Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Chris Zielinski, the executive chef of Ultra Supper Club, takes in some sunshine on the rooftop patio of the restaurant.
Ultra Supper Club
Address: 314 Queen St. W.
Dining Room: Mon to Sat: 5:30 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Lounge: Mon to Wed., 5:30 p.m. - midnight; Thurs. to Sat., 5:30 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Patio: Mon. to Sat., 5:30 p.m. - 3 a.m.
Capacity: 160 (dining room and patio)
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $120
**** (out of five)
Built on the bones of the BamBoo, once the linchpin of the Queen West scene in its world beat era, Ultra Supper Club is the jewel in Charles Khabouth’s empire of the evening. The club impresario made the dining room the centrepiece of Ultra when it opened in the hope of attracting diners as well as drinkers to the space.
After a shaky start, where the restaurant became better known for celebrity sightings and even a tussle between two parties of Bay Streeters, the kitchen was given to Chris Zielinski, a local restaurant veteran whose career started in earnest with a two-year stint in the kitchen with Susur Lee at his first restaurant, Lotus.
Sitting in the huge, posh dining room, Zielinski recalls his first big break. “Right from there it was just me and him in the kitchen for two years straight. So that was a lucky opportunity — you can’t really replace that kind of experience with school or whatever. Every day, making everything from scratch, including the desserts and ice cream and everything else.”
Zielinski moved on to the kitchens at Tipplers, the Mercer St. Grill and YYZ before taking on Ultra’s kitchen. The previous chef had apparently been overwhelmed by the club’s weekend hurly-burly, and while he was still working as an instructor at Great Cooks On 8, he had to overhaul Ultra’s menu in the middle of a hectic winter season.
“The chef before me was really in over his head,” he says. “Over his head. Because of that he had made the dishes so simplistic that the staff wasn’t challenged. They still couldn’t get it done, but the staff wasn’t being challenged, and the guys who work at a place like this like it to be intense, for there to be lots of elements, because it’s all about the formula in the kitchen and getting everybody to do their job and not kill each other.”
A year and a half later, his menu has evolved into a showcase of luxury ingredients, like a foie gras torchon sandwich, a generous selection of seafood entrées, and dishes like his Duck Three Ways, an attempt to evoke the Peking Duck he used to eat at Chinatown’s venerable — and much lamented — Champion House.
“We talked about how we could recreate the Peking duck experience a bit,” he recalls. “We really didn’t want to make it purely like Chinese food, but how to get the three courses on one plate.” The result is a trio of dishes: a sesame crèpe wrapped around hoisin-laced duck confit, a tiny bowl of duck consommé with a fat dumpling filled with duck, water chestnut purée and foie gras, and a perfectly seared duck breast served between a star anise reduction and lichee relish.
Zielinski is in the rare position of not having to fight with his boss over costs per plate, thanks to the unique economics of a place like Ultra, with its packed Saturday nights and hard-partying clientele. “We sell an enormous amount of alcohol. During the wintertime in these booths we’ll have a first and second seating, and then after they leave we have a third seating, and the third seating is bottle service. People will order a bottle for $320, and they order bottle after bottle after bottle after bottle, and honestly we might do our $18,000 in restaurant business before 11 o’clock, but they’ll do another $18,000 worth of liquor business between 11:30 and 2 a.m.
“Most places don’t make that kind of business, so from Charles’ point of view, he’s not all that obsessed with the food costs. He wants me to use really high quality ingredients, the same stuff that everybody we’re competing with uses, and use it abundantly, which is a great gig. Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve been in this position where somebody’s said ‘just buy the good one.’ He knows that’s part of the appeal. Even if sometimes customers don’t understand it — Saturday night, we’re doing it anyway.”