WHAT IS there let to say about the Hourglass? It has been around so long we tend to take it for granted -- and that's a mistake, believe me. Because the food, especially the seafood, just keeps getting better and better in this little place.
First things first -- in appearance, the restaurant is quietly elegant, not overwhelming. A small storefront, it seats 60 in two rooms. The larger one, on tiers, contains the handsome bar, alwaysadorned with a marvelous flower arrangement and a beauteous dessert sample. The smaller room is off to the side.
Decor is minimal. At present, it consists of dark paneling, mirrors and dark marbled wall coverings. Tables are set with heavy white cloths. And the service consists of a totally professional wait person plus owner Terry Bechakas, who is always there keeping watch on what's going on.
We are not anonymous here. Mr. Bechakas is an old friend, but he usually sends complimentary tidbits over to everybody's table to whet the appetite before his customers order. And -- because he knows and loves the stuff and has an enormous collection -- he is the man to consult about the wine.
If you are adventurous enough, he can surprise you. The other evening, on his suggestion, four of us partook of a minor miracle, a 13-year-old premier cru red Burgundy. Yes, that's right. Red wine with fish.
To begin our meal Mr. Bechakas had sent over a sample of Rock Shrimp, which he had received fresh that day. Sweet and plump, the crustaceans were sauteed in sesame oil with some still-crisp vegetables and a judicious amount of ginger.
A spectacular, beautifully balanced dish, this is one you should consider ordering.
If it is available, that is. Because the Hourglass serves fresh fish only, not every species is available on any given day.
Salads followed our little appetizer, and maybe they weren't quite as perfect as they might have been. I thought the selection of greens could have been a little wider, and, speaking personally, I don't like to see carrots in a dinner salad. I also thought that too much vinaigrette dressing had been applied. (Hearts of romaine and watercress salads can be ordered a la carte.)
Then again, the bread tray that accompanied the salad was excellent. Some nice warm rye rolls and a fine biscuitlike bread.
And our entrees ranged from super to very fine. A medley of pasta, shellfish and seasonal vegetables (an evening special) was totally satisfying; Poached Salmon ($17.75) with dill sauce was tender and gently flavored.
Baby Atlantic Halibut ($16.75) was perfectly cooked; its tender moist flesh perfectly set off by a citrus sauce and grilled orange slice -- I really ate my words here, because I usually don't care for fruit flavors and fish.
But this was my favorite entree.
That's so, even though my choice -- a three-tiered selection of fresh-grilled swordfish with a noble leek sauce, Stuffed Sole with Mornay Sauce and a tiny lamb shish kebab with wild mushrooms was most enjoyable. Especially set off as it was with freshly roasted potatoes, cut into mushroom shape and sprinkled with cheese.
And it's so even though the Companion's Rack of Lamb ($18.75) proved that you don't have to eat seafood to eat well at the Hourglass. The tiny chops were cooked just perfectly to rare and were accompanied by mashed potatoes. Also, mint sauce (not oversweet mint jelly) to heighten the flavor.
Anti-fish folks should be advised that the Roast Duck Laperouse ($16.75), which is deboned and topped with mustard and Swiss cheese, and the Braised Pheasant with Green and Pink ($16.75), from a local game farm, can be memorable, too.
The Hourglass is one of the few restaurants in this area where desserts are mandatory. Eat one and skip lunch the next day if you have to. The desserts are prepared by Eras Bechakas, the owner's wife.
Even though the apple pie sitting on the bar looked spectacular and there were plenty of chocolate selections on the menu, I went for the Peach Crisp. Terrific -- especially since it was accompanied by plenty of fresh-made peach ice cream in which little hunks of the fruit were very much of a presence.
And the Companion was entranced with the Creme Brulee, which at the Hourglass is real Creme Brulee, not creme caramel -- the brown sugar topping was heated to form a good crisp crust.
The idea behind this dish, after all, is contrast. You're supposed to crack through that crust with your spoon, thus forming exactly the right foil for the rich smooth custard lurking just underneath.
The Pines ** 1/2 (Sept. 3)
The Pines, 3990 Erie Road, Crystal Beach, Ont. (416-894-3269). Old-fashioned restaurant with simple decor serving a lot of hearty, good-tasting food for the money.
* Restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.
** Based on Early Bird menu.
HOURGLASS **** 1/2
981 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore (877-8788.) A Western New York classic -- it has been on the scene under current ownership for 25 years. During that time, the food has just gotten better and better. Superb fish and seafood; fine wines. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
BEST DISH: Baby Halibut with Citrus Sauce.
NEEDS WORK: Salad.
PRICE RANGE: Entrees from $14.75 include salad, potato, vegetable.
HOURS: Dinner only, Tues. through Sat. 4 to 9:30 p.m. Reservations recommended.
HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Any grilled fish or seafood, sauce on the side. Broiled Breast of Chicken with Herbs. Pork Tenderloin with Fresh Fruit Sauce. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.
PARKING: Lot behind the building, also on the street.
KEY: *FAIR, **GOOD, ***VERY GOOD, ****EXCELLENT, *****EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.