Sunday, 24 November 2013

Case No. 5- Relish et. al. v Drake One Fifty

Drake One Fifty- 150 York Street, Financial District

There may not be a more depressing spot in the city than after dark in the Financial District. Felt-overcoated men, scurrying to catch their GO train that will haul them back to their suburban bliss. The walking juxtaposition that is a woman in a suit under an elegant Burberry trench walking briskly in her beat-up New Balance sneakers.  After 6PM, everyone is trying to escape the Downtown Core. It is the oddest feeling to walk along that stretch of King between Yonge and University late at night. You’re surrounded by well-lit towering skyscrapers of steel and glass that feel like they’re closing in on you, and yet you’ve never felt more alone. So who can blame you for wanting to get the fuck out of there?
But living patterns are changing. Where once people fled the downtown core to their homes in The Annex, Lawrence Park, the Beaches or, gasp!, suburbia, now people have begun to live there. Young people. You and I. This is a city where it feels like a condo is born every minute, and a smattering of them are plonked along the waterfront, within steps of those towers we toil in. I used to question why anyone would want to live there. Now that I leave the office in the evening hours and face another 40 minutes until I’m on the sofa in my underwear watching The Daily Show, the pleasure of a five minute commute doesn’t seem too shabby. What keeps me from committing to such a move is one simple condundrum- where do you go to eat?
Seriously? Where does one pop after work for a meal? On the weekends when you feel like walking to brunch? What are your options? Shitty. Your options are pretty shitty.

Sure, there are restaurants. But sadly, Canoe isn’t open on the weekends. And who wants to go there anyway? We’re young and hip, and the era of the white tablecloth is dying a slow death. Canoe, Bymark and the litany of other yawn-inducing so-called “fine dining” establishments that litter the downtown core are too dull and too expensive to be regular haunts. We could brave the crowds at Ki to nibble edamame while some corporate douchebag five people down yells over the noise about banging his secretary. We could shiver on the patio at Earl’s while the waitress in her tight black top bends over to distract us from how mediocre the food is. Or we could end up in a shame spiral scarfing fries and McNuggets in a dark corner on the upper level of the McDonald’s on Yonge next to the Goodlife. Seriously?
So it seemed a beacon of sunlight arrived in the dark when The Drake decided to bring its Queen West cool to the downtown area. It was no shock to me that Drake One Fifty was on everyone’s lips. People in our demographic are crying out for somewhere fun to eat, especially those who now live down there. It had been open a week when I was asked by my legal mentor where I’d like to have our mentor-mentee lunch. Drake One Fifty, I said. His assistant sent me the reservation ten minutes later. I had the pleasure of an impromptu friend dinner with the dazzlingly sexy Peaches Geldof last week, and therefore, dear reader, I can report to you with a well-studied eye.

Restaurants these days seem to tend towards the discreet. Back-alley spots, places recognizable only by the camel on the flag or the pig etched onto the window. Drake One Fifty is not located ostentatiously, but it’s hardly hiding out. Set on the ground floor of an office building at York and Adelaide, it seems as though it will be difficult to find. The noise from the place, especially at night, is the first indication that you’ve stumbled upon somewhere. You enter from the desolate, empty streets, and suddenly realize where everyone has gone. They’re here, having a Manhattan. A smiling waitress leads you to your reserved table, and you better have a reservation, or you’ll be persona non grata standing and apologizing to your friends at the round bar. You sit down and take it all in.
The discretion trend has not stopped at the front door. Restaurants now tend towards the sparse décor, the bare and minimal. For more modernist establishments, it is simple, clean lines, with fine appointments, furniture and table settings, but spare. For anything west of Spadina, it feels as though the owners feel anything remotely pleasant or comfortable in the way of décor will detract from their gourmet tacos. Wooden benches, rough hewn tables, mis-matched dishes. Drinking out of mason jars makes me feel like I want to run through the streets lashing out at anyone bearded and decked out in plaid. Drake One Fifty bucks that trend, too. The décor here is over the top. Explosive. The eye wanders over the green leather chairs, plush, as though robbed from an Edwardian billiard room, to the wallpaper, dotted in the Liechtenstein-style, to the dizzying, Escher inspired floor tiles, to the perhaps most noticeable piece, several elongated words with extra letters inserted cursively written around the top of the large, ostentatious bar. I haven’t a clue what it actually says. For all it’s over-the-top excess, nods to Canadiana (a sculpture made of reclaimed Tim Hortons cups near the front?) I absolutely adore it. It’s brash, it’s loud, it’s exciting. The artist nods are clear to the trained-eye, but subtle to others. Guy Maddin short films are playing on a loop in the bathroom. At most other places, it would be odd and surreal for me to watch black and white clips of Winnipeg winters while I whip out my dick. Here, it just feels right.

