When calories count

Four’s food is good for you but does the tab have to be quite so healthy?


FOUR (187 Bay, at Wellington, 416-368-1444) Complete meals for $60 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $20. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 10 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NN


To succeed in the resto biz, it helps to have a gimmick.

At the Rainforest Café, a tropical storm breaks out during dinner. At Stonegrill on Winchester, you cook your lamb chops on a rock. And at Four, the just-launched Bay Street boîte in the former Soul of the Vine on the Commerce Court concourse, nothing on the menu contains more than 650 calories, the equivalent of a Big Mac and a couple of fries.

The hook seems to be working. Friday lunch and the joint is jumping, every one of its 176 seats taken by corporate types who can clearly afford not to eat in the food court next door.

They’re a noisy bunch, too, shouting at each other across the glass-topped bar that dominates this flashy subterranean space or the tall bare-topped tables that ring the room, all the ignoring the chill-out nature videos unspooling on high-def monitors suspended overhead.

To add to the cacophony, someone’s decided that a Dixieland CD makes the perfect dinner music. Yes, there’s nothing like the stomping of feet, wailing of clarinet and plucking of banjo to whet the appetite.

Perhaps that’s why we fail to catch any mention of Four’s calorie concept from our otherwise extremely competent server, though he does return from the kitchen with a mimeographed sheet listing the nutritional breakdown of each dish on the card when we ask. And not that the actual menu’s any help. Nowhere does it indicate that less will be more at Four.

Witness the blue cheese and tomato salad ($9/220 calories), a halved plum tomato sided with three halved cherry tomatoes, two slices of yellow heirloom tomato – all barely unripe – and the slightest crumble of Roquefort. Other than a spoonful of balsamic-fortified onion jam and a minuscule sprig of fresh basil, that’s it. A request for bread brings the response “We don’t do bread.”

But that doesn’t keep them from serving a bed of crusty Tuscan bread salad under a few tasty rings of grilled calamari ($9.50/225) – about a third of what you’d get for the same price at a trat on College – dressed with sectioned blood orange and a nine-bean salad. That’s not nine varieties of bean, but nine kidney beans in total.

A sensible snarl of soba buckwheat noodles ($12/350) tossed with tofu, sprouts and steamed cabbage would satisfy any vegan if it didn’t also include scrambled egg. Boneless and bereft of skin, a partial chicken breast ($16.50/650) emerges dry from the grill, its scant accompaniments amounting to no more than a handful of slivered almonds, some desiccated cubes of yam and a cup of nutritionally negligible refined white rice. So what if it’s basmati?

While the house bison burger ($11.50/489) packs a smoky punch, its impact on the palate would be much more impressive if it came sided with Jamie Kennedy’s frites – hell, Harvey’s! – rather than a leaf of lettuce and some carrot threads, honey-miso dressing be damned.

But it’s chef Gordon Mackie’s beef tenderloin ($26/340) that leaves us shaking our collective heads. In this age of super-sizing, we’re all for healthier portions. But 26 bucks for 5 ounces of steak – mighty fine steak, mind, especially when topped with sensational green peppercorn relish – is laughable. And when the menu lists pearl barley as a side, as it does here, we expect more than 17 kernels.

But wait, there’s dessert! Fearing the worst, we’re pleasantly surprised to be presented with a tray holding eight shot glasses, each filled to the rim with a different astoundingly rich parfait – cocoa-dusted tiramisu, raspberry-swirled cheesecake, double chocolate cream and the like. Even if they do contain up to 200 calories per, they’re only two bucks a pop.

And because conventional spoons are too large to fit into them, desserts get served with diminutive demitasse spoons that transform each from a one-shot deal into a deliciously slow affair.

Maybe if Four were to offer all of its portion-controlled card with miniature cutlery on smaller plates, dinner might look more substantial.

At the very least, it’d take twice as long to eat.

stevend@nowtoronto.com

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