My passion for French cooking was ignited when I travelled through France at age 22. A year later I was asked to run the kitchen at The Vineyard, one of Toronto’s first wine bars. In those days, French cuisine dominated the fine dining scene. My mentor was a serious gastronome who informed and educated my palate by wining and dining me in the most prestigious fine dining institutions in Toronto. All of these establishments — Napoléon, Three Small Rooms, Auberge Gavroche, Fenton’s, Les Cavaliers and the dining rooms at the King Edward Hotel and the Westbury Hotel — were French, and enjoyed august reputations and discerning clientele. The same welcoming hospitality, and the same discreet but impeccable service were extended to everyone.
Tastes are transitory and altered sensibilities have brought changes to the cuisine and classic styles of restaurant service that I esteemed in my early career. Good value to the patron does not mean cheap prices. It refers to the quality and quantity of the food, the level of service, and the décor and ambience.
To my mind, French food has always been the cuisine synonymous with refined taste and, to some extent, it still is. To this day I appreciate the skill and showmanship of French-style service. French service is distinguished by the fact that all or part of the preparation of the dish, or at least the finishing of it, is done in the dining room. This type of service requires a cart or gueridon and organized mise en place to facilitate cooking at the side of the patron’s table. Tableside preparations might involve sautéing or flambéing an item, or carving it, boning a fish or composing a salad from scratch.
Classic tableside cooking is part of the innate charm of Michael’s On The Thames. The restaurant is at once appealing and traditional, and yet old-school: Caesar salad for two, prepared tableside, as well as flaming dishes, also done tableside including whole Dover sole meunière, pepper steak “Dorchester” with brandy demi-glace, cherries jubilee and strawberries alla Marco.
If you’re hungry for steak Diane the dining room staff will create that at a tableside cart for you too. It is not a classical French recipe, though its preparation is at least a cousin to the French (steak coated in cracked peppercorns accompanied by a cognac and butter sauce). It’s all about elegance, presentation, and personal attention. The showmanship starts with a tender cut of beef tenderloin pounded thin and pan-fried in butter to your preference. It then is topped with a rich sauce of more butter, shallots, and mushrooms, and flambéed with brandy and a splash of fresh cream. An intoxicating wine bouquet and fragrant beef aroma emanates from the pan. The same goes for the Brome Lake duck à l’orange, whose boozy sauce will be whisked and flambéed a few inches from your table.
One evening while dining with my nephew, service professional Maria Homolay served us juicy-on-the-inside, seared and roasted Chateaubriand. The Chateaubriand, which can be ordered for a table of two, is served in the traditional manner accompanied by a variety of vegetables and crowned with béarnaise sauce. Chateaubriand and béarnaise sauce have a natural kinship, with the sauce of clarified butter emulsified in egg yolks, white wine vinegar and flavoured with tarragon playing off the beef tenderloin. There was naturalness to the way Homolay moved and worked — a professionalism that has made many dining experiences at Michael’s On The Thames memorable. It offers classic French flair for diners who prefer a bit of finesse while dining—and appreciate a bit of interaction with their tableside preparation.
For thirty-one years and counting, Michael’s On The Thames has been regarded as London’s “celebration destination,” and for good cause. Owner-operator Brian Stewart, executive chef Denis Clavette, kitchen manager Dave Wyler and their kitchen brigade consistently give patrons what they want, and that is why the restaurant remains popular. There is no attempt to be trendy or cutting-edge at Michael’s.
Besides tableside cooking, there are prix fixe menus and many à la carte selections that mostly stick to tried and true classics. There is Cobb salad, colossal shrimp stuffed with crab and wrapped in pancetta and finished with a Pernod beurre blanc drizzle, baked west coast halibut with lemon beurre noisette, and even the Valencian classic, paella. In Chef’s hands, paella is a fragrant combination of Metzger’s chorizo, duck confit, mussels, scallops, shrimp and saffron rice.
An experienced entrepreneur (Stewart owned Sam the Record Man franchises), and inspired by his inveterate restaurant patron father’s appreciation for fine dining, Stewart recognized he’d found the ideal location for his new endeavour the minute he saw the former tile and cement warehouse which gave way to Guildwood Lighting in the early 1960s.
The restaurant has an intimate atmosphere with its private dining areas, an enclosed sun room beside the Thames River, the sophistication of a baby grand piano overlooking the dining room, oak decor, tables with plenty of elbow room and a stone fireplace. A rotating cast of pianists that include David Priest and Dean Harrison play classics and jazz on the baby grand at select times during dinner.
Until a few years ago, Jack Di Carlo had been the maître d’ at Michael’s since 1986. He created a lasting impression on the clientele, greeting and serenading customers and cementing the restaurant’s reputation as a romantic dining destination. It is a reputation that endures.
General Manager Joelle Lees and certified sommelier/captain Andrew Fratepietro are warm and hospitable and, in addition to applying their skills and charisma as restaurant professionals, are focused on creating great dining experiences. Good service is one of the primary things diners consider in judging the value of a restaurant. The service here is a welcome throwback, countering the prevalent attitude of casual service that favours over-familiar waiters and high pressure upselling tactics.
Fratepietro’s wine list is a virtuous representation of the style and cuisine of the restaurant and has options for many different types of wine drinkers, both in terms of price point and style. There are some excellent consignment wines on the list.
While many restaurateurs and chefs are working to comprehend and respond to the expectations of the food savvy Generation X and the Millennial Generation, Michael’s remains an intentional and charming anachronism while appealing to the tastes and preferences of its changing demographic.
Michael’s On The Thames
1 York Street, London • 519-672-0111
Open for lunch weekdays
Open for dinner 7 nights a week
Bryan Lavery (ethicalgourmet.blogspot.com) is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.
Steve Grimes (www.grimesphoto.com) is a regular contributor of photographs to eatdrink.