There can't be a more propitious location for a restaurant than River and Osborne, and it's hardly surprising that business started booming the very minute Cornerstone opened its doors at the former location of Papa George's.
It's under the same ownership as the Grove, but don't expect many similarities. The Grove is as much restaurant as it is pub, but -- given the extremely short food menu, and the extreme length of the alcohol menu -- the emphasis here is the other way around. Which isn't to say the food isn't good; most of it is.
The minimalist decor is sleek and industrial, done in shades of grey, with little colour other than the intriguing paintings by a local artist. And it's no place for a tête-à-tête -- the noise, even when the restaurant is less than half full, can be overwhelming. Although a window table overlooking River Avenue is probably the calmest area, peals of laughter from the other end of the long, narrow room can put an end to conversation.
The menu is longer on lunch, light dishes and shareable snacks than it is on main courses and, as it happens, those are also the best choices. The steak bites are tasty little chunks of sirloin, served with sriracha (Thai-style chili sauce) aioli, and one of the more generous buys at $9. I also liked the meaty wings, glazed (in our case) in a Louisiana-style, medium hot sauce ($12), and the quinoa salad was terrific, the grain mixed with tomato, cucumber, peppers, onions, feta and particularly crunchy croutons in a perfectly balanced vinaigrette ($11).
Soup may or may not be a good choice. The soup that is listed on the menu -- a smooth purée of chickpeas, with a dab of guacamole and the added crunch of quinoa -- was excellent ($6.50), but a du jour of cannellini beans had a weak but still strange flavour ($6). The soup du jour is one of the inclusions with the burgers and sandwiches, but I'd opt for the fries, which ranged from good on one visit to absolutely marvellous on another. The third option is a kale salad (unsampled).
Although cioppino is actually somewhere between a meal-size soup and a stew, it is oddly placed among the appetizers. However, it is a delicious, tomato-based broth with fennel and leeks, heaped with mussels and clams, as well as two each of small, passable shrimp and scallops, and a single tiny crab claw for $15. The flavour was great, but I'd have appreciated either more shrimp, scallops and crab, or some slices of fish to flesh it out. Unlike the chickpea and du jour soups, it came with slices of very good garlic toast.
There's only one beef burger on the menu -- the Papa Gorgeous (a tribute, no doubt, to Papa George's), which is said to be loved by many, but not by me. It's probably a matter of taste, since I'm a ketchup and relish person, and this one is elaborated, Greek-style, with tzatziki and feta, along with lettuce, tomato and onion. But although the burger itself was tasty and juicy, I found it small for a tab of $12.50, even with fries, and adding a standard (and bigger) burger to such a limited menu seems like a good idea.
The open-face chipotle chicken melt is made with what tastes like freshly roasted chicken, and plenty of it, but there's only the barest hint of chipotle and a mere dab of avocado in a cloyingly sweet barbecue sauce ($13). Other sandwich possibilities are an open-face tenderloin steak with mushrooms, chimichurri and a fried egg ($16); a chickpea patty with tahini ($13); a sausage patty with bacon and a fried egg ($10.50); and a grilled cheese ($7).
There are only a few main courses ($18 to $20), and the simplest among them was the best -- a thick, ball-shaped striploin that was tender and as rare as ordered, garnished simply with fries. A braised chicken breast was tasty but neither the tender gnocchi that came with it, nor the bed of bacon, kale, parsnips, celery and onions had much flavour. The crisp mackerel, on a bed of quinoa, was far too fishy (even for mackerel) and was replaced -- very graciously, it should be said -- with the pasta of the day, a lovely combination of angel hair pasta with mussels in a delicately spiced, Thai-inspired coconut creamy sauce ($15).
There's a deft pastry hand in the kitchen, and all the desserts I tried were terrific: a decadently rich chocolate-peanut butter torte ($6); a dense coconut cake topped by meringue ($7.50); and a luscious chocolate cheesecake du jour ($8.50). The only remaining (unsampled) choice is a Kahlua crème caramel ($5).
The wine list is relatively short but well selected, with several choices by the glass, among them, a summer-suitable Provençal rosé and an extra brut cava. There are expertly made cocktails as well and, since this is a pub, after all, a seemingly endless list of beers, including several imports and more than 20 on tap, which I'll leave to others more qualified to judge.
Service was top-notch by an infectiously happy staff, and there are two other attractions as well. For one, reservations are accepted, and are a good idea, unless you get there before six. For another, it's a haven for night owls, remaining open until 2 a.m.