BISTRO CAMINO (2750 Danforth, at Dawes, 416-698-0283) Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 3 pm, dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 pm, Sunday 5 to 9:30 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Valentine's Day is still two weeks away, and already Hiro Hatori's Bistro Camino is a sea of glittery red paper hearts. They're hanging from this very retro dining room's chandeliers, mixed in with the plastic plants and in the grotto surrounding the gurgling fountain that greets you the moment you walk in the east-side beanery's front door.
Way out on the Danforth on a stretch of sketchy bars, ugly beauty salons and voodoo evangelists, Bistro Camino may seem an unlikely location for romance. Maybe so, but its budget-conscious card of rarely seen dishes - coq au vin, chicken Cordon Bleu, shrimp Neuberg - done à la japonaise is something to cherish.
Not a day goes by that I don't receive a press release urgently informing me that some local boîte has realized that the economy isn't doing as well as predicted and has thus introduced a recession-proof menu, making three courses for $45 sound like a big deal. No deal! Camino's been offering three-course meals for 25 bucks since it launched inauspiciously 18 months ago.
At dinner, the prix fixes begin with warm, linen-draped baskets of French bread and cruets of both balsamic vinegar and olive oil. An appetizer platter follows: delicate china cups of creamy asparagus soup, tapas-style slices of Atlantic sole in citrus escabeche, house-smoked salmon and prosciutto of no particular provenance, figs marinated in red wine, mini-croquettes stuffed with Brie, and cheddar biscuits dressed with tobiko flying fish roe. Only minced lamb on dried-out deep-fried sugar cane stalks fails to wow.
Of the several prix fixe entrees, we opt for Hatori's ox tongue Bourguignonne. Braised in red wine, this wonderful offal is so tender, it seems to dissolve on contact. On the $28 prix fixe, crisply sautéed duck confit coupled with mild Italian sausage and Dijon mustard may not equal the versions served at Gallery Grill or JKWB, but it's still some mighty fine eatin'.
Both come with a dizzying array of global veggies: broccoli 'n' cauliflower in perfectly executed hollandaise, lightly sautéed red pepper, balsamic-marinated shiitake mushrooms, spicy Japanese eggplant and smooth Indo-inspired lentil dal. But although a number of different spuds are available (mashed, baked, roasted), frites puzzlingly are not.
We finish with a baseball-sized scoop of deep-fried vanilla ice cream in tempura batter sided with fresh berry coulis and the same warm butter tart that Hatori baked when he was the head chef at Osgoode Hall back in the 80s.
Bistro Camino is an even bigger bargain during the day, when all-inclusive lunch combos like baby beef liver with onions go for as little as $8.50 and the three-course prix fixe for only $20. Today, the meal deal starts with chill-killing bowls of rustic lentil and sausage soup before moving on to equally old-school lamb cacciatore sweetly braised in tomato sauce with raisins and pine nuts.
Other prix fixe lunch options include a 7-ounce strip loin topped with whipped Café de Paris butter and a decidedly decadent filet mignon Stroganoff thick with shiitakes and sour cream. All come with twice-cooked Greek-style potatoes and house greens in vinaigrette. Generous servings of chestnut semifredo with chocolate syrup bring the noontime nosh to a memorable conclusion.
A diamond in the rough, Bistro Camino could use a little polish. The menu is currently twice as long as it needs to be and has too many confusing alternatives. Most of the prix fixe mains can also be ordered à la carte with soup or salad. And the room needs a serious de-clutter.
But keep what works - the grass mat wallpaper, the cherry blossom mural, the 60s Ponderosa-style captain's chairs and banquettes - and ditch the kitsch both in decor and cuisine and Bistro Camino could be the real deal.
Friday to Sunday (February 13-15), Bistro Camino offers $80 and $100 five-course dinners for two alongside its regular à la carte lineup.