Shhhh! - I know of a place downtown where valet parking is actually cheaper than street parking! That shocking fact alone is reason enough for me to go back to Michael's on Simcoe. But then, Michael's is all about trying to make a good first impression, aiming to provide its patrons with an elegance and refinement you just don't find in even some of the toniest establishments in this town.
Yet as posh and cushy as its tufted velvet banquettes may be, it won't win any James Beard Award for interiors, like the Yabu Pushelberg-designed Monsoon did in the same space more than a decade earlier. Its meat storage unit, a focal point, is just an eyesore, looking more like your grocer's freezer where you'd pick up a frozen pizza than a place to age your own fine cuts of beef. And unappealing recessed blue flood lights give Michael's more of a tropical aquarium vibe at PJ's than a place for power lunches.
And while we're at it, there's another piddly little problem: the service, but it's not what you might expect. Extremely affable and knowledgeable waiters may be at your beck and call, but they sure do step over themselves to satisfy. No one wants to decide on sparkling or flat, or a bottle of wine, whilst taking your first sips of a $22.95 cocktail (not including tax and tip). Please, take a step back, maybe even a few, and polish up on your timing. While one server begins to recite specials, another interrupts to introduce four different delicious types of house-baked bread. And it happens over and over again over the course of our meal.
But these are easily correctable service snafus, a little harsh scolding and public shaming from the GM could fix up pronto. And all is forgiven when the food arrives. And, oh what food! Cod fritters ($16) with a lovely, if a bit timid, lemon aioli may be a stellar opener, but it's also a breathtaking piece of sculpture that commands respect. What at first appears to be a plate of charcoal briquettes from the Weber are magnificent morsels of beer-battered black cod blackened with squid ink. Sold! And though crispy chicken ($14) reads like it's from the menu of the mundane there is nothing ordinary about this batch accented with maple syrup and a rustic slaw. Thigh meat this soft and tender swathed in a perfectly crisp coating elevates what seems a simple, straightforward dish to that of a rare, unearthly delicacy. After our awe at something so exquisite, shock is the only word to describe our reaction to the potato skin poutine ($14), the only blunder to come out of this kitchen. More perplexing is why it didn't work: scooped out fingerlings filled with an oxtail ragu, scamorza and chocolate. With such perfect food stuffs, how this dish could be so bereft of any savouriness is a real puzzler.
We're just going to pretend that fiasco never happened because any kitchen that can turn out a lobster ravioli ($29) like this deserves a full pardon in short order. Mixed in a buttery velvet saffron sauce are textbook perfect, al dente handmade pasta pockets stuffed with so much lobster it defies reason and profit margins, as is the need to top it all off with chunks of poached lobster tail. A house made fettuccine ($18) in a red wine three meat sauce fares equally well. Also admirable is a kitchen that's capable of executing such high-end fussy food feels equally comfortable turning out a classic peasant dish like this. And don't be shy about asking for half portions; they encourage you to try different things, which makes Michael's one of the most accommodating kitchens in town.
The near perfect meal proceeds with a haystack of crispy leeks gently perched over fork-tender veal cheeks and brilliantly pan-fried sweetbreads ($26) that sit triumphantly atop a corn cake in a veal jus that you'd drink from a jug. Steaks are a specialty, all hand selected and aged in house. And if the 8 oz tenderloin ($34) is any indication, you won't be disappointed. Its wagyu-like richness doesn't overpower the meats natural grassy and mineral qualities. This is one slab of beef that merits being served solo, sans sides. And since they sound pretty run of the mill, (double baked potato, swiss chard and garlic sauce, baked lima beans), the kitchen again comes to the rescue and offers sides that only come with other dishes, like pan-fried spaetzle ($6) that look like broken walnut pieces, tossed with just a hint of sour cream, and the best horseradish mashed potatoes ($6) ever.
Desserts are good but don't quite live up to the same standard as the rest of the meal. An apple bundle ($12) in a phyllo pastry has way too many walnuts to be called an apple anything, but its accompanying pear sorbet is indeed divine. Clearly head chef Boris Babic knows what he is doing and does so with apparent skill. But then again the owner, Michael Dabic, happens to be the former GM of Harbour Sixty Steakhouse. 'Nuff said.