In another time and place, Taste Food & Wine would be hailed as a welcome addition to any street, let alone Lee Road, where upscale joints are outnumbered by pubs four to one. The restaurant possesses considerable talent in the kitchen, service is at a level commensurate with a more seasoned establishment, and the space is sharper than half the bistros in town.
But what diners seem to crave most right now has less to do with skill, sadly, and more to do with perceived value. While far from extravagant, entrées here hover in the $20 range, and those prices accompany portions that likely will leave some diners pining for seconds. Even steeper proportionally are the starters, which barely squeak in under the $10 mark. Personally, I feel the entrées are worth every penny. In the appetizer department, however, the quid pro quo might be slanted in favor of the house.
Taste lives in the renovated home of the Wine Room, a lovely place that limped along for what seemed like forever. An expanded footprint (Taste absorbed the slim spot next door) affords room for a bar and lounge area plus a separate dining room. At the rear of that dining room is an open kitchen with adjoining chef's table - a nice feature. Whereas the Wine Room was all dark wood and flickering candlelight, Taste is glinting granite and pale butcher block. The space is clean, fresh and contemporary. In fact, it could use some warming up.
What could really use some warming up are the appetizers; every starter save for the soup is a cold presentation. Chef Anthony Vicente, a recent export from France, is a shrewd practitioner. He understands that cool foods often possess cleaner, more intense flavors than piping-hot ones. And judging by the taste, execution and presentation of the ones I tried, he is more than capable of pulling it off, even in the dead of winter. It just isn't prudent to do so.
Taste's Mediterranean-themed menu is admirably concise, a sign that the chef intends to revise it regularly. In addition to six starters, including one soup, there are six entrées. But unlike menus twice this big, there is no shortage of tempting options. In the salmon rillette appetizer ($10), the chef whips up an airy, creamy and seductive fish mousse that is spooned onto crisp toasts. I'd kill for it on a toasted bialy. For the glazed-chicken spring rolls ($9), coriander-scented crepes are wrapped around moist ground chicken, approximating blintzes. Bearing flavors and textures too seldom experienced, they are delightful to eat. These dishes include dressed salads of frisee and dandelion, respectively.
Even dishes that don't sound particularly appealing, given their temperatures, prove winners. In the chef's hands, sautéed squid ($10) tastes remarkably light, tender and delicate. The diminutive rings and tentacles are served cool on a bed of citrus-perfumed Israeli couscous. If only there were more than a few precious bites.
Entrées are at once familiar and original. The chef relies more on technique, ingredients and presentation to wow diners than on unusual compositions. That said, he does usually toss in an unexpected element to keep things interesting. By slicing fat scallops ($18) in half before searing, the chef doubles the amount of the best part: the caramelized bits. Countering the candy-sweet seafood is a bed of creamy leeks that retains just a hit of crispness and tartness. A drizzle of mango puree adds a tropical touch.
In the case of the grilled rack of lamb ($22), the subtle but utterly welcome twist is the accompanying side of cumin mashed carrots. After tasting these, I could easily pass on spuds the rest of my days. Although it took a second try to get the temperature right (and too much time to get there), the lamb was absolutely delicious.
Complicating the whole value thing is the fact that entrées sidestep the traditional veg-and-starch convention for a single "varch," like those buttery leeks or carrot mashers. Diners can tack on a side of potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes or sautéed beets for $4. And (hate to be the bearer of bad news) if you want a bread basket, prepare to shell out an additional $1.50.
The best deal in the house, if you drink wine and indulge in dessert, is the $45 prix fixe menu. Diners are free to select any appetizer, entrée and dessert, as well as any two glasses of wine. Considering Taste's gem-studded wine list and chef Vicente's flair for the pastry arts, the deal is a no-brainer. Anybody who can make red-bell-pepper cheesecake ($9) taste delightful deserves our attention, especially in these bleak times.