My wife knows from renovation. She could write a book about it. And she tells me that the reno conducted by chef-owner Aidan Pascoe and his father that has given the world Liberty Belle is first class. It’s a cute little bistro on the edge of Liberty Village – 24 seats plus six stools at the handsome wooden bar, and an outside patio for warm evenings – with a décor full of gathered details. Carved wood may have come from a church pew; the swing doors into the kitchen are stained glass; a poster of can-can girls cheers up the narrow vestibule and becomes the company’s graphic. Specials are written up on a blackboard, which is just as well because we can’t hear the hard-working server thanks to a table of three young women behind us – the noisiest people I have ever heard in a restaurant, braying and screeching and shouting each other down. Thank God they are already having dessert as we sit down.
Pascoe’s menu is consciously retro French bistro, offered without any obvious irony. Enough time has passed since the mass extinction of French bistros in the 1990s that onion soup, moules frites and steak tartare are no longer clichés though they are still familiar enough that any chef attempting them must show why, either with some new twist or by doing them very well. The onion soup is exemplary – masses of finely sliced, browned onions cooked down until they almost dissolve in their own sweet broth all hidden beneath a thick floe of crusty bread and bubbling browned cheese. It’s cave-aged Quebec gruyère, rich and delectable, and the portion would be enough for a normal person’s dinner.
Steak tartare was less successful, the meat ground instead of chopped and mixed up with a rather overwhelming amount of gherkin and capers. It didn’t feel as if there were any egg yolk to bind things together so the texture was crumbly – a tartare lite – without any sense of sticky rawness. Brioche toast points were fine and the lone pickled green chili on the plate made me long for more.
A plate of forthright hush puppies was another huge portion, the dense balls of cornmeal flecked with the merest suggestion of bacon and scallion. Their surface was pleasingly crisp and there was a decently creamy horseradish sauce for dipping but the side salad stole the show, a lightly dressed mound of very fresh rocket and radicchio.
A special of house-made fettucine returned to the richness and large flavours of the onion soup, the pasta smothered in a thick, sapid crumble of spicy merguez sausage, king oyster mushrooms sliced into sturdy ribbons and kalamata olives adding even more pungency and salt.
Carolina stone bass was a gorgeous piece of fish, moist and tasty. Pascoe paired it with pan-fried fingerlings tossed with red pepper and soft white onion and some pretty purple kale leaves. His sauce of grapefruit beurre blanc wasn’t the best idea, however, the mild bitterness of the grapefuit ganging up with the mild bitterness of the kale to nudge the dish off kilter.
Desserts are much lauded at Liberty Belle, the work of Sarah Fortunato. Plates of her petits fours sit temptingly on the bar beneath glass cloches. We ordered a lovely opera cake made with almonds and a vanilla and lavender mousse, topped with white chocolate and blackberries – lots going on but why not – it was the cakey equivalent of those can-can girls. Vanilla panna cotta was just a heartbeat too loose in texture and too sweet, not as good as the compote of forced pink rhubarb that dressed it.
The tiny wine list (only eight bottles) will have to grow. We drank Prospect Winery’s Ogopogo’s Lair 2009 Pinot Grigio, a lovely B.C. offering and usefully versatile, but I think people are going to want more choice. And the bill was disarmingly reasonable, cutely presented inside a musical box. I rather thought it was going to play Sousa’s march, Liberty Bell, that Monty Python used as their opening music but instead it was the theme from Love Story.
Liberty Belle Bistro is at 133 Jefferson Avenue (a few doors south of King Street West). 647 352-3553. www.libertybellebistro.com.