CLUCK, GRUNT & LOW (362 Bloor West, at Walmer, 416-962-5050) Complete dinners for $45 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $18. Open for dinner Sunday to Wednesday 5 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 pm to 1 am. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Pardon the pun, but Marc Thuet has an awful lot on his plate these days.
The high-profile chef and owner of the eponymous Bistro and Bakery on King West as well as Atelier in Liberty Village has been drafted by just-launched barbecue joint Cluck, Grunt & Low to save its bacon now that original partner and chef Paul Boehmer - formerly of such A-list hotbeds as Opus, Ultra and the Spoke Club - is no longer involved. Some say he was pushed, others say he jumped.
First-time restaurateur and nightclub kingpin Wesley Thuro (Bovine Sex Club, Whiskey Saigon) turned to long-time buddy Thuet for help. Not that the outspoken chef needed the work.
"Besides, what do I know about barbecue?" laughs Thuet between drags on an ever-present cigarette. "Nothing!"
He learns quick. Launched after much delay in July, the ridiculously named Cluck promised to introduce Hogtown to authentic southern U.S.-style "slow food" served "quickly." Problem was, since the so-called 'cue was produced off-site (Boehmer rented space for his state-of-the-art smokers at Atelier) and reheated improperly at high heat in an extremely limited and unorganized kitchen, Cluck's grub sucked.
On my first visit to CG&L a few weeks ago, I'm unaware of the backstage soap opera and find an operation in trouble. Not that there's anything wrong with the room, which features Brenda Bent's period reno, appropriately looking like some 70s Ponderosa steakhouse, complete with barn board on the walls and bar stools fashioned from rusted tractor seats.
However, the boomer satellite soundtrack - Gary Lewis and the Playboys' innocuous This Diamond Ring segues into the Guess Who's interminable These Eyes - has got to go. Might we suggest a John Lee Hooker CD instead?
After a quick scan of the card, I opt for Cluck's combo, which, for some inexplicable reason - in honour of the SUV? the president? the former lieutenant governor? - is dubbed the Lincoln ($20). Oklahoma beef ribs are brontosaurus-size, dry-rubbed, slightly greasy and mostly bone. A section of Kansas Sweet And Sticky Pork Ribs (both $15 half-slab/$24 whole à la carte, with two sides) are far meatier, moist and slathered with overly saccharine barbecue sauce.
The combo also comes with a few slices of comparatively lean beef brisket and a few chunks of spot-on suckling pig. Like most mains, a choice of two portion-controlled 4-ounce sides is also included, the best of which are sugary molasses-baked beans ($4 à la carte) and an old-school potato salad thick with diced pickle. Pass on the too dry, 2-inch-diameter cornmeal muffin (both $3).
I should have known something was up when, ordering what Cluck's menu euphemistically refers to as Magic Dusted Rotisserie Baby Hen ($14), I say, "I'll have the chicken" and my new BFF server corrects me with "Hen."
Cornish hen, more like, all 12 ounces of the scrawny little bird. And while the Tennessee Caesar Salad ($7) would be an abomination anywhere - knife-cut romaine, prefab powdered Parmesan, soggy croutons - the so-called Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich ($7.50) is one of the tastiest in town, its sweet sauce countered by the tang of crunchy cabbage 'n' carrot slaw.
A second meal sees a more prominent Thuet imprint. Deliciously crisp and grease-free, his buttermilk chicken wings ($12 for 10) are second to none, though considering the competition, that's faint praise indeed. Despite its questionable spelling, Georgia Style Mohito Glazed Lamb Ribs ($18) taste virtually the same as Cluck's other ribs - only lamb, of course - but don't include any side dishes and are only accompanied by a few stale stalks of inedible sugar cane.
Go figure, but CG&L's two best dishes have never made contact with a barbecue grill. Thuet's Virginia Mac 'N' Cheese ($10) - what's with these hokey state names - is like Kraft Dinner on steroids, impossibly cheesy and laced with smoky andouille sausage.
Follow that with Thuet's grandmother's recipe for apple pie - think right-side-up tarte tatin - served warm and topped with a scoop of chef's Wild Turkey ice cream ($6). Don't forget the lemonade ($4).
With Boehmer's unexpected exit, Cluck, Grunt & Low is clearly a roadhouse still under construction, and the kitchen still needs to get up to speed. Literally. But if anyone can turn a resto around, Marc Thuet can.