Sunday, June 6, 2010

TRC goes to L.A.B.

It was early May and I had yet to select the next location for The Restaurant Club's bi-monthly dinner gathering. I scoured my list (yes, I keep a list of places I'd like to go), checked out what restaurants in the city were new, and after a quick read of both The National Post and Martini Boys' reviews, decided on L.A.B. on College.

I called to make a reservation for 10 people, to which the gentleman on the other end of the line replies, "we're small so we likely won't be able to get everyone's food out at the same time. If you wanted instead you could go for a prix fixe" ... "OK", I say, "let's make it for 8 people since I don't want to do prix fixe. I'll call if our numbers change"

Fast forward to June 3rd. We had 8 members attending, including me. As the first TRC member arrived, we found they didn't have record of the reservation. Uh, really? Thankfully the place wasn't very busy and they were able to move on table and accommodate us. Phew! A quick scan of the room shows some nice design touches and a very approachable, modern-mixed-with-old space. Now we were ready to dive into our evening.

The menu is short and to the point. It's playful in its incorporation of molecular gastronomy techniques, and is pegged as a vegetarian-friendly place (though meat-eaters needn't worry; according to National Post's math, L.A.B. is 40% meat). We each place our orders for both food and drink. Despite there only being a couple other tables, the service was slow and sometimes forgetful.

Our appetizers arrive; pogo chicken wings (fun presentation but the gelled hot sauce lacks heat while the blue cheese sauce lacks flavour), Cameron's Cream Ale vegetable consommé (great table-side presentation), not green salad ("blah ... just salady" by one diner, and bison tartar (simple flavour and delicious with its mustard seeds). Overall, a good start.

Pogo Chicken Wings

Bison tartar & carpaccio

After a short period, our mains arrive: lamb sous vide with cigar-smoked gnocchi (lamb was nicely cooked - great flavour; gnocchi were a tad dry and the cigar-smoking flavor was lost to me), steak and cake (the steak, also sous vide, though looked dry tasted great; the "cakes" were hit-and-miss), sweet potato perogies (pretty straightforward sweet potato flavour; nothing overly special here), "no-rhyme risotto" - a carrot risotto with cabernet sauvignon powder and silver leaf (a tad bitter; interesting presentation but the silver leaf lacked relevance) and korean gnocchi (pretty looking plate, but texturally I found the rice cake noodles a bit off-putting and overall the dish a bit bland).

"No-Rhyme Risotto"
Lamb Sous Vide with Cigar-Smoked Gnocchi
Steak and Cake
Korean Gnocchi with Arrabiatta Sauce, Thai Basil and Ricotta
The mains were all good but in my opinion, none executed to perfection. Next: onto dessert. We ordered the cheese plate (I mean really - is it possible to serve cheese poorly?), Mayan chocolate brownie (spicy and complex with beautiful flavours) and chocolate pot de creme (incredibly delightful and intense chocolate flavour with good mix of textures). We also tried the house-made chamomile grappa which really was a treat.

As we were wrapping up, the service seemed to wane even more. Throughout service the drinks were not readily replenished (or inquired on). We sat too long with our finished plates. The checks were a gong show (I'm sure in part due to the system they've got). The upside to the service, making it bearable, was that our server had charm and a certain amount of showmanship.

Overall I found the space to be great, the prices to be very reasonable, the service to be lacking, and the food to be decent but not amazing. I wouldn't rush back, but I also wouldn't discourage others from giving it a try. They are still new and so may require a little more time to iron the kinks.