School’s In For Summer at the Drake Hotel

Okay, so let’s be honest, it’s like no school cafeteria you’ve ever been in before; the tables are made from old bowling alley floors, the wall are covered in kitsch, and the juice boxes are spiked. But if you’re going to convert your hotel restaurant dining room into an ongoing art project, one in which the whole thing, including the menu, changes up every few months, school cafeteria food is surely a fun place to start. And of course, the food has got to be memorable too.

Chef Anthony Rose and the staff at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen Street West) have a winner on their hands with the first instalment of the “Dining Roadshow”. Recent popular culture is rife with grown-ups wanting to act and look like children, so an opportunity to return to summer school for an evening and reminisce goes over like gangbusters with the crowd at the media preview earlier this week. We flipped through a menu presented in duo-tangs (menu order forms look like those dreaded fill-in-the-circle test sheets) and pulled condiments out of lunchboxes on each table.

Chef Rose’s menu is a collection of both memorable cafeteria fare, jazzed up and fancified – pork and beans, chili, fish sandwich; and a few comfort food items that you’d probably never see in a school cafeteria, such as 32 oz steaks and lobster rolls. One of the thing that we didn’t sample but that appears on the menu is that much-maligned cafeteria staple – the French fry. I imagine Rose’s version to come on a massive platter – enough for the whole table – just the way we used to eat the things back in high school, when 8 kids would pounce on a plate of fries while listening to Loverboy over the cafeteria PA system.

The tomato alphabet soup arrives at the table in a Thermos, just like how you took it to school for lunch way back when.

If your idea of garlic bread is that flaccid, greasy stuff that comes from a pizza joint or an Italian restaurant, you’re in for a surprise. Wrapped in paper, this stuff arrives, hot, cheesy and full of garlic.

Chili con Carne – the chips come from La Tortilleria.

A plethora of sides (each main comes with your choice of two), including Ezell’s sweet summer slaw, Cookstown potato salad and dill cucumber salad. There’s also a buttered peas, fries, broccoli, chipotle bean ragout and mac and cheese. On the right, the lobster roll. I think the general consensus is that this had too much mayo. Regular readers will know that I’m fussy about my lobster rolls, and besides the mayo, this had a bit too much stuff for me. But YMMV, as nobody likes their lobster roll exactly the same as anybody else (I still haven’t ever gotten over the fact that people desecrate the things with celery.)

The foot long veal cheesedog. Cue the Beavis and Butthead jokes.

Blackened fried fish sandwich.

The vegetarian concession on the list of meaty mains, an eggplant parmesan.

Mac and cheese – this is a side dish, people – the Drake is well-known for their Mac and cheese, and this doesn’t disappoint. It is honkin’ big, though.

Dungeness crab cakes. Big chunks of sweet crab meat here. That one at the front is falling apart because there’s almost no filler in these babies.

The man with the meat. A tray of the 2lb rib steaks from Cumbrae’s. In case you were worried, these are meant to share.

They’re pretty inside too.

We used to call these “Milly Fillys” when we were kids; a riff on the French name for Vachon’s flaky that was a staple in any packed lunch. Drake pastry chef Karen Vineberg does a much swanker version, right down to the flecks of real vanilla in the cream.

And finally the dish that says “summer school” the most to me. Because the kids who went to summer school were usually the stoners who were too messed up in class to pay attention. Vinberg combines jello and what I’m guessing is chocolate pudding to make… chocolate jello. Spicoli would approve, Dude!

Drake’s Summer School Dining Hall continues until September 4th in the Drake dining room. Lounge and Cafe menus remain unchanged.