Anybody can put a meatball on a sandwich. Just ask Mr. Submarine! But only Matt Basile would have the chutzpah to put both spaghetti and meatballs between two slices of bread.
It's unorthodox combos like this that have put the media-savvy entrepreneur on the local foodie map, from his Twitter-fed Fidel Gastro pop-ups and food truck to his Rebel Without A Kitchen TV show - and now Lisa Marie, a real-deal restaurant in the old Prague Deli. Sure beats a stage at El Bulli.
"Food should be fun," reckons the 28-year-old Basile.
That would explain the 60-seat resto's wackadoodle carte. Instead of the usual starters and mains, Marie's menu consists of the small bar-snacking plates the Italians call cicchetti but we'll describe as tapas with a multiculti twist.
There are Thai-style salad rolls stuffed with ahi tuna marinated in spicy puttanesca sauce and a rainbow of julienned root veg ($9 for two), and deep-fried personal pizzas dressed with smoked duck breast and slivered asparagus slaw ($8). Deli-style surf 'n' turf ($6) turns out to be slightly dry pastrami layered with sardines and sour cream - on a latke, yet! - while the Cheese Thang ($5) translates as a grilled slice of havarti piled with lean pork belly and salsa.
As with the tunes being cranked on the sound system (Black Sabbath, Eddie Money, Depeche Mode, but sadly no Elvis or Lisa Marie Presley), if something's not to your taste, something else will be along in three minutes. Things like a deconstructed eggplant parmigiana tossed with Thai bird chilies in a jar ($5), or a bun-free deep-fried cheeseburger topped with the requisite runny quail egg ($6). Who could refuse a deep-fried mozzarella 'n' bone marrow sandwich dipped in lumpy house ketchup ($7) - cholesterol be damned?
But be sure to save room for Basile's positively Flintstonian free-range turkey wings ($7 each, $12 for two) done either in the hot Buffalo style drizzled with blue-cheese aioli or à la Chinois in hoisin sauce and toasted sesame seeds. Side them with a massive heap of alarmingly orange pad thai fries ($12) and a table of four won't go home hungry.
With all these pop-ups, the food truck, the TV show and the seriously slammed Lisa Marie, Basile must be rolling in dough.
"I wish," he laughs. "I still live with my parents!"
Open for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday 6 pm to midnight, Thursday 6 pm to 2 am, Friday and Saturday 5 pm to 2 am, Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Weekend brunch 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Susur Lee's seafood Bent-o box features bite-sized portions of his greatest hits.
Susur Lee has always had a sly sense of humour - look no further than his cheeseburger spring rolls - so it's no surprise that the TV Top Chef's swelegant Bent goes for the obvious pun by offering a seafood Bent-o box built for two. This steal of a meal deal goes for $35 before 7 pm ($42 after) and only runs through June 8.
It starts with espresso cups of curried shrimp bisque tossed with crispy puffed rice, and oyster shooters spiked with ponzu-marinated salmon roe. Taro-shelled tacos brim with shredded lobster and charred onion salsa, while his signature tuna ceviche comes cleverly paired with watermelon.
Thin sheets of cold-pressed octopus get splashed with a pomegranate vinaigrette, and Atlantic salmon gravlax gets the East-West treatment with strips of Japanese omelette and grated horseradish. He even throws in a complimentary dessert, tonight a wiggly mango panna cotta that mimics the tummy-soothing custard served at the end of traditional Chinese spreads.
But enough about food. Will Mr. Lee be returning to Top Chef Masters any time soon?
"The producers asked me back, but then they changed their mind.
They said I won too many times!"
Dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Reservations recommended. Bar till close. Closed Sunday, Monday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement.Rating: NNNNN
The crunchy pickle in the Cubano sandwich at White Squirrel Snack Shop puts it over the top.
White Squirrel Snack Shop
When former Aunties and Uncles' co-owner David Ginsberg decided to get back in the resto biz, he knew he had to streamline his operation.
