CHEFS’ HOUSE (215 King East, at Princess, 416-415-2260) Complete prix fixe dinners for $45 (lunches $30), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Monday to Friday for lunch with seatings from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm, dinner 6 to 8 pm. Closed Saturday, Sundays, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
I've never been a 'licious lover.
Like most sensible folk, I've avoided the Winterlicious and Summerlicious food fests like the proverbial plague. Who wants to eat assembly-line grub in an overcrowded room served by staff rushed off their feet?
Many in the industry agree, finding the clientele attracted by the discount dining derby to be incredibly cheap tightwads who order tap water instead of wine and leave $3 tips.
But ever since the great crash of 2008, restaurateurs are welcoming the once-dissed 'Licious for its influx of cash. Why, even Susur Lee's jumped on board.
Enter the Chef's House. The year-old in-house resto of George Brown's culinary school has just launched its first Winterlicious card, slashing its three-course prix fixe lunches to $15 from $22, dinners to $25 from $39. Don't come expecting the stripped-down blue-plate specials you'll find most everywhere else.
"The menu's pretty much the same," says chef de cuisine Oliver Li. "We want it to represent the food we do normally."
To see for ourselves, we show up surreptitiously for a test run. The first thing that impresses is the space itself. Located in the historic Victorian building that once housed Pasquale Brothers - Toronto's first Italian grocery store circa 1917 - the now gorgeous 70-seat room could easily double as a set from some Food TV show, all high, dramatic ceilings, bright theatrical lighting and bare brick warehouse walls hung with plasma screens broadcasting the action live from a gleaming open kitchen.
We almost expect to hear Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio of the Food Network's Top Chef disagreeing over the "ducky-ness" of the confit at the next table.
We've got no argument with a large carafe of Q water ($3), the House's eco-friendly take on Perrier, or linen-lined baskets of warm whole-wheat sourdough. Spreadable butter, too!
Nearly every Winterlicious menu in town features beet and goat cheese salad. It's seasonal, it's local and it's a bit dull. But the House's version rises several cuts above, a dollop of whipped Woolwich chèvre piled with slightly pickled beets, raw celeriac and sliced pear.
Pierce a poached peewee egg and the runny yolk becomes the dressing for marinated green beans and frisée over slices of cured 'n' smoked salmon.
The Literary Device has a head cold and sinks a bowl of deeply intense double-broth chicken soup with cheesy spinach and ricotta dumplings in one go. Plated with an upright blistered pappadum, a commendably executed chicken curry chaser on a bed of turmeric basmati rice gets the sinuses running.
A beef and veggie stir-fry may look like a Spadina staple, but its gingery medium-rare tenderloin ratchets it up several notches. A righteous pulled pork sandwich on a pliable House-baked bun has the correct mix of sweet and sour, a short stack of crisply fried potato chips and crunchy coleslaw on the side.
A gastro-pub cliché back in the UK, a textbook sticky toffee pudding swims in a lake of treacly syrup laced with Chantilly cream, while a simple apple tart comes paired with cheddar ice cream, a clever play on apple pie à la mode with cheese.
As well as cooking the food, the culinary school's students also serve it. There must be a dozen of them in their starched white aprons on the floor. Ask a question - "What's this yellow stuff?" perhaps - and they know the answer (apple cider vinaigrette) without having to consult the kitchen. Oh, that every hipster hashery had as professional a crew.
But if all of the above hasn't convinced the haters to immediately book a Winterlicious table at the Chef's House, here's the kicker that will. Because George Brown is government-funded, it doesn't charge GST.
Consider me converted.