RW: Upstairs on the Square
I had decided to avoid Boston Restaurant Week based on local reports — and on the sheer terrible-ness of Toronto’s RW equivalent, Summerlicious (which is also hobbled by its stupid name). But I accidentally found myself at Upstairs on the Square last night, and had a lovely time.
I had never been to “Upstairs” (I’m a Torontonian spending much of the summer in New England), and I’d been looking forward to visiting based on foodie recs. I was concerned that RW was going to make my visit a disappoint.
The room itself is a confection. Based on Internet pictures, I was expecting Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” but it’s a little more eclectic and shabby chic. Either way, the Monday Club is a pretty room (the upstairs dining room is closed on Monday). We arrived about 9:00 and were seated immediately at the bar (our preference). We ordered a bottle of Lucien Albrecht cremant rose from their RW wine selection, and picked at some bread and EVOO before our apps arrived.
We started with a watercress salad and a chilled zucchini soup. Zucchini is kind of a bland veg, but the soup had a nice summer-y taste, bright and refreshing. The mozzarella beignet didn’t add much, but it was a pretty garnish. The watercress salad was basic, but it had a very nice pancetta balsamic dressing and was doctored up with a few tomatoes and onions. For mains, we split the swordfish and the skirt steak. Two pieces of fish had a nice balsamic-y taste, plated with a white bean and tomato side, and finished with an olive tapenade. Everything was tasty and worked well together. The skirt steak came with 4-5 slices of meat (cooked medium rare, as ordered) on top of a warm and hearty bacon, corn and potato salad. Mr. Rabbit started with the steak and didn’t want to trade half-way (as was our deal), but once persuaded, he was equally pleased with the swordfish.
Desserts were also very good. A lemon pound cake came with strawberries and crème fraiche “ice cream” — it looked light, but it was actually quite sating. The chocolate panna cotta was pudding-y and rich, plated with a chocolate sauce and a chocolate cookie tuille. The chocolate overload might have been too much or too un-subtle for some, but I quite liked it.
Service was consistently relaxed, friendly and accommodating. On a Monday, the room had a nice buzz (what I would expect on a Wed/Thurs, but not jammed — a few empty tables did remain). We lingered over coffee (which I understand is ostensibly not on offer at some RW spots where they just want you to clear out ASAP). Our meal (2 RW specials at $33, wine at $36/bottle and a coffee) came to $109.
RW portions are smaller than I would expect on a regular night, but I was impressed that Upstairs was trying to execute a well planned and interesting menu — nicely varied options, innovative and well-considered sides, seasonal ingredients. They also had some fun and reasonable special liquor and wine options (their signature champagne cocktail is reduced and they are offering a "special" red, white and sparkling by the glass or bottle). I was impressed. I imagine that at RW you see about 2/3 of what a kitchen can really do (I mean, they are definitely limited by budgetary and temporal/service constraints). Mains here are regularly $15-30 (and we did consider ordering of the regular menu, but found that there were no more enticing options than the RW choices). I would definitely come back here, and I would recommend for a RW visit (although I think anyone should pare down expectations slightly for this event).
I went with a group to do the RW $20 lunch. I felt mixed about the whole experience. The service was good, no crowd, interesting funky decor, etc. The zucchini soup and watercress salad were both inedible to me. Please note I am not a gourmand. The cold pale green soup really killed my appetite, and the bitter watercress made me wonder whether this vegetation wasn't intended by God as a garnish only. The skirt steak entree was extremely tasty and I could only wish I had three times as large a portion. The strawberry shortcake dessert was good and homey, and the chocolate panna cotta was excellent. So, in summary, great desserts, great tasting entree half as large as I would wish, and appetizers targeting a niche way above my palate. So, give it a try, and ask for several refills of the bread to fill the vacuum from the entree.