124 Harbord Street
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and wine: $130
I’m not a fan of science fiction. I’m a grounded in reality kind of gal. So every time I watch the film Mon Oncle by famed French actor/director Jacques Tati, I am always relieved when main character Monsieur Hulot leaves his sister’s “house of the future” to return to his little garret across the market square from the quintessential Parisian bistro. The juxtaposition of the modern kitchen and M. Hulot’s primitive, neighbourhood, family-run bistro speak to generations of people, both in France and elsewhere, who long to retain their cultural roots.
Chef Laurent Brion manages to capture exactly the mood of Hulot’s neighbourhood bistro (okay, minus the pack of dogs out front) in Harbord Street’s newest gem, Tati Bistro. Sporting a logo of Tati’s bumbling postman character atop his bicycle from the film Jour du Fête, the restaurant takes over the location of the former Kensington Kitchen and brings a tiny touch of Paris to downtown Toronto.
With some classic Edith Piaf on the stereo, and the fun blue tables left behind from KK, the room feels instantly both homey and sophisticated and oh so French -I should have worn a beret; the black turtleneck will have to do. A space at the back accommodates up to 8 people at the chef’s table.
As expected, the menu is classic bistro fare; escargots, bouillabaisse, and duck confit all have a place here.
We start with oysters from Nova Scotia. Okay, not French, and not especially cheap at $15 for 6, but they’re plump, sweet, properly shucked – ie. not still attached to the shell – and remind us East Coasters of home.
The French Onion soup ($7) is a lighter take on the traditional with a tomatoey tang to the consommé as opposed to the usual heavy beef flavour. Cheese is ooey gooey and rich. Wild mushroom feuillette ($10) is a creamy stew of hearty, chewy and earthy mushrooms with two light airy puff pastry triangles. There’s a nice variety of mushrooms to make the dish especially interesting.
The NY Steak Frites ($28) is gorgeously rare. A bit chewy around the edges, the steak’s pink centre melts in the mouth. The accompanying frites are the only real miss of the evening, as they’re overly salted and greasy. A lemon-zinged mayo helps cut the grease and salt somewhat, but these are still not the best fries I’ve ever eaten.
The pan-seared Pickerel Meunière ($22) offers up a crispy seared skin glistening with lemon butter and parsley, while the flesh underneath is firm and flaky. Maple carrots are delightfully al dente, roasted fingerling potatoes make up for the greasy frites across the table and wilted arugula adds brightness and a pop of pepper to this dish.
For dessert, the offerings are expectedly French. Crème Brule, Crêpes Suzette, Chocolate Mousse and Tarte Tatin (all $8). I’m intrigued by the Crêpes Suzette until I hear that the flambé part cannot be done in the dining room due to fire regulations, and opt instead for the Tarte Tatin. This upside down apple tart is sweet and light, the apples melting like custard in the mouth atop crisp, golden pastry. Presentation is simple and elegant with a scoop of really good vanilla ice cream and some berries.
Where some items at Tati seem a tad high for simple bistro fare, a real deal can be found in their cheese plate ($12). Four sizeable samples of different types of French cheese are paired with toasted baguette slices, crisp green apples and pecans.
Despite the crowds (the restaurant’s 100 seats on two floors were full by 8:30pm on a Saturday night), service is thoughtful and accommodating. They’re happy to move us when someone doused in perfume is seated beside us, and our server readily explains ingredients or heads to the kitchen for a list of the night’s offerings on the cheese plate. It’s professional, but not pretentious, which is a great way to describe Tati Bistro overall.
As a diehard Jacques Tati fan, I was sort of hoping for a bit more tongue-in-cheek humour; so many of the scenes in Tati’s films have to do with eating and food, I almost expected a service trolley featuring a dressed Dover sole to be wheeled around the dining room in homage to Tati’s film Playtime, but space and likely, health regulations put a damper on the in-jokes. Despite Tati Bistro being a mostly Jacques Tati-free zone once past the main entrance (a giant poster of the film Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot greets customers as they enter), the restaurant still captures the essence of that little neighbourhood bistro the director so loved and held up in his films at the epitome of Parisian dining.