SOLO ON YONGE (605 Yonge, at Gloucester, 416-920-0607) Surrounded by sex shops and dollar stores and unfamiliar with the concept of excess, this over-the-top room offers equally hyper-extravagant dishes that show promise (if only everything came streamlined, not piled skyscraper-high, and unaccompanied by mind-numbing New Age muzak). Other than that, some -- soup, salmon, chicken -- are just OK. Complete dinners for $40 per person ($30 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, for dinner Sunday to Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 pm, Saturday-Sunday 5:30 to 11 pm. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN
Modernist architect Mies Vander Rohe believed less is more. From the culinary evidence on show at Solo on Yonge, an incongruously luxe boite amidst a strip of T-shirt emporiums, dollar stores and noodle houses, restaurateur Emad Yacoub disagrees. At his over-the-top spot, more is more. (Me, I think more is less, more or less.)How extravagant? Emerging from the kitchen proud and erect, the dessert known as Banana Heaven (all desserts $6) is obviously happy to see us.
As it makes its way to our window table, we can't help but laugh out loud at its silliness. From a foundation of allspice-spiked and coconut-laced bread pudding tweaked with crushed hazelnuts and sweetened with caramel wrapped in feathery phyllo, rises a 10-inch member of deep-fried plantain atop a ball of vanilla ice cream. Why just the one?
Yes, it's delicious, but how can anyone eat such an engorged dish with a straight face? Others induce further guffaws. An inch-thick pork chop stands upright in a pool of port reduction next to an 8-inch-tall tortilla teepee stuffed with quite good buttermilk-mashed potatoes ($16.95). All that's missing is a sparkler.
Fireworks would be welcome with the so-so broiled swordfish (also $16.95), which comes topped with a superfluous prosciutto-shiitake relish and festooned with a 6-inch frond of rosemary. This construction rides a near-inedible hockey puck of deep-fried angel-hair pasta (looks and tastes like shredded wheat), which in turn is supported by a grilled hash of spuds, peppers, carrots and celery.
An hour earlier, when we entered the room, we'd been taken aback to find Solo on Yonge (which has nothing to do with Solo on King West, by the way) nearly full early on a midweek evening. Apparently, most of the eatery's clientele are American tourists steered here by nearby hotels.
We were also surprised by the garish Liberace-esque decor -- a mini-Sistine Chapel ceiling, the floor a multicoloured mosaic of broken tiles, exposed brick walls hung with tapestries and art-school nudes, other walls punched through to reveal lathing. It's all too too.
Flanked by faux Louis XIV chairs, the tables, upholstered in beige brocade damask, seem clever. Their edges are deeply scalloped, their tops layered with glass, an arrangement that allows a clear view of your own lap. Comes in handy, I guess, if salad falls from your fork. Everyone looks impressed by it all, especially when yet another architectural tier comes out of the kitchen to a chorus of "oohs!"
Not everything's a skyscraper that has to be deconstructed before being eaten. A fine tomato bisque ($5.50) -- rich with chicken stock and thick with chunks of briefly sauteed zucchini, carrot, red pepper and celery -- conforms to gravity, remaining horizontal. As does tasty autumnal butternut squash and carrot soup ($5.95), scented with cinnamon stick but unnecessarily gussied up with slices of roast duck and a raw spring-vegetable chiffonade.
Both go nicely with Ace Bakery's rustic black-olive bread spread with a rough tapenade of kalamata olives, sun-dried tomato and fresh basil goosed by maple syrup.
During the soup course, my ears lock onto the New Age twaddle being broadcast from the speaker above our table. Enya's Sail Away follows Art of Noise's Moments In Love, a snippet of Tubular Bells, the theme from Twin Peaks and Enigma doing that disco Gregorian chant number. Instead of being soothed, I have to fight an urge to throttle the complete strangers seated next to us.
Back to the acrobatics. Perfectly acceptable wild mushroom risotto ($10.95) comes stuffed in two towering pepper rings separated by a Parmesan crisp and drizzled with truffle oil. Pecan-dusted sea bass ($18.95) straddles a block of sticky rice studded with pickled Japanese ginger and surrounded by a squadron of grilled veggies finished with coconut cream and lotus-root chips. The "classic Caesar salad" ($6.95) is merely a heart of romaine splashed with an unremarkable garlic- and anchovy-free mayo and a coupla croutons.
After my disappointment, I question a colleague who adores Solo on Yonge. Doesn't it all seem so 1988? The ridiculously tall food? The dated decor? The uneasy listening music?
"I've never noticed," he laughs. "Once you're a regular, the staff are very accommodating. And it's not too expensive. But, then, maybe I'm just a fag."
Or a dentist from Des Moines.