Ortolan is a newly opened restaurant at Bloor West and Margueretta, in Bloordale. Tucked away in the shadow of the House of Lancaster, it takes over the spot occupied by a string of ill-fated eateries including Kathy's Kitchen and ShawarMama.
Their approach is to use locally-sourced fare to create a small but interesting menu. Though the warm, woodsy decor is inviting, the service and ambiance are disappointing.
The dining area is small, with a handful of tables and window and bar seating. Reservations are not an option at Ortolan, so I show up early to grab a spot for six people. As our table fills up, we get the impression that a group our size is not welcome.
Numerous questions about the wine list prompt our server to give an impatient gesture toward the wall behind her, where the menu is written on a blackboard. No recommendations are made - she is snappy and rushes our decision.
We sail through the menu with enthusiasm, excited about the appetizers. The sardines "two ways" ($8) are a wonderful first taste. One side of the plate offers morsels of salt-cured fish with spicy green pepper relish on a crostini, the other features sardines bathed in Riesling vinegar, served with pulpy pieces of blood orange and slivers of fresh fennel.
The house salad ($8) is less exciting. A mix of fennel, radicchio and escarole with a Cab Franc vinaigrette, it is light and refreshing but dull in both taste and presentation.
The gnocchi ($12) is overcooked, but creamy gorgonzola sauce and crunchy radicchio add tang and texture to somewhat redeem the starchy dish.
Still nibbling away as we wait for the main dishes, the server comes to clear our table. A wine glass is actually pried from the fingers of one diner, while the unfinished appetizers we are still eating are whisked away. We tell the server we are not finished and she rolls her eyes, reluctantly putting down our plate.
At this point, it's about 7 p.m. and there are still free seats in the restaurant - her apparent eagerness for us to leave is difficult to explain.
Next up are the entrées, a flatiron steak with ramps ($17) and a roasted chicken "à l'estragon" with pommery sauce ($16). Since these don't come with sides, we order them separately, going for the beet soubise ($7) and the dandelion and white bean salad ($7).
The steak is rare and juicy, accompanied by a tiny portion of locally-foraged ramps. The chicken (top photo) and its bed of braised celery get rave reviews. The skin is light and delicately crispy, the meat tender and moist.
The sides are enjoyable. The beet purée is lovely, velvety and sweet.
The dandelion greens are chewy with a bitter zest, a delicious match for the white beans' garlicky taste and creamy quality.
Sadly, our unease overshadows what could have been a great experience. Our food throughout is served with curt explanations and frosty demeanour. We start to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the treatment we are getting from our server.
A quick note on blogTO restaurant reviews - our policy is not to tell the staff we are writing about our meal and try to stay as discreet as possible. Until all dishes are served, we are merely patrons enjoying dinner. When all our food has reached the table, we only then might reveal our intentions to inquire about the restaurant and its menu.
In this case, our questions are not answered. We are asked not to write a review, as Ortolan is "simply a neighbourhood spot" and its staff do not wish to be "on the internet." Our server then loudly maligns our purpose to the tables sitting next to us, creating an unpleasant buzz in the dining room.
I admit there is a charm in remaining a hidden gem, and positive reviews can sometimes overwhelm small restaurants. Our server had honourable intentions, but these were delivered poorly. However, this is not one of those glowing accounts: the prices were high, the portions small. And although some of Ortolan's dishes were delicious, a side of attitude can give a bad aftertaste to even the best of meals.
Treating your clientele with respect is paramount - we left Ortolan feeling like we had been bullied. As a Bloordale resident, I can say this is one neighbourhood spot I will most certainly be skipping.
Daniel Boulud, in Letters to a Young Chef: "A great front of the house with so-so food is liable to be more successful than a restaurant with mind-blowing food and surly waiters and maître d's."
Ortolan is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday.