Le Paradis 166 Bedford, at Davenport, 416-921-0995. Complete meals for $50 per person ($35 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of house red. Average main $14. Open Tuesday to Friday noon to 3 pm and 6 to 11 pm, Saturday to Monday 5:30 to 11 pm. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNN
Le Paradis is a well-oiled machine. Launched nearly 20 years ago, the atmospheric midtown bistro has never been flavour of the month, nor has it ever tried to be. It chugs along year after year offering its faithful, moderately priced Gallic grub in a room that's almost laughably Left Bank.
"That's my favourite restaurant in the whole city!" gushes a colleague when I mention I'm heading there for a midday meal.
To the inevitable soundtrack of accordions, we enter a scene straight out of Amélie. White-aproned servers careen about the series of three small rooms painted Gauloise yellow and hung with period black-and-white photos. Well-worn café chairs and somewhat lumpy banquettes flank kraft-paper-covered tables decked out with iced carafes of Lake Ontario's finest. No surprise that by half past 12, the joint's jam-packed with ladies who lunch in knockoff Chanel.
We begin with thin slices of grilled eggplant, zucchini and luscious red pepper splashed with olive oil and topped with a delicious slab of creamy broiled Morbier cheese. Another starter, a brandade of salt cod, finds a ramekin of garlicky purée surrounded by crisp toasts of baguette, a dollop of grainy Dijon and a cornichon singulaire. The same garniture shows up alongside Le Paradis's smooth green peppercorn pâté en terrine (all $7).
Big enough to be a main - which it is intended to be at lunch, something our server fails to mention when it's ordered as a first course - an enormous salad composed of arugula and endive tossed with blue cheese, toasted walnut and sliced green apple ($9) perplexes. Why are the unwieldy stalks that are virtually impossible to eat still attached to the arugula leaves? Roughage perhaps?
Redundantly described on its card as "The Le Paradis standard," the house bavette ($14) comes expertly grilled, its fibrous flank surprisingly tender and sauced with a house demi-glace that finds it way onto several entrees. Here it is again, abetted by caramelized onion and bacon, next to gorgeously grilled Provimi calf's liver ($13). Both come sided with a heap o' frites, on one visit flawlessly crisp, another time considerably less so, as if they've been precooked and sitting under a heat lamp for a spell before making their way to table. A blanched slaw of carrot, bell pepper and zucchini unimaginatively accompanies most mains as well.
Sautéed veal kidneys ($12 with frites) disappoint. Despite being smothered in that ubiquitous house brown sauce, these ordinarily tasty knobs of offal would be better served by the French mustard cream that comes with the daily special of oven-roasted chicken Dijonaise sided with a first-rate sweet potato gratin ($13). Coupled with eggy scallion crepes that cleverly echo those traditionally paired with Peking duck, duck confit ($14) would be considerably improved if its outer skin had been crisped instead of stewed.
To finish, we polish off an impressive wedge of flourless Belgian chocolate cake pooled with vanilla crème anglaise, slivered almonds and a boozy dice of apple and plum ($5) that would be even more inspiring if it hadn't come directly from the fridge. But Le Paradis's crème caramel ($4) is perfection personified, a fabulously subtle flan swimming in sweet citrus syrup.
Before heading back to the office, we knock back an excellent espresso ($1.50) and soak in our surroundings for one last time. Le Paradis may not be the most cutting-edge kitchen in town, but it's certainly one of the most consistent.