device downs an Argentine Cab (99 Santa Julia, $4.50 glass/$19 bottle) that tastes remarkably similar to the one she sampled at Rain, only this bottle of plonk costs only slightly more than a glass did down on Mercer. We start with a serviceable baguette slathered with garlicky hummus and share Shrimp Creole ($7.95), six large sauteed shrimp sided with too-timid tomato salsa and a bump of bottled beet horseradish.
But the soaking we endured at Rain evaporates when I tuck into the first succulent slice of tonight's special, a thick 10-ounce puck of filet mignon ($17.95) sauced with pungent Stilton jus.
Perfectly medium-rare, it comes with very good garlic mash and a rainbow napoleon of grilled peppers and sweet potatoes. I'd return in a flash for this fabulous main -- that, and our server's natural charm.
The Device is uncertain about her clay-roasted rabbit ($15.95). To see it on any menu is encouraging, but bunny is an inherently stringy meat, and this hare's no exception. The gloopy red-wine gravy doesn't help Bugs either, but the accompanying carrots are a witty addition. We pass on store-bought carrot cake ($4.50) for dessert and leave an $18 tip on a $62 tab.
"You've left me too much money!" our surprised server insists.
You deserve every penny, Sunshine.
email@example.com magnolialast week, we tipped you to a fabulous food shop on College that sells gourmet groceries and veggies at alarmingly low prices. Their pizza slices and sandwiches are damn good, too. Only, it's not called Marigold.
"I was reading your article about this new store in my neighbourhood, and thought to myself, "This sounds exactly like us!'" laughs Frank Giraldi, co-owner of Magnolia (548 College, 416-920-9927). *
Portobello mushroom Portobello mushroom
Virtually unknown until the 80s, when it became a resto must-have, the portobello, known as Agaricus bisphorus to foragers, is simply a mature cremini mushroom -- one that's cultivated and grows to almost 6 inches in diameter. (They appear in Bistro Creations' multi-mushroom risotto.) Since their flavour is denser than younger fungi because of their lower water content, portobellos should almost always be marinated before cooking. A simple marinade of one part each olive oil and balsamic vinegar works best. After an hour soaking up the sauce in the fridge, the 'shrooms are ready to be cooked. They can be grilled or broiled for four to five minutes per side, allowed to cool, then sliced like sirloin as a meaty vegetarian alternative to beef. Or remove the stems and roast the massive caps stuffed with minced garlic and chopped sun-dried tomatoes and topped with a mild cheese like mozzarella for five minutes in a 400-degree oven. Then broil these portobello pizzas until the cheese turns golden, about two minutes.