The clientele look like they were born here. They could be extras cast for a commercial about this space. Everyone here just looks so perfect. The odd person in a sweatshirt or something will crop up, and I almost feel like leering at how out of place they seem, but the rest inhabit this place like a comfortable sweater. And believe me, this is not a space that most people could blend into. The crowd are decidedly mid twenties to mid thirties. Off-duty lawyers and bankers, but the cool ones, not the ones who wear their white shirts half untucked and their suits three sizes too big. They mingle easily with arty types in dreadlocks and tats. More Sandro and Tom Ford than Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers. The green theme carries over to the aprons the denim-shirted wait staff wear. All of them are beautiful, but not in the sex-on-a-plate style of Earl’s down the street. A more hipster beautiful, which is much more my speed. I would have been happy to lick the house-made ketchup off my waiter’s (insert body part here) should he have offered that as an alternative post-dinner treat. Put that on your secret menu, and watch the money pile up.
You are presented with an extensive cocktail list, and you must have a cocktail. The names of the cocktails alone are enough to keep you entertained. Someone at the bar must be a film buff: La Dolce Vita, The Departed and Deliverance all make appearances in cocktail form. And each are apropos. Could you name a drink Deliverance and not have it be bourbon-based? I opt for the No Country For Old Men, if for no other reason than I’m a Coen Brothers fan. I’m not disappointed. A vermouth base, with lemon juice for acidity, and a hearty dose of herb flavour from the Pernod and fernet branca. It tastes something like spruce, evocative of the Rocky Mountains. The alcohol is barely detected, but the bitterness is enough to keep this a sipping cocktail. It’s garnished with rosemary, and served in an old fashioned champagne coupe, like you’re Gatsby himself. Peaches, being the saucy gal she is, opts for The Safe Word, a Mezcal-based sour cocktail that is good, but not quite boozy enough for me to imagine myself bound and gagged in a Berlin dungeon ready to cry “uncle!”

The lunch and dinner menus are somewhat varied, but include many of the same staples. It’s a mixture of salads, heavier dishes, pizzas and sandwiches. At lunch, we begin with the Drake and Bake, a selection of breads and dips. The house made bread is good, and there’s plenty of it to go with the fresh hummus and olive oil. I find sometimes the balance just isn’t there on such a dish at other places, and the server rolls their eyes when you ask for more bread to finish off the tapenade. A dose of rustic salt is provided for that extra flavour. But the winning appetizer is the roasted cauliflower, coming as it does with black truffle, garlic, grapes and a champagne foam. It sounds and looks exceedingly decadent, but isn’t heavy as you might imagine. It does appear a bit out of place on such a menu, as if the chef read Ferran Adria’s cookbook and wanted to experiment in between wood-firing pizzas and grilling burgers. Nevertheless, the dish is a good one, and does blow the bread and dip out of the water.
For main, I opt for the One Fifty Burger, a twist on The Drake’s classic burger. I’m a sucker for a great burger, and despite other, more intriguing options on the menu, I’m happy to go with this classic. The medium-well cooked aged shortrib is from Cumbrae’s, giving it a local flavour. Locally sourced bacon, cheddar, red onion, lettuce, all slathered in Russian dressing means it’s heavy and rich, and delicious. I can’t say it’s a burger to write home about, but definitely better than most. The hand cut fries are also delicious, small and salty as they are, but don’t come with enough of that house-made ketchup. My colleague chooses the rotisserie chicken dip, breathing some new life into an old diner staple. With its caramelized onions and pickled peppers, it reminds one a bit of a cheese steak without the cheese. He is entirely satisfied.

