Little Italy’s French Bistro

The character of Toronto’s Little Italy has evolved to an eclectic milieu simply defined as “College Street.” The flavour-conscious flock here for a good time. Neighbourhood openings and closings are a big deal, so when Frank’s Kitchen closed, there was great anticipation about who would fill the void. Enter Chez’s Restaurant. The name is peculiar, because “chez” is a preposition, not a noun. Nonetheless, “What’s in a name?” We ask rhetorically. We are always in search of a good French bistro, and this simple and sophisticated menu in prime real estate piques our curiousity.

The immediate vibe is youthful, earnest and friendly. A live band plays easy-on-the-ears melodic pop and folk. It’s like entering a club house, but with higher standards.

The menu is smart. It’s one of those “close your eyes and point” menus where you just can’t go wrong. Seared scallops with pumpkin and tarragon jus. Winter Salad with smoked pomegranate, spiced pecans, torched goat cheese and a red sangria vinaigrette. A trio of tartare including beef, tuna and salmon. And, a must-try venison wellington with chocolate jus. Everything seems to have a unique and beckoning twist. Alas, we can’t order the whole menu. Maybe next time.

Beef cheek poutine comes highly recommended by our waitress, but I am a cynic. I think to myself, “What is going to distinguish this one from all the rest?” Boy, do I love being proven wrong. This tastes so good, and is the height of decadence. A generous portion of slow-cooked beef in smoked gravy is oh so tender, enticing and, lavished with smoked Gouda, seduces our palates with it’s medley of smoky, savoury flavours and textures complementing crunchy hand-cut potatoes. Wow! From this point on I will trust whatever our waitress tells me.

Sitting by the open kitchen we see a hunger to cook. These are quiet, passionate young people who respect process and do not cut corners. There is order and pride. Co-owner, Chef Mike Bradshaw, studied at George Brown, but was schooled in kitchens from London to Paris. Toiling under esteemed chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing, he had set out from Toronto to conquer the world, but on his first day, overcooked a potato. “I got my ass handed to me”, he shrugs. And in Paris, he overcooked a piece of fish. Needless to say, “I’ve never overcooked a piece of fish since.” Those are the necessary lessons early on that, later, distinguish chefs with the finesse and restraint to keep it simple and beautiful. After working for eight years in some very tough kitchens across Europe, it was time to come home. “Why?” We ask. “I missed my sisters,” he confides. Disarmingly humble, Chef Bradshaw is a man we want to like—and we do!

Roasted bone marrow is perfectly rich and luscious, with a caramelized crust and an enlivening bacon espresso marmalade that, alone, recharges my taste buds. I relish a garden-fresh chimichurri on warm grilled sourdough, and want to take it home with me to spread on anything. This dish begs for a wine pairing or any of the innovative elixirs being concocted from the cocktail list at the bar up front. As the house fills in, we see friends meeting for the starting point of their night and others for their evening’s destination.

“I love seeing smiles on people’s faces,” beams Chef Bradshaw. He’s talking about ours as we indulge in a risotto of octopus, white wine, shallots and thyme. This encapsulates his philosophy: “Don’t be fancy – simple works.” A bold and impressive plating of al dente risotto chock full of perfectly tender charred-octopus is clean and delicate, not muscular, and heartily gratifying. This dish is another winner!

“Can I interest you in dessert?” Our waitress knowingly asks. “Um…yes!” Bailey’s Fudge Brownie…I like each of those words and, combined, sound like something we should order. House-baked with chocolate mousse and raspberry coulis, it is thick and dense, and needs to be shared. The Earl Grey Crème Brulee with mixed berries and espresso meringue, is another tempting sweet and delicate indulgence that we’re happy to oblige.

Chef Bradshaw hits all the right notes. He is seasoned, and lets his cooking do the talking. Honest, simple but refined cooking that delivers on flavour, is generously portioned and gently priced. We are happily surprised by our delicious new find.

~Chez’s Restaurant, 588 College St, 416-792-1550~

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