want to know the key ingredi-ent for a successful restaurant? The chef, the location, the service? Sure, they all matter big-time. But often nothing counts more than a little luck.For 20 years, many have tried to buy the Blue Jay, a greasy spoon with a primo Queen West address. After the owners finally let it go, Natalie Castellas, formerly of the short-lived Cucina, lucked onto the lease for this now completely renovated space through friends of friends.
The scale of the room was too grand for a low-key cafe-slash-bakery. So Castellas brought in chef Eraj Jayawickerme, a 22-year-old sous from Michael Potters' Accolade, named the revamped space VaVoom and opened the doors this summer.
More luck -- now that the Left Bank has turned into an upscale singles bar, VaVoom's only real culinary competition is the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise next door.
But business is unpredictable. One night they're packed, the next empty. Part of the problem is the way the place looks. Inside, VaVoom is a long, slick room with warm exposed brick, polished floors and pin-spots that throw dim, romantic light on formally set tables. Passersby would look in the front window, see the stuffiness, immediately think expensive and keep walking west toward Taro or Tequila Bookworm.
Last weekend, VaVoom got its second overhaul. Gone are the uncomfortable DIY Macintosh plywood reproductions. They've been replaced with overstuffed dining room chairs.
Window tables have been scuttled for pale green velvet couches. Behind them, club kids chill to the new Sade CD while sipping 2-ounce martinis ($6.95) at an elegant bar. Jayawickerme's menu has evolved for the better, too.
The Literary Device and I have our appetites sparked by a small complimentary bowl of romano beans mixed with threads of prosciutto, both layered under salty Pecorino cheese. Further stimulation comes from shiny-crusted sourdough spread with herbed hummus -- thyme, parsley, lemon, but alas, no garlic.
The Device's Caesar salad ($7 dinner/$6.75 lunch) boasts two full halves of romaine, dressed with creamy garlic dressing enhanced with horseradish and anchovy paste. Next to it sit two whole grilled Roma tomatoes and several slices of double-smoked bacon topped with grana padano Parmigiano shavings. Hail, Caesar! So what if it's not cookbook-correct? It's one of the best in town.
Speaking of emperors, my duck napoleon ($12) piles flats of deep-fried wonton skins with tender rare bird, crisply grilled scallions and organic greens, all splashed with a fruity reduced black-currant cassis liqueur dressing. After a palette-refreshing raspberry sorbet, the mains appear.
Stuffed with spinach, apricots and pistachios, the Device's massive 10-ounce pork chop ($19) arrives sided with superb shallot-infused pommes purees and al dente baby green beans 'n' carrots.
My deconstructed vegetarian lasagna ($17) -- imagine an explosion in a noodle factory -- finds triangular sheets of fresh pasta layered haphazardly with two-tone zucchini and peppers, Italian eggplant, stoned black olives and a few meaty capers. The whole thing gets sauced with a delightfully traditional white-cheddar Mornay.
We finish by splitting a sensational Pinot Noir-poached pear paired with a tart beet ice cream stuffing and a launching pad of flourless chocolate cake ($7). Sublime.
Back for weekend brunch, Chester Drawers chooses a mushroom medley of portobello and shiitake to join the smoked salmon in his build-your-own three-egg omelette ($7). Sided with organic chunky deep-fried hash-browns, it's nothing out of the ordinary.
Thick slices of eggy challah make up the base for the Device's Monte Cristo sandwich ($8 brunch/$7.75 lunch). Think grilled cheese goes to heaven, only with an extra tier of honey-glazed Black Forest ham. Like the Device's order, my house burger ($8/$6.95) with melted Brie comes with mixed mesclun and grease-free matchstick frites. Recent health board rulings won't allow me to get the burger as rare as I like it. And it's not helped by bottled mayo, ballpark mustard and ketchup.
Lunch and brunch don't match the highs of dinner, but VaVoom's about to introduce a late-night tapas menu: pickled Scotch eggs, naan-wrapped lamb kebabs and the like. By then, VaVoom's dream of detonating fireworks under Queen West's moribund restaurant scene may have come true.
With a little luck, of courseVAVOOM (472 Queen West, 603-0297) Anyone familiar with the late Blue Jay -- a greasy spoon notorious for its pirogis -- will be shocked by its transformation into a chic eatery featuring contemporary fare with more flair than most. Complete dinners for $40 per person ($15 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for lunch Wednesday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, and for dinner Tuesday to Friday 5 to 11 pm, Saturday and Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday noon to 3:30 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Fully licensed. Access: short ramp at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNHot to trot for horseradish
Although VaVoom uses a generic bottled horseradish in its Caesar salad dressing and as an optional garnish with the strip loin or burger, both Rodney's Oyster House (209 Adelaide East, 363-8105) and Swan (892 Queen West, 532-0452) grate the fresh fiery root over their raw oysters. While it's not a garden-variety veggie, fresh horseradish can be found at Sanci's (66 Kensington, 593-9265) for $1.99/lb and at Ponesse Foods (91 Front East, 364-4032) in the St. Lawrence Market for $2.99/lb. St. Lawrence vendor Anton Kozlik's Canadian Mustard (93 Front East, 361-9788) bottles its own brand of horseradish, which is available in either blow-the-top-of-yer-head-off Hot or wimpy Not (both $3.50/250 ml). To make a high-octane Bloody Mary: in a tall glass, add 2 ounces of vodka -- hey, it's the holidays! -- to 8 ounces of tomato juice, stir in a shot of Worcestershire and a spoonful of horseradish (fresh if you dare), then top with freshly ground black pepper. Cheers!