Dinner, however, was disappointing. This time around, I choose the rabbit confit torchetti, a dish I noticed on the lunch menu previously, but thought might be too extravagant for a lunch. The menu at dinner is somewhat sparse. I feel like something with meat, something substantial, but I’m not quite feeling baller enough to order the $36 steak frites. My other options are lamb, liver or that burger again. Your other meat options are large, sharing platters, and Peaches wants to try the burger, so in the face of choices I’m just not that interested in, I opt for the rabbit. The torchetti is delicious, tasting house-made. They are the high point of the dish. The rabbit tasted boiled, ripped into careless hunks, as though after Glenn Close decided to boil the pet bunny in Fatal Attraction, she decided to tear it up and serve it for dinner. The pairing with olives is careless, and terribly unappetizing. I begrudgingly eat the rabbit, but savour the few bites which include only the chanterelles or spinach with the pasta. I am entirely underwhelmed. Peaches is satisfied with her burger, and though the small portion of it she’s left is crying out to me, I content myself to finish of her fries, the more polite option. Another friend who happened to dine there the same evening was similarly unimpressed with her rabbit dish, but I’m told the pizzas her dining companions ordered were even worse…
Not being fulfilled completely by boiled rabbit, I crave something sweet and rich to take the taste of Thumper out of my mouth. We opt to share the pot de crème with some fresh cocktails, two amaretto sours. The drink is perfection, exactly what I needed at the end of the meal. The dessert was good, and inventive, with rich dark chocolate cream paired with grape jelly and crunchy hazelnut brittle. It’s hard to thrill with a chocolate dessert, but this one is very good, and certainly satisfied my needs.

(Sidenote- I take comfort in the fact that, despite my photography skills not being Ansel Adams-level, I can take a damn better shot than Martha Stewart: http://www.torontolife.com/daily-dish/random-stuff-dish/2013/11/21/martha-stewart-food-photography/)

The service here is good. Extremely attentive, very friendly, did I mention how hot the waiters are? I think I did… the week after opening, the service wasn’t perfect, which it usually isn’t so early on. Mains came about fifteen minutes after appetizers were served. We’d barely tucked into our cauliflower when the burger was plonked in front of me on the tiny table. Kindly, the waitress apologized at the end of the meal, enough to rescue her tip, but did nothing in the way of offer to cover drinks or something of the like. This annoyed my companion, who had his Diet Coke refilled to see that he was charged for two Diet Cokes when the bill came. Service was better at dinner, and the pace was good considering we wished to linger over our cocktails and talk cock at length.  Both times, however, the service was very friendly. I emphasize this because this is definitely a hip and buzzy place, but there’s no snobbery, no “you’re not on the list” attitude. It could easily happen, and perhaps it remains to be seen, but for now, the service remains friendly, attentive, and they’re all so cute, did I mention that?
Good service and wacky décor does come at a price. Lunch was $80 for two, dinner $110 for two. My mentor got the cheque at lunch, and Peaches covered this one for dinner, so I haven’t actually paid to eat there yet, but that is decidedly pricey. I suppose if you didn’t have dessert or an appetizer, cut down on the cocktails and ordered something more economical like a salad or pizza, it might not be too bad. It’s still too pricey to become a regular haunt, but it’s way too much, too buzzy, too loud and dizzying to become a good local spot anyway. It’s a little bit like doing bottle service. Once in a while is fun. Once a week is indulgent and douchey. I might be back to Drake One Fifty, but probably not for a while.

So, what’s the verdict?
Drake One Fifty is found GUILTY of letting its food suffer while other aspects soar. They should extend the menu, offer more options and please, don’t boil my rabbit.

They are also GUILTY of mixing a mighty fine cocktail, having an adventurous drink list, and having a cute blue-eyed boy serve them up.

Drake One Fifty is NOT GUILTY of lacking taste. The bold choices in décor may seem dizzying at first, but embrace the wild. This is what our homes will look like in a few years. At least mine will.

We also find Drake One Fifty NOT GUILTY of being economical. We realize you have an expense account clientele, but lower your prices, let those fuckers go to Bymark to have a $35 veal sandwich, and bring on the cool kids.

All considered, I declare this meal a 6.8/10.

Drake One Fifty is located at 150 York Street in the Financial District. Dinner is served from Monday to Saturday, lunch from Monday to Friday. Closed on Sunday. So sorry if you’re downtown on a Sunday photocopying documents and you’re looking for somewhere to eat- that guy on the corner of King and Bay might be out there selling mystery Caribbean food if you’re hungry? Reservations are a must.   

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