The Rushton (740 St. Clair West, at Rushton, 416-658-7874) Complete dinners for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $20. Open for dinner Sunday to Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to midnight. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Frank Pronesti knows St. Clair. as co-owner of Ferro, the long-running upscale uptown pizzeria on the boulevard, and co-chair and director of community relations of the Hillcrest Village BIA, he feels the pulse of the Corso d'Italia daily. Or at least he likes to think he does.
"We already have enough Italian, Caribbean and Latin American restaurants," the garrulous Pronesti explains. "What this neighbourhood needs is a good bistro pub."
Though the folks responsible for the nearby Regal Heights Bistro will likely disagree, the well-heeled crowd lined up three-deep at the Rushton this early rain-swept Wednesday evening suggests he's right.
That's not to say the Rushton's simply Ferro: The Sequel. At Ferro, the noise level of the tunes and the buzz of the crowd is so loud, a toddler acting up in a high chair at the next table goes unnoticed. The Rushton attempts a more adult atmosphere.
A former corner Italian grocery, the 40-seat room has been recast in a style best described as art deco meets Frank Lloyd Wright, all recycled tin ceiling, 50s flagstone cladding and French doors that will open to the street come summer onto a patio that promises to triple the capacity. But, having arrived at 6-ish, we've more or less got the place to ourselves.
Squeezed into a corner table for four, we're soon attended by a server clad all in black and cologne who also delivers a basket of Riviera Bakery's rustic rolls and spreadable whipped butter. As Michael Jackson entreats us to Beat It one more time from the loudspeaker directly over our heads, we're puzzled by the menu.
Some mains are offered in two sizes, a few have sides but others don't (those listed in a separate à la carte lineup). But our server's up to the task and successfully decodes it for us, even if he does have to make a couple of quick trips to the kitchen for confirmation.
Since none of the gang is game for a dish described on the card as Vegetable Shanty ($15) - a hockey puck of chèvre wrapped in phylo, apparently - we've ordered four spoons and a bowl of the daily soup ($7).
Tonight it's an ambrosial purée of sweet celeriac offset with poached pear, a contrasting crumble of Roquefort and snippets of fresh chervil, so good it could almost be dessert.
Sadly, regulation-size rings of deep-fried floured calamari ($9) are a non-starter of a starter, their accompanying weak aíoli barely redolent of caraway.
As 7 pm approaches, every seat in the house is taken. An orderly queue waits patiently at the door despite having been told it'll be at least 45 minutes before a table is free.
Back inside, conversations have become shouting matches, since someone's cranked the 70s funk soundtrack even higher.
I have no problem with James Brown, but please, please, please, not while I'm eating. A local real estate agent works the room, gushing, "I have no idea who any of these people are!" as she rushes past.
Amidst the hubbub, our mains arrive. Small Fish Fry ($10 small/$15 large) turns out to be lovely fingers of ale-battered plaice paired with first-rate chunky fries and a stir-fried julienne of wax beans and red bell pepper.
The house burger ($15) finds a substantial ground sirloin patty dressed with mesclun and sweet onion chiffonade alongside a tangle of sweet-potato fries that should be crisper, their dip of "sweet chili ketchup" more a collision between bottles labelled Heinz and Frank's Red Hot.
A succulent, blood-red medallion of beef tenderloin ($18 6-ounce/$26 10-ounce) comes gorgeously pooled with a veal demi-glace spiked with fig, and rare as requested, although we could do with more than the two slim slices of pommes Anna and a strand or two of wilted spinach with which it's plated. Here's that spinach again next to the single baby beet that rides shotgun with over-salted duck confit and a few slices of properly fatty seared breast ($18/$26).
We've coupled them with al dente spears of asparagus in tempura batter and a side of macaroni and cheese that three of us think tastes assembled rather than baked but our culinary contrarian insists is one of the highlights of our meal.
That same mixture of dismay and delight greets chèvre cheesecake, the only dessert on the Rushton's roster of eight that's made in-house by chef Kyle Romansky.
Joined by a pecan shortbread crisp and brandied sour cherries in need of more booze, this miniature pyramid of goat cheese might as well be an appetizer. And, at nine bucks, its over-priced.
But it's the only item on the Rushton's card that reveals the London, Ontario-born cook's apprenticeship at the eponymous New York eatery owned by François Payard, the former pastry chef at Manhattan's Le Bernardin and Paris's three-star Michelin-rated La Tour d'Argent.
Street-savvy Pronesti would do well to encourage this direction if the Rushton wants to be remembered for the dining and not just the din.