Introducing: Ici Bistro, Harbord Street’s little restaurant that could

Introducing: Ici Bistro, Harbord Street’s little restaurant that could

Jennifer Decorte and J.P. Challet at Ici Bistro (Image: Davida Aronovitch)

Ici Bistro is open for business. No, really.

Two years after they signed the lease on 538 Manning Avenue, J.P. Challet and Jennifer Decorte’s modern French bistro is finally serving dinner. The official grand opening isn’t until mid-November, but the place has its liquor licence and has been packed for the past week. All of its 24 seats are reserved for the next 14 days, too, thanks to the restaurant’s very long and public fight for survival. Guests have graffitied a wall with well wishes, and neighbours have even brought gifts. One local couple has booked three times in Ici’s first week of operation. “It’s the only restaurant we’ve ever worked at where everybody hugs each other,” says Decorte. “It’s like a family.”

Since renting the space in November 2008, the Ici team has faced an Eeyore-worthy series of setbacks that have kept its doors shut. The trouble started last fall when the restaurant’s liquor licence was famously contested by city councillor Joe Pantalone. Following a legal battle, Ici won its alcohol permit, pending city inspection. “We thought, That’s it, we’re open. But no,” says Decorte. “It was the beginning of another battle.”

Next came a botched construction job that had to be redone to meet city standards. By the time Ici was up to code, the building permit had lapsed. “Every day I phoned somebody; every day I sat in somebody’s office,” says Decorte. Then the bistro lost its third partner, Peter Tsang. “I was close to giving up,” says Challet. He had given the venture just two more weeks when they got the call: Ici’s long-awaited liquor licence was complete. “When J.P. walked in the door, I said, ‘You forgot something—the champagne,’” says Decorte.

The menu offers modern takes on French classics and a selection of Ontario wines. So far, the most popular items are the lobster bisque, chocolate trio and signature croissant.

Ici’s packed reservation book, swift catering business and plans for a takeout window to help keep up with demand inspired us to ask: Could this near-comic series of setbacks have been a blessing in disguise? The answer is a resounding “Non!” Though he is loath to consider it, Challet estimates Ici’s losses at 50 diners daily for some 52 weeks.

Before the opening, says Decorte, “Ici was full of well wishes, catering, papers, strategy. Now it’s a restaurant. It’s cutting into my paperwork.”

Ici Bistro, 538 Manning Ave., 416-536-0079,

Our Introducing series explores newly opened restaurants, bars and shops throughout the GTA. This is not a review.