STONEGRILL ON WINCHESTER (51A Winchester, at Parliament, 416-967-6565) Complete dinners for $75 per person (lunches/brunches $30), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $25/$14. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch noon to 3 pm, for dinner 5 to 11 pm; bar nightly till close. Brunch Sunday 11 am to 3 pm, dinner 5 to 10:30 pm. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
I'm sure some people liked it just the way it was, thank you, but the transformation of the Winchester Tavern from working-class watering hole to Cabbagetown's version of the Drake Hotel is complete now that Stonegrill on Winchester has taken over the former saloon's back room.
Sure, the renovated front space has been an upscale Tim Hortons for a while. Upstairs, the art deco splendor of the Laurentian Room continues to pack in an artsy cocktail crowd. And it's a shame the Winchester's iconographic neon sign got lost along the way. But Stonegrill gives the old girl some needed culinary cred.
An Australian franchise, Stonegrill comes with a novel concept: customers sear their own meaty mains at table on a slab of volcanic rock that's been heated to 400¡C, a prehistoric cooking method favoured by the Vikings and ancient Egyptians.
Of course, once you pair your swordfish ($22) with a side of deep-fried shoestring sweet potato fries ($8), who's concerned about health benefits?
On our first visit to Stonegrill, we have the joint to ourselves. Lit by glowing, translucent wall panels, the dining room is a study in contrasts, all gleaming hardwood floors, deep chocolate accents, sprays of fresh-cut flowers and crisp white linen draped over tables dressed with stemware. Over by the bar, there's a fireplace-warmed lounge where locals can knock back pints of Stella ($5.60) while nibbling on tapas like grilled calamari stuffed with chorizo ($10).
After wading through Stonegrill's ambitious six-page menu, we focus on the lunch lineup and save the fancier stuff for dinner. Though we don't get to cook our burgers ourselves (chef Tim McHugh handles the slab duties in the kitchen), the 6-ounce Kobe ($16) bursts with beefy flavour. It also comes in a formidable poppy-seed-dusted onion bun spread with truffled Dijon mayo and garnished with smoky Oka cheese, deep-fried leek and a superb cabbage-apple slaw.
Dressed with curried mayo, mellow manchego cheese and minty coconut chutney, the lamb burger ($11, both with house greens or skin-on frites) ups the wow factor. Both sizable patties are so astonishingly lean, forks and heavy-duty serrated knives are required to finish them.
A week later, the menu has shrunk to two pages. Have braised lamb poutine ($9), savory pecan bread pudding ($7), brined pork chop ($16) and Muscovy duck breast ($17) gone the way of cheap draft and pickled eggs?
"Since we were supposed to open in January, ours was a winter menu," explains Stonegrill co-owner Frank Bernardo, who's also behind east-side Peppino's on the Beach. "Now we're doing spring."
The prices are also considerably higher. We start with a pleasant salad of Boston lettuce in a creamy Ceasar-style vinaigrette tossed with a few dried cranberries, some sunflower seeds and a disc of crisp pancetta. Twelve bucks' worth? We think not. And a citrusy hockey puck of yellow-fin tartare ($15) should have been coupled with more than a handful six, tops of fragile taro crisps.
Bernardo informs me later that he's adjusted the damage for both to a more reasonable $9 and $13 respectively. He's axed the lamb burger, too.
Servers strike the right balance between formal and informative, especially when explaining the DIY barbecue rigmarole. Soon we're each faced with a flat paving-stone-sized rock brought to table on a cool ceramic tray. We're instructed to put our meat on the stone, wait a minute or two for it to sear, repeat the process on the other side, then devour.
We have great success with the New Zealand rack of lamb, dipping the pink-centred double chops into a ramekin of lovely lavender-scented jus. But 8-ounce portions of just-okay Provimi veal tenderloin (both $25) and stringy bison rib-eye ($28) gain little from the process, making us wish we'd ordered a simple 10-ounce Angus strip loin ($25) instead. Mains include a half-dozen or so stalks of kitchen-cooked asparagus strange since sides are listed á la carte.
And what a disappointment they be. Described as being laced with Gorgonzola, Oka and manchego (then $8/now $7), the potato pavé turns out to be a relatively cheese-free square of dried-out scalloped spuds. A single bruschetta-sized slice of baby eggplant topped with diced tomato and capers goes for eight bucks. Now pegged at $6, it's still twice as expensive as it deserves to be.
Stylish Stonegrill on Winchester will be a big hit with the Atkins-obsessed who can afford to own a million-dollar Victorian nearby. But when you're dropping $75, is it too much to expect dinner to be properly cooked even if it is your own damned fault?