The Critic: Bay Street ends the year on a high note thanks to new power restaurant The Chase
If you need more evidence that Bay Street’s bonuses are back, inspect the valet row in front of The Chase, the new seafood restaurant at Yonge and Temperance. The last time I passed by, it looked like an exotic car convention. As I stood there gawking at a $350,000 McLaren convertible, a smouldering, Batmobile-esque Benz roadster pulled up to the curb, ejecting its disappointingly prosaic passengers through gull-wing doors.
The Chase’s popularity with the city’s big spenders was preordained. It’s run by Steven Salm, a New Yorker who moved to Toronto in 2010 to help open and manage E11even, the goofily named steak house next to the ACC where money managers liquor up clients before the game. Salm left that job last year to launch his own restaurant company. He hired Michael Steh, a chef who cooked under David Lee at Splendido before running Reds, the financial district wine bar where he was an early advocate of farm-to-table cooking. Together, they latched on to the idea of an upmarket seafood spot. Salm knows how to build hype: last summer, he handed out teaser samples of chowder from a Chase-branded food truck beside the bank towers, then opened just in time for the party deluge of TIFF. It was an instant A-list hangout. Jake Gyllenhaal showed up. So did Isabella Rossellini, Jessica Chastain and the Montreal celeb chef Chuck Hughes, who looked stunned by the gabbing crush.
The beautiful people never used to come this far south—they had Yorkville. The money guys had their sombre restaurants with ponderously formal servers like Canoe and Ruth’s Chris, or loud places for after-work drinks like Ki and Bymark. By 9 p.m., everyone would call it a night. But the core has been rebranded. Now it’s cool, largely because of the influx of condo-dwellers and luxury hotels. That’s why the Momofuku complex set up on University, and why Jeff Stober picked an old bank at Adelaide and York for a new Drake restaurant.
The Chase occupies a handsomely refurbished 19th-century office building called the Dineen, after its builder and first tenant, a hat maker and furrier. It’s in fact two restaurants, The Chase proper on the fifth floor and The Chase Fish and Oyster on street level. Both are open for lunch and dinner, and they have similar menus. The former Niagara Street Café owner and sommelier Anton Potvin assembled the cellar and two status-conscious wine lists, studded with bottles like a $1,950 Bordeaux-style red from Colgin, a tiny Napa winery with a cult following.
Fish and Oyster is decorated like a preppy beach club, with striped spinnakers hanging from the ceiling, brass and mahogany fans churning the air, and the raw bar menu listed on a chalkboard. I can’t think of a better new place to book a celebratory end-of-year lunch with a group of workmates—provided the office is paying. During one recent mid-week visit, my date and I were surrounded by back-slapping guys in pinstriped suits. There appeared to be an unspoken competition between tables to order the biggest platters from the raw bar. The two sizes are named Yonge and Bay—the latter naturally being the more ostentatious, piled with king crab legs, Digby scallops, a full lobster and other crustaceans, for $110. For $185, you can order a platter of smoked sturgeon, including a 30-gram mound of Acadian caviar with toasts. No one appeared in a rush to get back to the office—they were having too much fun.
We settled for a relatively modest spread of petite, deliciously minerally B.C. kusshi oysters, served with a dropper bottle of house sauce (advertised as hot, but more accurately described as mildly peppery—you must douse the stuff to build heat). Our server could have been a part-time marine biologist, judging by the detailed lecture he delivered on the peak season for each of the available molluscs. The seafood was impeccably fresh and high quality, but the execution was spotty. I had a pretty salad of delicately sweet humpback shrimp and the last of the season’s Niagara peaches—poached with a few too many cloying drops of vanilla. A plate of octopus was charred until tough. Lobster rolls have become as common as poutine on downtown menus, a result of the East Coast’s bumper crop. Steh’s version—overflowing with succulent lobster meat, prepared Waldorf-style with chunks of apple and candied walnuts, and barely contained by a butter-slathered milk bun—was the highlight of my lunch. It came with still-warm, sea-salted kettle chips flecked with dill pollen.
Five storeys up, on the Dineen’s top floor, is the formal dining room and bar, plus a 75-seat outdoor terrace. Here, Salm and Steh have revived that old power broker standard, the surf and turf restaurant, but updated it with heirloom tomatoes and sustainably harvested sea creatures. They’ve also made it more glam. An elevator let us out at a mirrored reception area where I watched a pair of hostesses serenely turn away an irate don’t-you-know-who-I-am type. The mirrors magnified the drama. We were ushered into the dining room, which is reached down a long hallway that passes an open kitchen and Potvin’s glassed-in wine cellar. The walk builds anticipation (you hear the hubbub well before you arrive). The room itself is plush, with tufted seats, crystal chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows. First-time visitors stop short, stunned by the panorama. People usually go to Canoe, on the 54th floor of the TD Tower, for the view, but it’s never wowed me: from that height all you really see is the deep void of Lake Ontario. At The Chase, the view is of the dense geometries of downtown: the V-shaped slash at the top of Scotia Plaza; the icy slab that is the Bay-Adelaide Centre; the Trump hotel with its frivolous pope’s hat peak. Come dusk, an office building across Yonge lights up in vertical strips of LEDs programmed to dance with alternating colours, creating a nightclubby backdrop.
Like just about every new restaurant this year, The Chase has a menu designed for sharing. They will roast you a whole halibut or a he-man côte de boeuf or a chicken stuffed with foie gras and brioche. The servers haul the cooked beast to your table on a silver platter for a ceremonial inspection, then return to the kitchen to carve it up. In general, the portions at The Chase are on a scale I associate with American restaurants. Even dishes that aren’t designated for sharing are oversized, like my handmade fazzoletti with poached lobster. It was a simple, perfect pasta with dollops of fresh mozzarella curd. But there was way too much of it—I felt myself slipping into a carb coma halfway through. Steh could have a second career as an Italian grandmother: he prepares lovely semolina gnocchi, as soft and giving as marshmallows, blanketed in poached leeks and snowy crabmeat.
Desserts are an afterthought—my simple strawberry cheesecake, served in a sundae cup with a shard of meringue stuck in a cloud of chantilly cream, was nice enough. But I gave up after three spoonfuls. Few customers seem to have the stomach space anyway, instead gravitating to the standing room only party on the patio. At 11, The Chase really starts to buzz. On one side of us, a table of five model-thin women pulled their cells from their Gucci bags to summon more friends to join them. On the other side, a pair of bankers were out for dinner with their wives. One took a sip of his manhattan and leaned over to ask how we liked our pasta, then confided that this was his third visit in a week. He leered at the giddy table of women. The Chase, he said meaningfully, is his new favourite place.