New French diner Le Swan takes flight
Jen Agg’s Queen St. restaurant serves comforting traditional favourites
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.