First, he got rid of all those troublesome servers. He also made most of his short all-day menu available in two sizes - full and snack - because he knew his customers wanted to grab something quick and split or, as Ginsberg puts it, "eat and get the hell out of here."
And so we get bite-sized Thai-spiced chicken wings free of fatty skin, and ever-changing po' boys like last week's beautifully blackened catfish with cayenne-spiked remoulade. Fried brown rice comes studded with tofu, kimchee and wilted bok choy, and the Cubano arrives appropriately stuffed with slow-roasted pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese and pickles (all $10/$6). There's even a take on the Israeli breakfast sandwich called sabich ($6).
But why bother with a burger ($8) when a certain Priest is about to set up shop a couple of doors down?
"He cooks his on a flat-top. Ours is an homage to White Castle."
Weekdays 8 am to 6 pm, weekends 10 am to 6 pm. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Barton Snacks' hot dogs come with very unusual toppings.
1120 Queen West, at Lisgar; 889 Bathurst, at Barton, 647-351-5444, @BartonSnacks
Since opening in the sleepy Annex a year ago with a limited lineup of ice cream sandwiches and the odd taco or two, Katherine Lehto has expanded her lineup and opened a second Barton Snacks on Queen West that's become an essential late-night pit stop. Being down the block from both the Drake and the Gladstone can't be bad for business.
Her snackables carte now includes vegan quinoa burgers ($5.50), retro mac 'n' cheese in French fry boxes to go ($4) and on-trend tacos both hard and soft-shelled, the most notable the terrifically jerked pork dressed with tangy slaw and mango hot sauce ($6 for two).
Her smoked low-nitrate hot dogs are anything but haute. The White Trash comes topped with Cheez Whiz, ketchup, crumbled bacon and crushed potato chips, while the veggie Fancy Bitch (both $5.50) arrives loaded with feta and spicy pico de gallo. One customer took offence to the latter and altered Lehto's chalkboard menu.
"I had no idea until somebody ordered a Fancy Butch."
Monday to Friday 3 pm to 3 am, Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 am (Queen W); Wednesday to Sunday 11 am to 7 pm (Bathurst). Closed some holidays (Queen); Monday, Tuesday, holidays (Bathurst). No reservations. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: two steps at door, no washrooms (Queen W); one step at door, no washrooms (Bathurst). Rating: NNN
Bombay Chowpatty's house veggie burger is loaded with spicy chick peas.
1386 Gerrard East, at Woodfield, 416-405-8080
This blindingly bright take-away in what's left of Little India may well be the only resto in town where you can rent the latest Bollywood blockbuster on DVD and grab a samosa burger ($3.99) while you're at it.
Though Lahore Tikka across the street gets most of the foodie traction, the all-vegetarian 'Patty is more than worthy of attention. There's seriously tasty Subcontinental street food like crunchy chaat papri, six-packs of pakoras (both $5.99) and refreshing Royal Falooda ($3.99) made with house-made kulfi ice cream, rose syrup and slippery sweet vermicelli, the house special, the menu informs us.
We'd nominate the burritoesque paneer kathi rolls stuffed with mildly curried cheese in grilled parantha flatbread ($6.99 for two), as well as the Bombay burger loaded with meaty chickpea chana masala and pan-fried potato patties ($3.99).
Those addicted to Banh Mi Boys' killer kimchee fries won't want to miss Chowpatty's remarkable masala fries ($4.99). Sure, they start out frozen and get doused with ketchup straight from a bottle unapologetically labelled Heinz. But then they get additionally dressed with sweet 'n' sour tamarind sauce, potent green chutney and a swirl of yogurt before a final toss of chopped coriander, tomato and Spanish onion. Ordered spicy, they're bound to cause meltdowns.
Weekdays 1:30 to 11 pm, weekends noon to midnight. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Patio. Rating: NNNN