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Hey! serves up cold comfort (food) in Roncesvalles

The ambience at Hey! is casual and genuinely welcoming – but then the food arrives.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

0 out of 4 stars

91 Roncesvalles Avenue, Toronto
bistro, Italian
Four wines, all $33, good beers for $7, great fresh juices, juicer-focused cocktails.
A friendly, homey neighbourhood restaurant, with frequently bumbling service and lots of noisy kids at peak hours.
Additional Info
Best Bets: Waffles and granola at brunch, pasta, calzones for dinner; NB: No reservations

On a busy weeknight late last month, about 15 minutes before his new and purportedly family-friendly restaurant on Roncesvalles Avenue filled with black, throat-constricting smoke and the unmistakable pong of incinerating food, the chef Rodney Bowers strolled in the front door, smiling, with a bundle of kale in his beefy arms.

This wasn't shaping into what even the most generous observer could call a good night at Hey!, as Mr. Bowers' comfort-food restaurant is named. Aside from the smoke (Hey! What are you burning for dinner?), waits on orders for watery cocktails stretched to 20 minutes, hot dishes came out cold, the soup tasted like salt-lick, the pasta were crunchy from undercooking, and would-be patrons shook their heads – in embarrassed wonderment, I'm presuming – all around the room. At my table, three progressively hungry young children ordered a pepperoni and cheese pizza just after 6 p.m., and our waiter promised to bring it out with the appetizers. The appetizers arrived. The pizza didn't. Was that the smell of the kids' dinner burning? Nobody told us. The waiter kept promising it would arrive, Godot-like, at any moment. It didn't turn up until after 7 p.m.

But you'd have to be present to notice these problems. From what I saw, Mr. Bowers spent all of ten minutes in his restaurant during that visit. Over four meals at Hey! – three at dinner, one at brunch, all but one of them distinctly underwhelming – I counted him present for a grand total of 25 minutes. Which is about double the time, as it happens, that it should take to prepare and bake a children's pizza, particularly in a kitchen where so little of the cooking even presumes to taste like real food.

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Mr. Bowers trained in fine dining before setting out on his own in 2005 as the chef and partner at The Rosebud, on Queen Street West. The Rosebud was well-reviewed and reasonably successful. He opened The Citizen, in Leslieville, in 2007.

But by the end of 2010, he had sold them both "to go back to his roots – learning, inspiring and creating," as an online biography says. Which is to say that he starred in a short-lived Food Network series that was named, with no small amount of prescience, The Delinquent Gourmet. Mr. Bowers also opened Hey Meatball!, on College Street. If Mr. Bowers learned anything during his televised roots quest, it wasn't how to make a better-than-mediocre meatball.

Hey! is Hey Meatball!'s sister restaurant. The room, set into a prime space at the heart of one of the city's most family-dense (and until recently, restaurant-starved) neighbourhoods, is lovely. There's a busy juice bar right inside to the left of the doorway, where they whizz apples, beets, ginger and kale into surprisingly drinkable concoctions. (They also make a pretty good Caesar with kale juice in place of Clamato.) At the back is the open kitchen. The main dining space, up a half-flight of stairs, is tossed with homey pillows and comfortable seating. The feel of the place is casual and genuinely welcoming.

But so much else about the restaurant, like the conveniently un-Googleable name, the no-reservations policy, the four-bottle, Wine for Dummies wine list, and especially the so-called comfort food, has by all appearances been formulated with Mr. Bowers's comfort at top of mind. Though the menu changes often and revolves around seasonal produce, most of what's on offer is dead simple, without any of the skill or behind-the-scenes sophistication that good simple food requires.

There was one night's panzanella salad – Mr. Bowers' take on the juicy, lusty Tuscan bread and tomato dish, one presumes – made with under-seasoned beets, hard tomatoes and just three pale croutons. Or the "chickpea puree" dish that was a lot like a puree one might make out of chickpeas, but without seasoning or acidity to make it pleasant to eat. The mac and cheese was as good as you might cook at home, from scratch, if you had 15 minutes to spare and a copy of Rachel Ray: 365 on the counter. One night, I ordered the broccoli soup, which was thick, gummy and preposterously oversalted, followed by the squash ravioli, which were still hard around their edges, like when you're so starving that you intentionally undercook the freezer-aisle ones to hurry them along.

My wife fared worse. She ordered the "raw vegan mushroom nut patty," with cashew butter. It came as cold as a bus stop bench in early February. It was the colour of pallor mortis and tasted like Kraft Stove Top stuffing. It was the sort of dish you want to chase with tears and a litre of Stolichnaya.

Temperature was consistently a disaster here. In addition to that patty, which might have been slightly less manky at room temperature, I was served six dishes that should have been hot but were cold or tepid instead.

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In fairness, there were bright spots: an excellent spiced carrot soup, a well-made bowl of pasta e fagioli. One night, the kitchen even seemed to be on a roll. The squash and five-spice soup was hot and nicely balanced, with toasty slivered almonds and dried cranberries on top. I loved it. The pork rilletes were light, and perfectly seasoned, plated with a superb hunk of pistachio and apricot-studded country terrine. Even the calzone – I'd been expecting little better than a Pizza Pop – was good, stuffed with dark-seared mushrooms and Gruyère cheese.

The unifying theme of the best courses was that they were make-ahead dishes; all Mr. Bowers required from his kitchen crew was that they plate them and get the temperature right. That night, they succeeded, right up until the bread pudding that tasted like corduroy and came out ice-box cold.

Last weekend, we went for the Sunday roast. For $22, you get beef or chicken, plus a glass of beer or wine. Good deal, right?

The beef and the chicken were not crispy, or roasty, or meaty, or even in the neighbourhood of hot enough. They were tepid and tough, the beef packaged-tasting, the chicken fatty. It was institutional food, the sort of cooking you'd note with no small amount of grief and alarm and guilty resignation at the retirement residence where you'd just moved your kindly but aging parents.

We didn't have dessert.

No stars: Not recommended.

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One star: Good , but won't blow a lot of minds.

Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.

Three stars: Excellent , well above average with few caveats, if any.

Four stars: Extraordinary , memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.

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Chris More


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