THE FIFTH (221 Richmond West, at Duncan, 416-979-3005) Toronto's most exclusive restaurant or just another dated dinosaur of a dining room? While most of ex-Centro honcho Marc Thuet and crew's haute French-meets-Asian fusion card is more than competently executed, the Fifth is overly pricey, portion-challenged and pretentious. Complete meals for $150 per person, including all taxes, tip and a $13 glass of plonk. Three-course prix fixe $90. Open Thursday to Saturday for dinner 6 to 11 pm, bar till 2 am. Closed Sunday to Wednesday. Licensed. Dress code. Access: 13 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NN Rating: NNN
The Fifth has always intimidated me. Though I've lived a block away from downtown's most exclusive restaurant for years, I've never even entered the critically acclaimed upscale cafeteria. But when asked which romantic rendezvous I planned to review for NOW's sex issue on the fifth, I wise-assed, "The Fifth - the Organ Grinder on the Esplanade has been closed since 1996."
To gain entrance to this formidable temple of haute cuisine would entail considerable subterfuge. Credit card information is required to make a reservation - you're charged $50 per person if you don't confirm by 2 pm of the day - and I couldn't give myself away by using mine. I enlisted my culinary co-conspirator, the Literary Device, to make the call.
The person on the other end of the phone tells her the menu changes monthly, is a $90 three-course prix fixe and can be viewed on the Fifth's Web site (www.easyandthefifth.com). She's also promised to be seated away from the bar, where smoking is allowed. And had the Fifth mentioned the dress code? Business casual for the ladies, jackets preferred on escorts.
Getting into the Fifth is equally daunting. Although there's a perfectly functional lift in the lobby of the building, the restaurant insists its customers use the freight elevator in the rear laneway. How bohemian! We arrive in the alleyway as instructed to find a burly bouncer behind a velvet rope pouring bleach over the iron stairs leading to the loading dock. In Clubland, it appears, people will piss anywhere.
Once indoors, after an extended wait seated next to an empty coat rack and around the corner from a stack of empty two-fours, a rickety freight elevator complete with amiable operator whisks us to the fifth-floor warehouse space.
Except for another couple, we're the first to arrive. Coats taken, we're shown to the table closest to the bar. We point out that we'd been promised one as far away from it as possible. After being told that the other tables are reserved, the maitre d' reluctantly moves us to a lovely table on the opposite side of the room.
Now we overlook the entire joint: votive-lit tables draped with heavy linen, a French country fireplace, a chandelier cum disco ball and a snow-covered terrace lit by twinkly fairy lights.
The bottled water flows freely. "Due to the distinctive taste of the local water, our mineral water is complimentary," states the Web site.
We start with an amusing amuse-bouche of delicate, fat-streaked duck carpaccio on cool sweet-potato gaufrette. The Device continues her raw 'n' shaved theme with a sashimi-esque starter of Kobe beef carpaccio that's been sliced tissue-thin and garnished with a fluted puff of Tête de Moines cheese, lychee and pricey Périgord truffle.
Chef Marc Thuet's Alsatian roots show with escalope de foie gras, a barely seared first course topped with sugary pineapple wedges. Sided with a delectable tiny disc pig-trotter terrine, it also comes sauced with a gorgeously perfumed salsify purée.
Bonus: our series of servers forgo the "Some fresh pepper?" routine and trust us with an actual pepper mill. A pleasantly bitter blood orange sorbet spiked with vodka acts as a petite palate-cleanser for the Fifth's mains - sorry, plats principaux.
Since the kitchen's out of mignon chevaline - that's horse, folks - I settle for Filet de Boeuf Poêlé, a rather thick round of pan-seared tenderloin resting in red wine jus and topped with a crown of melting chèvre. A buttery scattering of topknotted baby zucchini (two) and a few sculpted knobs of Jerusalem artichoke complete the dish.
The Device opts for Morue Noire d'Alaska en Crepinette. Not a cod crepe, as she suspects, her entree turns out to be an eggroll-sized miso-infused sausage stuffed with black Alaskan cod wrapped in glutinous rice paper and layered with more foie gras. With only a few thin slices of green radish and a slight frazzle of frisée to accompany it, this dish is more starter than main.
To finish, how can we resist something called "daily surprise of warm cheese"? Tonight it's a deliciously smelly brie de Meaux on almond cake with an unusual Asian-inspired slaw of crisp green apple and celery strewn with dried cranberry and doused with honeyed hazelnut oil. We share it with patissier Bertrand Alepée's awesome - if small-portioned - cinnamon bread pudding laced with Lindt chocolate. It comes crowned with explosively juicy black-, goose- and raspberries, a round of roasted almond ice cream and a puddle of maple syrup crème anglaise.
We polish off the last of our pleasant California red (2000 Pastiche by Joseph Phelps, $12.50 glass and one of the few bottles on the Fifth's lengthy wine list that's not priced in the three-figures range) before capping off our evening with a decaf cap ($3.70) and a plate of tasty Mignardise: mini-biscotti, a double-butter chocolate cookie, and chocolate-shelled thimbles filled with whipped cream and dolloped with a macadamia nut. We're ready to leave.
By now, it's half past eight, but the Fifth is only half full. Later I learn those empty seats are reserved for the 50 or so members who pay $1,000 annual dues to guarantee them a table whenever they show up. That's why we were originally seated on the sidelines.
And the dress code? Most of the suits are tieless and in shirt sleeves, though I did get a "Nice jacket, man," from the freight elevator operator on the way out.
Three hundred bucks lighter, we're back on the street, where the reality of a slushy laneway kicks in. Will we be taking the Fifth again? We'd be back in a second for Thuet's impressive if not omigod grub if we didn't have to endure the gauntlet-like screening process, the pretentious loading dock rigamarole and the Fifth's dated Harlequin Romance decor.
Anyway, Ultra does the similar upscale thing in more stylish digs with friendlier staff at half the price.