Scary Scaramouche

Attitude is minimal but prices are over-the-top at Pasta Bar

SCARAMOUCHE PASTA BAR (1 Benvenuto Place, at Avenue Road, 416-961-8011) With its wonderful skyline view, Scaramouche has been one of Toronto’s favourite — and priciest — dining destinations for over 20 years. This adjacent scenery-free lounge offers slightly less expensive noodle noshes that take mainstream Cal-Ital upscale. Strictly special occasion. Complete meals for $70, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

Pushing my bike up the Avenue Road hill on my way to Scaramouche this crisp autumn evening, I look up past the slate retaining wall that holds back Benvenuto Place, the 60s apartment complex that rides the crest of the escarpment. Under a full harvest moon, a fancy placard announces that an apartment is for rent. I call the next day: one bedroom on the ground floor, $1,675.

After locking my clunker to a fire hydrant adjacent to the joint, I hook up with the Troubled Balkan, who’s cabbed it over. On foot, we enter Benvenuto’s courtyard, where we find a doorman complete with umbrella helping a tenant from a late-model Lincoln Residential Town Car. Next to it, a black BMW’s front plate advises that God Loves You. He certainly seems generous to the folks around here, judging by the luxury SUVs and roadsters parked out front.

We follow the walkway leading to Scaramouche, the very upscale eatery that occupies the south ground-level floor space of the high-rise. From here the skyline view is lovely Toronto looks urbane instead of urban, the night cityscape as twinkly as the cocktail muzak being piped through recessed ceiling speakers.

But first, we must check our coats. Me six-seasons-ago Paul Smith, the Troubled Balkan unironic curling jacket. Defrocked, we skulk down a modernist stairway like rubes descending a staircase.

At the bottom, the room spreads out in two halves, one with the expense-account view, all mid-80s pink-and-grey Japanese deco. Formally dressed staff have taken their positions, waiting for the power brokers to arrive. Opposite the dining room and down a few steps — and minus the scenery — the slightly less pricey Pasta Bar has a hotel bar feel: low tables, dim lighting and bolstered banquettes.

Ensconsced in a corner, we study the quartet of after-work partiers a few tables away, awed by the number of pastel martinis lined up in front of them. Everyone’s in business wear, but we’re strictly casual Tuesday.

When the first of many servers approaches our lookout, we’re positive he’s going to tell us there’s been some mistake and we’ll have to leave immediately. Instead, he’s attitude-free, the height of efficiency and downright friendly.

The last time I encountered shrimp cocktail ($14.75) was the year my mother decided to whip up something interesting for Christmas dinner. Though better plated than that attempt (I love the retro-correct pink Mary Rose sauce), if these five critters have never been frozen they’ve recently been extremely cold. They straddle a mild avocado mash over shredded iceberg.

And if the salad of romaine hearts ($12.75) comes cookbook-correct (leaves intact and a light, creamy dressing with more than a hint of anchovy), it’s rather ordinary — but Mom would be impressed.

The open kitchen headed by Scott Fitzgerald (sous to the main dining room’s executive chef, Keith Froggatt) is very quick. Starters appear within minutes, and mains follow immediately. We’ve barely had time to tuck away slices of Fred’s walnut bread spread with an easy-on-the-garlic hummus when the pastas drop.

The Balkan’s spectacular peppercorn fettuccine ($19.75) finds house-made noodles in a rich Madeira cream accented by super-tender sirloin strips, ‘shrooms and a toasted pinenut crust. My pumpkin ravioli equally excites, a half-dozen pasta parcels stuffed with sweet squash and layered over thinly sliced bone-free short ribs in terrific jus. Wilted Swiss chard complements.

Since the wine list goes beyond our budget — tonight the cheapest available Italian red costs 47 bucks, and there’s no Barolo — we settle for 6-ounce pours of Chianti ($11). For afters, we finish half an order of Warm Wild Blueberry Brioche Pudding ($9.75) before crying uncle. The Balkan sips a very good decaf ($2.75) that’s refilled several times. By the time we leave — after an unrushed wait for the bill ($140) — just over an hour has passed.

Back on the street, Troubled asks if I’ll ever do Scaramouche again. Sure, but only if I can convince my mother to visit me at Christmas for dinner down the hall from my new apartment.

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