ULTRA (314 Queen West, at Peter, 416-263-0330) Toronto's most cutting-edge kitchen or clubland's biggest folly? Michael Stadtlander acolyte Paul Boehmer (ex of Opus, Scaramouche, Nekah) offers an original Toronto cuisine adapted from local and global flavours in a room that shifts from early evening South Beach chic to late-night Miami Vice. Complete dinners for $100 per person (average main $35), including all taxes, tip and a $10 glass of wine. Open for dinner Monday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm, bar till 2 am. Closed Sunday. Licensed. Valet parking. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
while some will see the opening of Ultra, the sleek new Queen West supper club created by nightlife nobs Charles Khabouth and Brenda Lowes on the bones of the old Bamboo, as yet another sure sign of the apocalypse, I'm not among them. Though I couldn't deny its 20-year success, I always found the 'Boo a bit too turista for my taste, a reggae-lite party space where the gang from work could get plastered on Red Stripe, inhale cheap pad thai and dance to the Harder They Come soundtrack.
But even I became a bit misty-eyed when I saw bulldozers levelling the facade of the old grass shack late last winter. Happily, the new Bambu by the Lake has found a more appropriate home at Harbourfront.
Khabouth and company have reportedly dropped a million or three to transform a former rundown wicker furniture factory into an exclusive eatery and nightclub complex, this in a neighbourhood where fine dining means California rolls followed by a pitcher at the Black Bull. Wouldn't Ultra be better located on College or in Yorkville or way west on King - Roncesvalles, say?
Khabouth is known for establishing a string of high-end clubs stretching from Stilife in the 80s to the current Guvernment mega-disco. He's also dabbled in the upscale restaurant scene, notably at Oceans with Greg Couillard and Susur Lee in the 90s, and later at Ivory with Michael Potters. To head Ultra's kitchen, he's enlisted equally creative cook Paul Boehmer, the former Opus chef who teamed with Michael Stadtlander at Scaramouche and Nekah.
Expectations are high as I trundle through the arctic slush, but I nearly do a spit take when I see the sign on the sidewalk advertising Ultra's valet parking service.
Welcome to the new Queen West. Where once a gnarly wrought-iron gate separated the place from the street, now a pair of chiselled Indonesian-style doors leads to the inner courtyard, which is lined with cedar planks. The facing glass wall gives little indication of the opulence inside. Nor does the small glassed-in anteroom where welcoming door staff check reservations and relieve us of coats before leading us into the main space.
Ultra's wow factor hits hard. Going against contemporary restaurant design's fascination with beige-on-beige mid-20th-century Modernism, architects Munge and Leung (the Yabu Pushelberg vets also responsible for the remarkable overhaul of Salad King) go right through the roof. Literally. The ceiling's been raised and the large, open candlelit room divided into a series of stages: glitzy cocktail bar, loungey dance area beyond a gauzy metallic curtain, and a raised VIP platform in full view of the house. All six of us.
Reformed club kid Jennifer Convertible and I must be somebody special, because we've been seated at one of the best tables in the house, a gargantuan U-shaped booth big enough to hold half a dozen. The yellow limestone bricks behind us were reclaimed from the Bamboo's demolition, our more-than-capable server tells us. They and the odd wicker accent are the only traces of the past.
While we study Boehmer's cutting-edge card, littered with au courant foodie items like ice wine gelée, goat cheese froth and Spanish ketchup, we nibble on ex-Senses and Oro pastry chef Steve Song's so-so roasted garlic focaccia but devour seconds and thirds of his amazing onion cracker flatbread.
Boehmer fuses native influences and locally grown ingredients tweaked with Latin and Asian accents. See it in the starter of baby arugula, beautifully plated peppery greens offset by a rasher of streaky pancetta and a marvellous unravelling pastry spiral laced with subtle Stilton ($12).
Diaphanous sheets of tuna tartare ($16) arrive fanned and sided with jerkyesque carpaccio, a daub of smoky ancho aioli and a jaunty mini-puff-pastry artfully decorated with shards of sharp manchego cheese. Drooling yet?
A quartet of oversized ravioli come parsley-speckled and loaded with shredded lobster and an intoxicating near-duxelles of sweetbreads, all topped with nubs of foie gras seared to their melting point. An impressive dish, it luxuriates in a pool of rich lobster jus laced with scallions ($30).
We swoon in unison over Boehmer's astounding Caribou Hind ($34), thick slabs of ultra-moist farmed game, its magenta hue augmented by its tart black currant marinade. They're sided with equally thick and just as buttery slices of melt-in-the-mouth chanterelles riding shotgun in a puddle of juniper berry jus, all scattered with a handful of popcorn sprouts.
We finish with Song's spectacular Cajeta Crème Catalan (all desserts $11), a crème brûlée cousin crowned with a brittle of cajeta, the delish Latin American ice cream topping made from caramelized sugar and goat's milk. A pair of neo-Korean walnut fritters and a squirt of pomegranate-tamarind syrup completes it.
Falling back into the banquette completely sated, we polish off the last of the full-throttle red (2000 Redstone Coriole Shiraz Cabernet $10.25 glass/$51 bottle) we've paired with Boehmer's assertively flavoured oeuvre. Earlier, Convertible commented on the house's skimpy 5-ounce pour, so our thoroughly professional server - the divinely amusing Deborah - returns to top up JC's glass. "A Newfie pour," she laughs.
Our coats retrieved, Grace Jones's La Vie En Rose shuffles onto the CD deck. As we turn to take Ultra in one last time, Convertible blurts, "It's ironic casbah meets Miami Vice!"
Others have tried this trick before (including Khabouth), combining fine dining with chi-chi clubbing, and failed. Remember Abracadabra? Unlike South Beach or New York City, I doubt if Toronto has the needed numbers of champagne-swilling fabulosi, celebutantes and Eurotrash to pack out Ultra six nights a week. Does Hogtown have even 10 J.Los or Puffys?
"Nine, now that Flare editrix Suzanne Boyd's bailed for the Big Apple," Convertible hazards.
But Tuesday night at 8, with six people in the place, free of it's B-list and wannabe late-night crowd, Ultra approaches perfection.