Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on La Société, Charles Khabouth’s sexy, buzzy French bistro
Four million dollars buys a lot of restaurant, even on Bloor Street, at the heart of the city’s richest retail mile. Charles Khabouth, the nightclub impresario behind La Société, the new, two-storey, 380-seat, more or less slavish recreation of a belle époque Paris bistro, brought in 29 tile workers, many of them from Montreal, to complete the spectacularly elaborate black, white and gold mosaic floors in the restaurant’s main bar and dining room. He and Alessandro Munge, of the Munge Leung design firm, commissioned a stained-glass ceiling for the bistro’s main space (which they’ve backlit, inexcusably, with sallow fluorescent lights), purchased their zinc bar top from France, outfitted the banquettes in brass and burgundy leather, and panelled the room in enough mahogany to deforest the best-endowed of banana republics. The rent, meantime, likely adds $2 million annually to Khabouth’s overhead. He’ll need to sell a lot of steak frites to cover that, but the man isn’t afraid to go big.
Khabouth made his name in nightclubs beginning in the early 1980s and has built a sprawling portfolio since. The company he runs, Ink Entertainment, operates This Is London, Dragonfly, the Dolce Social Ballroom, Guvernment, Koolhaus and Tattoo Rock Parlour. Last year, Khabouth partnered with Munge Leung and a city developer to launch Bisha (from the nickname he had growing up in Beirut), a 41-storey condominium, hotel and restaurant project that’s scheduled to open on Blue Jays Way in 2015. Even before they’d broken ground, Khabouth was calling Bisha a “global brand”; he’s hoping to export the concept to South Beach, Chicago and New York.
He’s also partnered in a string of clubby restaurants, including Spice Route, Briscola Trattoria, Ame and Ultra, the Queen West resto-lounge he opened at a cost of $3.4 million in 2004. With the exception of Ame, the pan-Asian place he co-owns with celebrity chef Guy Rubino and his brother Michael Rubino, Khabouth’s restaurants have never particularly been known for their food. His genius is in building buzzy, sexy, free-spending environments. Though it skews much older than his usual projects, La Société has got scene to burn.
The bistro’s reservations book is a tear sheet from the social pages: Ben Mulroney, Galen Weston Jr., Fashion magazine editor Bernadette Morra, Greta Constanine designers Kirk Pickersgill and Stephen Wong, and at least two thirds of the city’s Junior League ate there in its opening month. Shinan Govani, the gossip columnist, sits in a prime booth at the front of the room. One night, as I slouched with my guests in the dimly lit Siberia at the back, a procession of society wives, a few of them dressed like superannuated showgirls from La cage aux folles, led their glad-handing, silk and cashmere summer sweater–shouldering husbands on grand tours of the space. They paraded past young partner-track lawyers who punched at their BlackBerrys as their filets de saumon à la dijonnaise congealed, past impossibly handsome 20-somethings in Sperry Top-Siders and mankles, past business titans and big-ticket British tourists downing Veuve (of course) as if by the case.
If you hope to score a table on either the streetside or second-level patio, you can make a request, but not a reservation (unlike a reservation, the telephone requestervationist explained to me, a request doesn’t guarantee a seat). I’m not certain how democratically this policy is applied. The upper patio was overrun with aggressively underdressed young women one recent sultry evening, while the best the pikers (including yours truly) could do was gawk and drool from behind the glass. Dina Pugliese, the Breakfast Television host, appears to sit precisely wherever she wants.
Khabouth works the floor in dark pants, a dark shirt, a dark skinny tie and a dark schoolboy blazer, directing traffic, answering phones, shaking hands and airmailing kisses; he knows at least every third person who comes through the door. But the reason La Société succeeds as a restaurant (and it does, sort of) is Tony Longo, Ink Entertainment’s director of food and beverage and La Société’s floor boss. Longo worked his way up from busboy at the Royal York in the ’70s to manager at Centro in 1989, when Centro felt like the most important, most luxurious place a person could ever eat. He became a partner there in 1995 and then reinvented Splendido with chef David Lee in 2001. Like Khabouth, he knows everybody who matters. He knows how to run a room.
Read page 2 of Chris Nuttall-Smith’s review »
At La Société, the service is an amalgam of the pair’s experiences: for every server who’s polished and professional (Longo’s influence, I presume), there are two who are young, gorgeous and personable (in this I see Khabouth’s hand) but not entirely competent. One night, it took a full 30 minutes after being seated to get a glass of wine (10 minutes to flag down a busser who never returned, another 10 to find a waiter, five more before the waiter returned to say he’d forgotten which wine I wanted…), and longer still to place a food order. That same evening, we watched a hapless young busser circle the dining room with a pair of desserts before finally asking if they were ours (they were).
This is a shame, because some of the food, when you eventually get it, is good. Khabouth and Longo have hired James Olberg, a 20-year hotel veteran, to run their kitchen. Olberg’s job isn’t cooking so much as marshalling forces: it takes a masterful planner to provision, prepare and plate breakfast, lunch and dinner at a 380-seat restaurant seven days a week. And it takes a chef with superhuman ego control to render all those meals as faithful facsimiles of classic bistro dishes without letting his own ideas get in the way.
La Société, in spite of its moneyed crowd, high-rent real estate and glorious faux pre-war Parisian decor (if you like that sort of thing), is not overly expensive. Every day has a relatively bargain-priced plat du jour, from Tuesday’s $18 sauerkraut and boiled potatoes to the $24 seared pickerel on Fridays.
Olberg and Trevor Ritchie, his chef de cuisine, do an excellent steak frites—one of the best I’ve eaten—for a very fair $26. The hangar steak is both freakishly tender and beautifully aged. The frites are thin and crispy, double-fried, skin on, and served—if your waiter remembers to bring it—with garlic aioli. I loved the lobster and truffle risotto, which came with crisp asparagus spears and a welcome glut of butter-poached lobster. The niçoise salad is far too plain, underdressed, too dietetic-tasting to bear its name (it will become one of La Société’s most popular dishes, I bet). The pan-seared Dover sole, which at $44 is the most expensive entrée on the à la carte menu, is available amandine or meunière, but not all of the waiters know the difference. One night my amandine order arrived meunière. It was fine and fresh tasting (Khabouth’s business partner, Danny Soberano, runs All-Seas Fisheries), but overcooked. Not a disaster, but you want better for $44. Desserts, including a plate of sweet, tasty friandises, are worth ordering, though they won’t exactly change your life.
What just might do that, if only momentarily, is the restaurant’s $145 grand plateau de fruits de mer. The seafood platter brings three teetering tiers of lobster, raw oysters, grilled prawns, enormous shrimp, scallops, mussels, raw tuna and wild salmon. It turns heads, and entire bodies. Within minutes of its arrival, a procession of servers, management and curious diners started streaming past. In a room where status is nearly everything, the grand plateau bumps you up a couple of notches, which you shouldn’t care about, but of course you do. After ordering one, you know you’re going to get a patio reservation next time.
131 Bloor St. W.,