Vdara pastry chef David Kozicki (left) and chef Mani Binelli offer plentiful plates priced right.
VDARA (735 Queen West, at Tecumseth, 416-868-3272) Complete dinners for $40 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $18/$10. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11 am to 3:30 pm, dinner nightly 5 to 10:30 pm, brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm; bar nightly till close. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Writing a menu is an art. Once a chef comes up with a culinary concept, the choice of words to describe it can make or break the dish.
Vietnamese restaurants keep it simple. Banh mi cari ga is exactly what shows up in front of you: French bread, curried chicken. Other names verge on the pornographic. Who knew what depraved delights were in store when ordering the now-defunct Kubo Radio's Miso Horny?
Then there's Vdara. Launched last month in the loungey space that once housed Habitat, Satori and long before that the original Future Bakery, the supper club's initial lineup has to be the silliest we've read in years.
"Most menus are over-described and pretentious," says chef Mani Binelli in defence. "I wanted ours to be fun. Unfortunately, most people didn't get it."
And so Wandering Bird Caught By Sticky Steamed Buns ($8.95) has since buggered off; it must have been a free-range chicken (ba-dum). And Cod Is Dead (on a bed of skinny beans, Congo potato gratin and leek foam, $20.95) appears to have left this mortal coil, offed perhaps by its leeky foam. What remains retains the playfulness but ditches the shtick.
Dinner begins with an amuse of smoked tomato ratatouille on a Pringle-esque potato crisp, followed by an assortment of warm house-baked sourdoughs and pumpernickels coupled with a trio of spreads: smooth spinach and eggplant and an exceptional tomato purée ($6.95 dinner/ $5.95 lunch). Like Binelli, baker and pastry chef David Kozicki last worked under Greg Couillard at Hazelton's Spice Room. Kozicki is also a vet of Couillard's sister Gay's greatly missed Vienna Home Bakery.
Despite the connection to the spicemeister, tonight's soup - cabbage borscht ($5.95) - arrives timidly seasoned. Crumbled with house-made pork 'n' bison sausage and garnished with oversized croutons dusted with Parmesan and paprika, this still tasty and well-proportioned bowl needs a major injection of garlic to give it some gumption.
A crisp pair of Duck U empanadas ($8.95) come amply stuffed with citrus-infused duck as well as savoury chicken à la tortierre. The same tart cherry compote that sides them also shows up alongside a nicely done Moulard confit ($17.95). Complemented by a gorgeously eggy sauerkraut gratin, the bird's also accompanied by a small frazzle of frisée in a light honey-lemon vinaigrette that the previous menu not very amusingly labelled "embittered greens."
Dressed in a mild barbecue-style tomato reduction, Barney Beef Ribs ($16.95) are apparently named in honour of TV's purple dinosaur, not Mayberry's bumbling deputy sheriff, as we first suppose.
They (or rather it, the single massive specimen being large enough to warrant its own room at the ROM) no longer share the plate with a "banana bag of rice and peas," but instead with a bed of basmati rice tossed with zucchini, edamame and pesto.
Arriving at table in a Chinese lidded earthenware hot pot, the main previously called Wild And Brazen Game now goes by the more straightforward Wild Boar And Bison Stew ($17.95). Flush with earthy shiitake, cremini and porcini mushrooms, this particularly filling ragout also contains a veritable root cellar of carrot, parsnip and potato, its former side of Mini Loaf bread now rebranded Soft Loaf (no relation to singer Meat Loaf).
Fortified against the Arctic chill with mugs of mulled apple cider ($6), we mull over our evening chez Vdara.
Prices are right on the money, plates are plentiful - more than most can finish - and communicative servers respond to questions without kitchen consultation. Shorn of its lame puns and juvenile double entendres, chef Binelli's more than confident card proves itself no joke.
See Steven Davey's online post on cookbook author and PBS food show host Mark Bittman at www.nowtoronto.com/daily.