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Where will your night take you? AnnaLena

At first glance AnnaLena seems a spartan, simply decorated room – but sooner than later your eye will fall upon a quirky detail that will change that impression irrevocably.

Say, the small figurine peering outward from behind the glass-fronted hostess stand that looks like some sort of hybrid of Bibendum and Krusty the Clown. Or, if you missed that one, Michael Jordan in his Bulls uniform, perched on a shelf near the bar; a full set of vintage Lego Star Wars characters; a framed red Lego heart; and a horseshoe nailed to a support pillar, its position seemingly arbitrary. “I don’t really like it there,” allows chef-proprietor Mike Robbins, sotto voce, from the head of our table nearby. “But it’s good luck to put it up, so now I’m scared to move it.”

Our table is crowded with local luminaries of scenes both culinary and aesthetic. There’s Jackie Kai Ellis, author, pâtissier and designer, and the noted photographer Leila Kwok, who specializes in food and travel. Karin Bohn, founder and creative director at House of Bohn, is here, too. And there’s Craig Stanghetta, creative director at Ste. Marie Studio and the designer behind restaurants from Savio Volpe to Kissa Tanto and Bao Bei.

What’s cool about what Mike has done here is that it’s not just about a cool concept,” he says. “It’s super personal, fun and idiosyncratic. Being here is a bit like that cliché of being invited into someone else’s home.

And, of course, there’s that other reason we’re here: to eat food for which this playfully sentimental design sets a perfect stage. Say, tonight’s opening salvo of a seared scallop with haute tartar sauce topped with a tangle of pommes allumettes (“a reconstruction of fish and chips”). And a dish called “torn bread,” a recurring classic that recasts the piece of bread with which you usually clean up your nearly finished plate in a starring role, as centrepiece, surrounded by a moat of seasonally attuned soup or sauce (on this cold and rainy night, a refined clam chowder). “The idea is to take something technical and make it look simple, approachable and fun when it hits the table,” says Robbins. And as the evening affirms, if you’re to pick a through line from design to food to conversation, fun is a good one.

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