Entrez, s’il vous plait
Discreetly tucked into the courtyard between Yorkville and Cumberland, Crème Brasserie opened in summer without fanfare, without a grand media reception, and without paparazzi flash. The neighborhood’s in-the-know habitués immediately recognized its quality and filled the spacious white-table cloth patio from the moment it opened for lunch until the wee small hours when the last bottles of wine and the last plates of warm chocolate crepes were cleared.
Had we discovered Crème in Paris, how thrilled we would be to write home about it. In New York, it would soon become our own perfect little brasserie. But in our-town, some passers-by eye Crème with suspicion. How can the prices be reasonable and the food be excellent, they muse. This is Yorkville, after all, where the expectation is exactly the opposite. Explanation? Crème was not opened by some ingénues who serve cheap cuts of meats and fish and work on the corner-cutting ethic, Crème is run by two partners who know two things very well: how to cook, and how to run a restaurant. The clientele they cater to appreciate their expertise.
Chef Ricardo Roque was the man who created the signature dishes at Bistro 990 and ran the kitchen for a decade. Ricardo Sousa has pampered clientele at top restaurants in the city since he was a lad. There is a rhythm to the service that is adapted to the needs of the diners, whether there are time constraints or the luxury of languor.
As an observer of the social scene as well as a professional diner, and as a regular at Crème, I note that almost every day, women who shop and lunch in the Yorkville/Bloor rialto meet here at midday to compare travel plans, fashion finds, their latest charity efforts and share a little gossip. They are comfortable in a décor of modern, yet casual elegance. And so, they sashay into the latest Toronto French restaurant and place themselves in the capable hands of Ricardo x 2, and a professional wait staff who know the menu and are skilled in their work.
A glass of Prosecco, and a tray of freshly baked bread with a vegetable dip is a welcome sight on a winter’s day. And yes, they do make French onion soup baked with croutons and bubbling Gruyere cheese.
Cobb salad, a chopped salad created at The Brown Derby in Los Angeles half a century ago for a certain Mr. Cobb is making a big comeback on menus these days, and there are many versions. What we all love, is that we can take this mélange: roast chicken, avocado, smoked bacon, tomatoes, Roquefort, lettuce and ranch vinaigrette and adapt and alter to our own taste. Is the server miffed? Not at all, he knows the kitchen is there to please the guests. Mixed greens salad, with tart apples, roast pears, dried cherries and maple vinaigrette hits all the flavor nuances: tart, sweet, crunchy, soft.
The large square room is a magnet for those who like a little discretion with their business lunch. Tables are well spaced, and the acoustics muffle conversations. Much as I would love to know what those investment bankers are discussing on the other side of the room, I can’t catch even a whisper. I can see, however that the men enjoy the fish of the day. Often it is Striped Bass, a sparkling rendition with French beans, squash and cranberry – ingredients compiled with an eye to our resolute fitness regime.
In the French mode, there is a transition for the evening. Candles sparkle, crystal chandeliers are dimmed, music enhances the mood and the room becomes intimate and romantic. We love Chef Roque’s signature oven roasted chicken with smashed potatoes, crisp French beans and white wine herb jus. If you have ordered chicken all over town, you will agree that this bird is the highest flier. Steak frites is Rib Eye perfection and the frites are as they should be. Cranberry and mustard crusted rack of lamb with classic Savoyard potatoes will not disappoint. Not many chefs take the time to thinly slice potatoes, layer them with cheese and butter and baked them in chicken stock till they are crisp with a molten interior. Of course there are pasta dishes, not all are without flaws, but particularly satisfying is penne with broccoli, breast of chicken and mushrooms in creamy walnut and basil pesto.
No surprise to see waiters carrying trays aloft outside, delivering dinner to the surrounding million dollar condo dwellers.
Sometimes, pastry chef Meghan Edwards desserts seem irresistible. Baked Alaska for example, with its ice cream topped, chewy chocolate brownie and hot-from-the-oven baked meringue; or Crème Brule, spoonsful of silken custard textured with poached plums. Ah me, the mind is willing, but in reality, a double espresso and a cookie plate will suffice today.
162 Cumberland St., Toronto, ON