If you’re going to call a restaurant after a herb, you really ought to find out how the name of the herb is pronounced. The emphasis falls on the first syllable of “sorrel” – always has done. But the staff at this new Yorkville bistro insist on calling it sorelle. There’s a difference – not quite as dramatic as the difference between a Daniel and a Danielle – but a difference all the same. For the customer, it’s a matter of confidence. You want a restaurant to know about the food it serves (sorrel is all over the menu) and the first step to understanding a plant is knowing its name, as Adam was taught in Eden. Sorrel has many names – cuckoo sorrow, cuckoo’s meat, sour sabs, green sauce and sourgrass amongst them – though none are quite as pretty to say as “sorrel.” Perhaps you think all this pedantry frightfully old-fashioned… But that’s why it’s so appropriate where this resto is concerned, for dining here is like taking a step back in time to the mid-1980s, with all the good things that entails – and all the not-so-good.
Yorkville has always had a vein of “classic” restauration (Remy’s and Le Trou Normand spring to mind). But it’s odd to find a new restaurant consciously emulating such venerable standards. The premises are half below street level in one of those long thin mezzanines. There’s a bay window at the front where daylight enters and people sitting at those tables can look out and up at the shins of other customers sitting on the street-level patio (kilted Scotsmen take note). The décor is unusual – rough pinkish stone floor tiles, walls of stacked silvery-white limestone hung with kitschy-naïve paintings of Paris that look like illustrations from a children’s book. Lovely big glossy wooden tables offer plenty of room for candles, wine and ice-cold bottles of Evian. The music is more than usually offensive – electric piano riffing on three chords against a high-hat syncopation like the backing track to a mid-career Kenny Gee album. It didn’t seem to bother the regulars sitting around the big wooden bar in the shadows at the back of the restaurant – friends of the house perhaps, or of owner-chef Faro Chiniforoush, who as chef and general manager (an ambitious double-duty) presided over the long, slow demise of Prego della Piazza.
The menu fits neatly into that late 20th-century category once known as Mediterranean – neither French nor Italian but alluding to both. We started with a wild mushroom soup that reminded me of the version Freddie Lo Cicero used to make but without the depth of flavour and creamy panache. This one was almost puréed so that the mushrooms had become tiny soft slippery granules of mushroom held in suspension in a ‘shroomy stock. It was not over-salted or over-seasoned but I couldn’t help wishing the mushrooms themselves had had more flavour to begin with. A dribble of greenish oil on top added further slick to the texture. “What is the oil?” we asked the smoothly efficient server. “Either basil or avocado,” she answered. (Again a small difference but a telling one, like that which separates a king and a lawyer.)
I started with chicken livers – a huge portion of whole livers, breaded and deep-fried. They sat on a mound of soft arugula above thinly sliced Granny Smith apple and slivers of crunchy raw fennel. A balsamic glaze was presumably intended to form a bridge between the rich weight of the offal and the crisp zing of the apple and fennel but the connection was tenuous.
After that, we shared a “panzanella salad with chilled mussels.” Every panzanella salad I have ever eaten involves bread, tomatoes and onion. I can completely understand why there was no tomato in this one – the early Californian tomatoes we’re getting at the moment are nothing to write home about. But why no onion? Never mind. Instead there were chunks of chewy bread, peppers, cucumber, arugula, fennel and fresh herbs – rather a successful combination, in fact, with a tangy vinaigrette sopped up by the bread. A huge number of large, warm, very tender mussels smothered the vegetables. My initial outrage at the panzanella misnomer (inspired and exacerbated by the sorrel pronunciation fiasco) began to dissipate. And it shrank a little more when the server brought our side order of grilled artichokes. I was expecting the same crispy grilled carciofi Prego used to serve at lunchtime in Michael Carlevale’s day but these were soft, briney and a little bit tart, as if they were bottled, not fresh. It was hard to tell, but grilling had given them a delicious edge, enhanced by basil oil (the waitress was sure this time) and we enjoyed them.
It was a rule in the 1980s and ’90s that main courses had to be simpler than appetizers. So it goes at Sorrel. Fish of the day was spigola (Mediterranean sea bass), offered whole or taken off the bone. We chose the latter and it was plated as two substantial fillets served with excellent rapini and a Meyer lemon-olive oil dressing that might have been present or might have been somewhere else entirely. Our other main course was duck confit, though the leg was so big I would have believed it came off a swan. It was very very good, the flesh meltingly juicy beneath a crisp, delicate skin, with enough salt to bring the taste of the duck to rampant life – a treat in a meal which had so far been rather lacklustre in the flavour stakes. The duck lay across sorrel leaves and snow pea greens, wilted by the heat, and a landslide of heavy, delicious mashed potato that proved an excellent starch for mopping up the mustard pan-sauce.
Cheese was offered – Ruth Klahsen’s fine Monforte production, nicely presented. Then we shared a dessert – a too-sweet, pudding-textured crème brûlée decorated in the old way with berries and a zig zag of crème anglais and red berry coulis. Yes – coulis! One of the forgotten words… It was as if the last 20 years of restaurants had disappeared.
Sorrel is at 84 Yorkville Avenue (at Bellair Street). 416 926 1010. www.sorrelrestaurant.ca.