THE RIVOLI (332 Queen West, at Spadina, 416-597-0794) Celebrating its 21st anniversary, the Riv is the archetypal downtown boîte, complete with snazzy cocktail lounge (Toronto's first), upscale pool hall upstairs and performance space in the back. It also happens to be a respectable resto with a rockin' pan-Asian lineup that beats the expected pub grub. Warning: casual service, dude. Complete meals for $35 per person ($18 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes and tip. Kitchen open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am to 11 pm, Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to midnight. Bar nightly till 2 am. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
There's lots to love about the Rivoli. Its curbside patio is one of T.O.'s best people-scoping zones, and something very current always seems to be happening in the back room. Now in its 21st year, this legendary hybrid club/lounge/pool hall/patio- cum-resto was one of the vanguard downtown eateries to fuse East and West back in the early 80s.
Few remember that the Rivoli's original chefs were the now-legendary Vanipha Southalack of the many eponymous eateries and Karen Barnaby before she went on to David Wood Food and Vancouver's Fish House in Stanley Park. Since then, the kitchen's rep has ebbed as a series of disconnected cooks modified the menu, resulting in a pastiche of pan-Asian clichés. Pad thai, anyone?
When word comes that newish chef Marc Breton has returned this Queen mother to its former glory days, the Literary Device and I come back for a nostalgic nosh. We take a table just inside the door and overlook the street scene from a discreet distance. We note the young, backpacked and head-phoned clientele chilling to an esoteric mix that flows from Orchestra Baobab and Rick James to the Partridge Family.
Few are here to dine fine - the crowd's more the deep-fried calamari ($6.95) and a Canadian ($3.42) sort - but we are. Our lanky server dude doesn't understand why we'd want to see a menu at 5 pm, when the dinner card doesn't kick in for another 30 minutes. He reluctantly returns with one and gets further baffled when we ask for a second copy. So, like, can we both order something maybe?
The Device isn't impressed by the very limited selection of wines by the glass. Server dude agrees.
"It sucks, man."
We do, too, with the accurately dubbed starter of Dip & Suck Edamame ($5), tender steamed soy bean pods sided with a lightly fired teriyaki-esque dunk. The Device sips a delicious lychee martini ($7.26). I make do with a Tiger ($4.49), the pleasant Singaporean pilsner.
We fear the worst, but Siam Wookie Balls ($5.95) - a tasty trio of deep-fried sticky-rice orbs studded with black sesame seeds alongside a commercial-tasting sweet Thai chili sauce - bear no relation to Chewbacca's nether regions. Nor do kofta dumplings ($6.95), another deep-fried threesome of smashed potato 'n' paneer croquettes over mildly curried cream.
Since it's now 5:30, we're allowed to order from the grown-up menu. My Indochine steak ($18.95) is a regulation char-grilled 8-ounce strip loin with subtle five-spice jus, garnished with fresh Vietnamese mint. It shows up rare as requested despite server dude's reappearance at the table to confirm that I want my meat well done. The frites wow - skinny chopstick-like lengths of crisply deep-fried taro that remain mighty addictive even though they do grow cold quickly.
If no one's told the chef that tall food is incredibly passé, let's all keep quiet. His moulded slab of sweet oven-seared salmon ($17.95) towers unfashionably over the plate, crusted with a crisp veneer of golden mash sauced with dilled yogurt and garnished with delicate coral-hued tobiko roe. The pinky fish stands in a puddle of Dijon-laced soy over a multiple mushroom and al dente baby spinach base.
The house burger ($7.95 lunch/$8.95 dinner) comes with excellent hand-cut double-cooked fries and essential chipotle mayo. Like it, the vegetarian Queen Mother burger (née Cosmic, $7.50 with salad) has been on the books since day one.
As we polish off the last of supper, the Device tips me about the club's upcoming art show that will feature posters advertising early Rivoli performances by Jane Siberry, Blue Rodeo, Kids in the Hall and others. Server dude re-materializes and sees we're finished. While his offbeat manner eventually charms and certainly beats the insincere spiel - "Would Madame like me to fetch her stole?" - of fancier joints, he still surprises us with his bluntness.
"So how goes it?"
We look down at our empty plates, then back to the dude.
"It be gone," we say, laughing.
email@example.comCAPTAIN JOHN's (1 Queen's Quay West, at Yonge, 416-363-6062) An aging floating party boat offering ineptly prepared frozen seafood to tourists who don't know any better. The boat's an unknowing riot of campy nautical kitsch - check out the cool pseudo-art-deco lounge on the rear upper deck - but the fading ocean liner decor doesn't make up for mutinous grub that deserves to be thrown overboard. Complete meals for $50 per person ($30 at lunch or brunch buffet), including all taxes, tip and a beer. Licensed. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 11 pm. Brunch buffet Sunday 10:30 am to 3 pm, dinner to 11 pm. Access: barrier-free but cramped. Rating: a sunken N
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or cry after suffering through Captain John's all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch ($18.75). This absurd spread is so ineptly realized, I wonder if any of the kitchen staff are familiar with the concept of food preparation.Witness frozen shrimp with their legs, heads and tails intact, skeletal crab legs that are too much bother to fiddle with for their limited reward, and closed, broken-shelled mussels in tinned-tasting tomato sauce. The eggs Benedict has been on the steam table so long that the yolks are hard-boiled and the toast is mush. The chocolate mousse could well be the tasteless stuff found in those frozen pies made from oil by-products.
As we persevere to find something remotely edible - salad? - bored staff read. Might I suggest a cookbook?
The meager smorgasbord is set up in lidded chaffing dishes fuelled by roaring flames. Try lifting their hot metal handles and finding somewhere to put them. Nothing is identified. I think I'm eating soggy lasagna until a sailor-suited server asks how I'm enjoying the yellow seafood crepe.
Situated at the foot of Yonge, this landlocked Adriatic love boat is obviously a tourist attraction. That explains today's large group. They more than likely assume Captain John's seafood comes directly from the sparkling waters of Lake Ontario.
After brunch, we poke around the ship's kitsch-filled upper decks and find a fantastic cocktail lounge. It would make a swell setting for a soirée as long as no food's involved. Peering through its locked glass doors, I have a déjà vu moment. As a cub reporter for the Toronto Star, I wrote the paper's alternating disco and punk columns (a gig's a gig!) and attended a record company party at Captain John's in 1979 for the Village People upon the release of In The Navy.
I guess the YMCA was full.