New French diner Le Swan takes flight

Jen Agg’s Queen St. restau­rant serves com­fort­ing tra­di­tional favourites

Midtown Post - - Food -

Oh Jen Agg, dar­ling of the news me­dia, Pied Piper of Toronto food­ies, the woman who loves to shock and re­vile us when we trans­gress against her. The diva of the Toronto din­ing scene is im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore be­cause what she does is al­ways in­ter­est­ing.

Her lat­est is Le Swan, a re­make of the old Swan Diner on Queen Street, trans­lated into a French diner. It is quite pos­si­ble that you will love Le Swan. My own par­tic­u­lar his­tory per­haps ill suits me to fall for it. I learned to cook at the Cor­don Bleu cook­ing school in Paris and was a pas­sion­ate Fran­cophile un­til about 15 years ago. That meant many vis­its to France and too many din­ners in in­ex­pen­sive restau­rants there — yes, the fa­bled French diner. Where beef bour­guignon, greasy pâté and French onion soup are menu sta­ples, the nap­kins are pa­per and the wel­come scant.

Cer­tain as­pects of Le Swan are as in the mother coun­try. There is beef bour­guignon. And French onion soup. And pa­per nap­kins. But whereas the ca­sual French diner is mostly a walk-in af­fair, Le Swan, be­ing a Jen Agg opus, is al­ready su­per-pop­u­lar, hence one is well ad­vised to make a reser­va­tion — if you can get one. The other dif­fer­ence is that the staff here are young, good- look­ing and su­per-smooth. Af­fa­ble is their mid­dle name.

The food, how­ever, bears sim­i­lar­i­ties to its in­spi­ra­tion. Heavy on the meat ’n’ pota­toes.… Heavy in gen­eral. And great at stock mak­ing and us­ing, beef stock in par­tic­u­lar. So there is rich deep-flavoured French onion soup topped with Black­bird toasts clad in melted cheese. Beef cheek bour­guignon cap­i­tal­izes on the ex­tra-gelati­nous qual­ity of cheek meat to en­rich the dish, whose dark strong sauce is stud­ded with mush­rooms. The oc­ca­sional car­rot on top and a smear of silky mashed pota­toes un­der­neath gild the bovine lily. As for go­ing over the top, I find frites im­pos­si­ble to re­sist. I usu­ally pre­fer them skinny, but Le Swan’s not-so-skinny frites are su­perbly crisp and their ac­com­pa­ny­ing mayo is im­pec­ca­ble.

The meat­loaf & mash is sim­i­lar to the bour­guignon: Nicely wrought meat loaf, with a hint of sweet and sour, but­tery green beans and more of those su­per-smooth mashed pota­toes. I pre­fer lumpy, but ma­chines make ’em smooth.

Desserts are a short list — ba­nanas foster, cho­co­late mousse and clafoutis, the lat­ter be­ing a cross be­tween cake and cus­tard — and a French clas­sic. This ren­di­tion sits on a puck­ery pool of crabap­ple sauce and its tex­ture is sub­lime.

But I do not find Le Swan en­tirely sub­lime. The room it­self is su­per­cool. Ms. Agg left the dark wood ve­neer pan­elling, the booths, and the bar with its twirly stools. She spruced up de­tails, adding vin­tage light­ing and bright­en­ing the for­merly dingy bath­rooms. Hav­ing closed The Black Hoof in the sum­mer, the brought most of its staff to the diner, which ex­plains its silken ser­vice.

Le Swan, as in­tended, has the heart of a diner: Friendly, warm, ca­sual. It achieves its rel­a­tively un­am­bi­tious mis­sion well. Would I cross town to eat there? Or bother with a reser­va­tion? No. Un­like Ms. Agg’s pre­vi­ous restau­rants, this one is less than ex­tra­or­di­nary. Diner food, even the best of the genre, is heavy. And that’s why I don’t dine at din­ers.

Clock­wise from left: The diner’s up­dated in­te­rior, hot chicken sand­wich, ro­tis­serie chicken

JOANNE KATES Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cor­don Bleu de Cui­sine in Paris. She has writ­ten for nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chate­laine.

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