By JASON CHOW
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, February 22, 2018
The Civic 106 BROADVIEW AVE.
(AT QUEEN ST. E.)
Atmosphere: A restored high-ceilinged dining room with contemporary touches that attracts a yuppie and business crowd.
Service is a balance of friendly and formal. Jazz plays at a low volume.
Wine and drinks: Five featured house cocktails ($13-$16) and a long wine list with 12 offered by the glass ($12-$16).
Best bets: Red deer tartare, elk chop, brandy snaps.
Price: Dinner for two with a cocktail and a glass of wine, including taxes and tip, for $230.
If the recently renovated Broadview Hotel has a guiding principle, it's this: Blend the past with the present to create something new and wonderful that straddles both worlds. As a design aesthetic, the approach works beautifully. But it's tricky to apply the same ethos to a culinary experience.
The Civic, the Broadview's flagship restaurant, tries hard to mix early-20th-century rusticity with contemporary flair. The results are an expensive mixed bag: Some dishes are wonderful; others lack the polish demanded of a top-flight dining room.
Located on Queen Street just east of the Don Valley, The Broadview Hotel most recently housed Jilly's strip club and a rooming house. The 127-year-old building was purchased in 2014 by Streetcar Developments, which took it through a lengthy, intensive renovation, transforming it into a 58room boutique inn.
The much-hyped hotel finally opened last fall and drew crowds with its rooftop bar and early praise for its of-the-moment design (courtesy of The Design Agency). The bar, with its brilliant downtown views, quickly became a talking point for a gentrifying neighbourhood that has struggled in the past to argue it had a cosmopolitan nightlife.
The Civic made its debut a few months later, opening in the exact place where women once shimmied naked to Def Leppard.
It's now a handsome and stately room, with soaring 27-foot ceilings, dark-green panelling and oxblood-red banquettes. There's an old-world clubby feel with touches of whimsy to lighten the mood - floral-printed chairs and a few tables are covered with faux ostrich skin.
Chef John Sinopoli runs the food and beverage program at the hotel. For the main restaurant, he envisioned a celebration of Toronto's culinary scene at the time the hotel was built. For inspiration, he delved into restaurant menus of the late Victorian era.
The research, he said, uncovered a dining scene that was both luxurious and simple: Premium ingredients, such as wild game, oysters and lobsters, were surprisingly abundant. But their preparations were elementary - hunks of meat were simply cooked in a pan - and dishes were not the artful composed arrangements seen on plates today.
A menu based on old-timey Toronto food poses challenges: Diners today don't stomach heavy foods like they used to, and many want vegetarian options, which were non-existent a century ago. Making matters worse, the mix-and-match meat-and-twosides type of ordering that the Civic menu is built around doesn't lend itself to artful, Instagram-friendly plating.
To address these problems, Mr.
Sinopoli created a menu with a split personality. The appetizers, the seafood plates and the vegetarian options come as composed dishes that aspire to fit in at other high-end contemporary restaurants.
The second page of the menu reads as if it were written in the last century. It features meats - with some game options - which arrive on the plate solo in generous hunks. Sides and sauces are ordered separately and arrive in their own ramekin or dish. For a table of four, it can be a crowd of plates and the bill can climb quickly.
Finding value on this menu is difficult, especially when the appetizers tend toward the pedestrian. The Broadview Salad ($12) and the Waldorf Wedge Salad ($13) are close cousins, both dressed in mild creamy dressings and neither particularly noteworthy. A delicious and subtle rabbit terrine ($14), studded with Armagnac-soaked prunes, was overpowered by the espelette (a paprika-type pepper from southwestern France) cracker that came with it.
Meanwhile, the red deer tartare ($16) is outstanding and an example of what Mr. Sinopoli's concept can be if taken in the right direction. The Albertasourced venison is velvety, with a pleasing gamey flavour, served with grainy mustard and an inspired touch of licorice powder - a nod to the dominant seasoning of yesteryear when hunted game meats were tamed with spices.
When the mains come, the menu's then-and-now fault lines make for an odd experience. The good news is that all the proteins were well-executed, but somehow, this kitchen can't get the sauces right. A trout filet - cooked perfectly with a flat crispy skin and moist interior - is served with celery-root purée, wilted greens and four wedges of grapefruit that add nothing other than colour contrast. The braised rabbit is the perfect texture, cooked sous-vide and glazed with a lavender-infused jus. Served with spelt grains and some radishes, the dish almost works: More of that tasty sauce would fuse what felt like disparate ingredients.
Among the big chops, the elk, at $56, is the trophy dish and the indulgence among a group of suits on expense accounts who dined a few tables over. Also sourced from Alberta, the big bone-in chop is dense and lean and its tenderness can vary. The first time I tried it, the texture resembled a lean beef bavette; the second was tougher and required more chewing, but both were full of gamey and iron flavours - there's a hint of liver on the palate, in a good way. Our server suggested well: Have the kitchen slice it for easy sharing among the four of us.
Amiable and well-versed in the menu, both servers suggested side sauces ($4 each) with our chops, as one would eat a century ago. The chimichurri (the one sauce on the menu that isn't historically accurate) was decent, bright with acidity and fresh herbs.
Given its name, I was naturally drawn to the chow chow, a throwback sauce made of green tomatoes and peppers. It's a slightly tart relish that may ignite memories of one's English or Maritimer grandmother. Others at my table liked its contrast with the pork, but to me, it seemed like an anachronism that doesn't apply to today's milder-tasting meats. Perhaps it's a matter of personal heritage: Some still like mint sauce with their lamb; I abhor it.
The menu also features a "vegetable" section that serves up medium-sized portions that work as mains for vegetarians or as side dishes to be split among others. This section sits firmly on the contemporary side of the menu. The mushroom toast ($16) is a well-buttered piece of brioche covered with an assembly of seasonal mushrooms and topped with a poached egg. Too much truffle butter flattened the dish to a one-note flavour. A more successful dish - a smoky eggplant ($18) swimming in a tasty, smoked paprika-infused tomato broth - has been removed from the menu since my visit. Too bad.
The Civic offers three British classic deserts - lemon chiffon pie, Eton mess (a mix of whipped cream, fruit and meringue) and brandy snaps. All are delicious, but the last is particularly excellent - crispy tuiles with a slightly brandy-spiked cream are simple and sweet, but light enough that they won't send you out on a stretcher after a meal of heavy meat.
The desserts reminded that the Civic's old-meets-new vision can work, and that the city's overlooked culinary past can be mined for appealing and innovative dishes. It's a maddening conclusion to an uneven meal. Time travel is difficult, and the Civic, so far, is serving bumpy rides.
The Civic at the Broadview Hotel tries hard, in both its dishes and design, to mix early-20th-century rusticity with contemporary flair.