Does the newly dandified Bloor-Yorkville area need a big, brassy French bistro? Apparently. La Société has been packed since it opened in June, taking over that upstairs location that used to be Dynasty on the Colonnade. There’s a patio outside the restaurant on the terrace and another down at street level where the fountain once plashed, all generating the sort of lively, bustling vibe rarely seen on stately Bloor Street.
Charles Khabouth is the guy behind La Société and that means Munge Leung are the designers. They’ve done a fine, eye-catching job on the enormous space, borrowing all the bistro clichés from padded brown leather banquettes with brass rails and a mosaic tiled floor (of curiously reflective tesserae) to a magnificent stained glass ceiling and a long zinc bar. Lots of mirrors and framed posters hang on the nicotine yellow walls and some magnificent displays of delphiniums bring a moment of nature into the oh-so-urban setting, effortlessly stealing the show. If the final stylistic statement ends up as a hotch-potch of art nouveau and art deco, well, the same thing happens in Paris, too.
The name is appropriate, for the place has already become a favourite rendezvous for the well-healed condo-dwellers of the area, somewhere to be seen but where they can also bring children and grandchildren. Tony Longo, the man in charge of the operation, knows most of them from Centro days and makes everyone feel welcome and important. His team of uniformed servers and bussers must number in the dozens but they know their onions. When I challenge our waiter’s description of our oysters as “kumos from California,” he sticks to his guns – and he’s right. These are sweet, creamy little guys from Baja – not as good as the pure-bred kumos from Puget Sound in Washington, but perfectly acceptable when you’ve been deprived of oysters for days.
La Société’s executive chef is James Olberg, a John Higgins protégé who was most recently exec at Queen’s Landing, so he’s comfortable with big numbers. It’s a long menu with just about every bistro standard in place and a few extra dishes thrown in as plats du jour. What it lacks are two or three unique signature offerings that might set the menu apart from the card at Biff’s or La Sélect – something unpredictable or even slightly challenging that this bistro could own. But I’m cavilling because the first few things we had, in our hunger, were very good.
A duck liver terrine arrived in a glass jar, sealed beneath a meniscus of tart cherry jelly. It was sinfully heavy and rich, as silky as butter with a beguiling hint of booze beneath the swirl of ducky flavours. A little dish of caramelized cherries provided extra sweetness and acidity and there were plenty of crisp toasted baguette slices upon which to spread the gorgeous stuff.
A generous risotto studded with crisp, fresh asparagus and peas was topped with a perfectly cooked, butter-poached lobster tail and claw. The moisture level was exactly as I like it (not wet but seeping) and the broth had a pleasant lightweight summer freshness to it. The carnaroli rice was a bit too soft – cooked just a tad longer than necessary so the grains had lost that secret heart of chalky firmness – but that’s how they cook risotto on the West coast and maybe chef learned to make it out there.
Mushroom velouté was just that – a great bowl of velvety, creamy mushroom purée with just enough truffle oil drizzled onto its surface. Beside it was a long toast topped with a quenelle of truffle-flecked crème fraîche and a single, whole black morel as an irresistible treat.
By now we were getting quite full but we were having too much fun to slow down. Even on a hot summer’s evening, I felt I had to judge the kitchen’s cassoulet. The braised lingot beans had a good texture and plenty of seasoning but the breadcrumbs that would normally be sprinkled on the surface to form a crust during the cassoulet’s long, slow time in the oven were dredged around the edge of the beans, unintegrated and meaningless. A confited duck leg was 85 percent of the way to perfection, its flavour excellent but a couple of its extremities dryish. There was a fat slab of pork belly and a big, juicy, dense, fine-grained sausage called a “Niagara sausage” on the menu. I wasn’t keen on it. It was very salty and over-seasoned. A cassoulet is supposed to be heavy going, of course, but the whole point of the dish is that its components should be cooked together so that their fats and juices commingle and collaborate and enrich. This one felt as if its separate parts had been cooked separately and then assembled.
Our other main course was a Dover sole amandine – at $44 a rash extravagance – but it’s been ages since I had a real Dover sole and I miss them. It was the real thing, cooked in a pan, the two fillets served one on top of the other and dressed with melted butter, slivered almonds, parsley and lemon. With sole, it’s all about the texture (the flavour is so refined and shrimpy it’s almost bland) and this one was just right – half way between firm and delicate and so hard to describe I’m not even going to try. There was more of the almond-butter sauce served in a little jug but it wasn’t needed.
Vegetables are offered as side dishes. French beans were just right, very fresh and dressed with almonds. The frites, however, were oddly dry and dull – not the best frites in town by a long shot.
Is it enough to offer only six cheeses, charging $18 for three 25-gram tastes? I think so. Six cheeses is plenty if they’re well chosen and La Société has covered that base. We had profiteroles as our finale and found them exemplary, the pastry fresh and soft, the chocolate sauce dark and authentic and lo, yet again, almonds strewn over everything.
As for wines – it’s a good list with enough pricey treats for the condottieri, decent recognition for Niagara (nice to see Daniel Lenko’s Chardonnay) but $25 for a small flute of Champagne is a bit steep. And more choices by the glass is essential when the menu is so enormous.
La Société is not really a French bistro, of course. It’s in Toronto, owned and operated by people who aren’t French so the best it can be is a sort of superior pastiche. But it’s just what the neighbourhood wants and the patios will be packed for as long as the summer lasts.
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner (brunch on Saturdays and Sundays).
La Société is at 131 Bloor Street West, just east of Avenue Road. 416 551 9929. www.lasociete.ca.