BATIFOLE (744 Gerrard East, at Howland, 416-416-462-9965) Complete dinners for $50 per person ($25 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and an $8 glass of wine. Open for dinner Wednesday to Monday 6 to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm. Closed Tuesday. Licensed. Patio. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Riverdale residents aren't surprised that East Meets West, the charming neighbourhood bistro on Gerrard East that opened in their upscale backyard three years ago, closed two months back. Besides, it never seemed to be open in the first place. A nearly ever-present sign in its front window explained that the restaurant was under what appeared to be permanent renovation. Things might have turned around for the casually swank space when Riverside's Signe Langford took over the kitchen very briefly last winter to rave reviews, but even that didn't last long, and the spot was shuttered yet again for "renovation."
That's when Jean-Jacques Texier, the Sassafraz chef and general manager who also happens to live a block away from the boîte, pounced and secured the lease. And while much of the decor remains the same - pale taupe walls with a large sweeping bar down one side, tables topped with brown kraft paper, moulded plywood chairs, frosted halogen lamps - nearly everything else has changed. And for the better.
For a start, the 30-seat room's been renamed Batifole - from the French "batifoler," to frolic - and it's open regular hours. To announce Texier's culinary make-over, a pair of tricolours wave from the petite patio to the streetcars passing by, and a tiny chalkboard modestly announces that the joint's the best French restaurant in Chinatown East.
The Literary Device and I are here to judge Batifole's claim for ourselves this early weekday night, and we've got the place all to ourselves. Giving the bistro card a quick once-over, we note that first course dishes are listed as Les Petites Faims (all $8), mains as Les Grandes Faims (all $15) and sides under Les à-Càté (all $5). With selections from all three, we assemble an impressive and reasonably priced supper.
The Device begins with fish soup, an intense chocolate-hued purée swimming with threads of delicate blue-fin crab and snapper-like rockfish. Stylishly plated on an oversized white plate/brown folded napkin/white bowl, this already potent potage comes topped with an exquisite pale yellow foam of saffron-scented buttery chantilly cream.
I tuck into a ramekin of Les Rillettes de Lapin, braised, cooled then shredded rabbit bound with delicious duck fat and tossed with a coarse grind of red Szechuan peppercorns. A mound of sour cornichons adds subtle crunch.
As we wait for what follows, the Device asks our passive/aggressive server - one minute an attentive pro, the next an amateurish first-timer - the name of the lovely CD playing softly over the resto's sound system. We're both more than surprised to learn it's supermodel and ex-girlfriend to the stars (Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton) Carla Bruni's self-penned debut disc. Think Nico meets Françoise Hardy.
After waffling over Duck Leg Confit with Calvados paired with sautéed apple, LD opts instead for a superb fillet of skate flash-sautéed in lemon butter and strewn with a dozen or so plump capers. And here I am thinking beef cheeks had something to do with rump roast. In actuality, they're the super-tender face muscle, and Texier prepares them perfectly, slow-braising the meaty nuggets along with coins of succulent carrot in light red wine.
We side them with a gratin of soft, sliced spuds and strands of sugary caramelized onion baked under a nutty dome of sharp, aged Reblochon cheese as well as the greens du jour, a divinely buttery stir-fry of vibrant watercress, spring zucchini and baby bok choy. To finish, we split Jean-Jacque Daniel's Crepe ($6.50), a light, folded pancake spooned with boozy toffee and tossed with toasted confectioners'-sugar-coated pecans.
A few days later, we're back for Batifole's weekend brunch. And while Texier offers an expected lineup that includes Eggs Benedict ($11) and French Toast Brioche ($12), we zero in on some of his unique creations. As tissue-thin and crisp as Udupi Palace's paper dosa, the chef's Brittany-style buckwheat gallettes come in several variations including our choice of first-rate smoked salmon dolloped with swoon-some lemon sage butter ($12). Pooled with a rich, reduced saffron-scented beure blanc, Lobster Risotto ($16) finds large chunks of tasty crustacean teamed with deliriously creamy Arborio rice crowned with a feathery perfect poached egg.
For the table we split an order of Batifole's frites ($5 and available at dinner as well), huge salted slabs of soft-centred double-deep-fried russets countered with fantastic cayenne-spiked mayo. Any sad-sack traditionalists who insist that they aren't really frites likely don't know their history, that Pommes Pont-Neuf - their correct name - are an 18th-century street food dating back to the French Revolution.
Several years ago I reviewed Texier's work at Sassafraz, and while I wasn't blown away with that supper club's snooty Yorkville 'tude and C-list celebrity clientele, I suggested that its owners "let chef Texier do what he does best - cook!"
Now, at Batifole, the chef finally does just that.