Tomi-Kro (1214 Queen East, at Jones, 416-463-6677) Complete meals for $65 per person, including all taxes, tip and a $10 glass of wine. Average main $22. Open for dinner Tuesday to Thursday 6 to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 6 pm to midnight, bar till close. Closed Sunday, Monday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
She may be a chef with nearly 30 years on the local culinary cutting edge, but Laura Prentice remains modest, nervous even.
She and long-time partner John "Johnny K" Katsuras have quietly re-grouped with their former Lolita's Lust partner John "JC" Coronios to give his east-side eatery, Tomi-Kro, a kitchen makeover.
Revered in her day for her work at some of the most creative restos in town - long-gone boîtes like Hudson, Avec, the New Avec (with Greg Couillard), the Liberty, Mrs. Smith's Cocktail Party, Fancy Shoes, Gus and most recently hubby's Johnny K's: The Restaurant way out on Queen East - she nevertheless thinks her first card at Tomi-Kro needs some tweaking.
Before her arrival, Tomi-Kro offered a lineup best described as Greece meets East, contemporary fusion takes on Mediterranean-inspired mains à la Lolita's, filtered through Japanese spicing and Zen-like plating. And though it doesn't stray too far from these guidelines, the new menu's pure Prentice, charting new ground for the seasoned vet. To find out just how far, the crew and I hitch a ride on the streetcar to Leslieville.
Hidden behind bamboo blinds, the low-key storefront looks much the same as when it opened in the spring of 04, a casual 30-seat exposed brick room cluttered with funky bric-a-brac. T-shirted regulars from the 'hood line the small corner bar, while a pair of wayward fashionistas preen for no one in particular at a window banquette.
As soon as we're seated, an attentive server delivers warm strips of focaccia-like flatbread and a dish of quality olive oil for lavishing said lavash.
Since all of Tomi-Kro's card is à la carte - a tradition started at Katsuras's and Prentice's Pan on the Danforth and continued at their other restos - we're able to select exactly what we crave. Tonight, after weeks on the vegetarian feedbag, it's meat we're after, the redder the better.
We start with a tapas of tasty chicken livers ($7), seven or so flour-dusted suckers pan-seared à point in port and garnished with cress du jour. We go upmarket with an appetizer of fancy-shmancy foie gras plated on a miniature ginger strudel with a puddle of tart house-made applesauce ($14). As lovely as it is, for my money I'd rather have twice the chicken liver.
Another shareable starter, Miami Ribs ($7), finds thickly cut bone-in Korean-style bulgogi beef (very) short ribs glazed with a house sauce - dark soy, a dash of honey, slivered Thai chili for heat and plenty of ginger and coarsely ground black peppercorns - so delicious it could be successfully marketed. Nice touch: finger bowls!
As the air-conditioner drowns out whatever's playing on the sound system - Gotan Project? Gipsy Kings? The Shaggs? - we move on to our even meatier mains.
Lamb shank ($19) falls from the bone, slow-cooked in a white wine reduction of mushrooms, leeks and Asiago. Brazenly fatty slices of Muscovy duck breast in wild Ontario blueberry jus ($22) have us struggling to name that spice until we discover it's the vanilla in the side dish of scalloped sweet potatoes that gives the bird its unusual kick.
I'm no fan of ham - Barry Manilow, excepted - so am somewhat disappointed when Tomi-Kro's smoked pork chop ($18) reminds me of the peameal bacon on a bun served to American tourists at the St. Lawrence Market. Topped with lightly poached Asian pear, it's very good if you like that sort of thing. Call me prickly, but I don't.
We divvy up the sides as well (all $5). Bathed in coconut curried cream, cauliflower could be fabulous comfort food by way of the Subcontinent, some 50s gratinée gone Bollywood. Spinach comes creamed with raisins and caramelized onion nipped with cumin, and red Asian rice gets stir-fried with chopped Chinese broccoli, asparagus and a whack of garlic.
Dessert calls for Prentice's legendary flourless chocolate cake ($6), a closing salvo she's been making since day one all those years ago.
Sure, it's very much a fall menu. Some might find it a little disconcerting to watch a full house chowing down on autumnal osso bucco during an August heat wave, but come that first globally warmed cold snap - the third week of September by my reckoning - Laura Prentice and company's timely overhaul of Tomi-Kro will be just what the weather calls for.