SIDE DOOR GRILL ( 771 Dundas West, at Markham, 416-603-6161) Complete meals for $25 per person ($15 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Open Monday to Wednesday 11 am to 10 pm and Thursday to Saturday 11 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: short step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Though it may seem obvious to some, the most important thing to remember on your first visit to Side Door Grill, the newly launched Dundas West boîte near Bathurst, is to use the side entrance. The front door's always locked.
If only someone had told me. Instead, I stand there rattling the damned thing indignantly, making a fool of myself for what seems like several minutes, until I eventually notice a prominent sign pointing me toward the doorway around the corner.
Once through, I spot a smirking Literary Device plunked on a bright red Naugahyde chair, awaiting my arrival. The last time we visited this oddly shaped room, it went by the name of Tommy's and served some of the best Greek grub this side of the Danforth. Since then, it's changed owners twice, finally falling into the more-than-capable hands of first-time restaurateur Michael Weinberg.
"I was an actor for a number of years," explains the affable host. "I needed my own stage, so I bought a restaurant."
After stints as a server at chi-chi Splendido on Harbord and Prego Della Piazza on Bloor among others, Weinberg has moved more down-market to create a neighbourhood joint offering a solid, reasonably priced eastern Mediterranean menu. He's pulled this off in a daunting space - a 20-foot-square, bare-bones white-on-white box with a sloped ceiling that soars to a skylight 30 feet overhead cleverly hung with pots and pans - a remarkable achievement in itself.
The not very panoramic vista of drizzly Dundas - in February yet - behind us as classic tunes from Stevie Wonder give way to a Bob Marley remix on the sound system, we nibble from a complimentary plate of house-made pickles paired with pedestrian pita. Other than the plain refined white rice that's an option with all mains and tastes like it has the nutritional value of cardboard, the inferior flatbread is the only thing that falls flat on Side Door's otherwise well-executed card.
We follow with old-school sweet pickled beets, the grandma-preserved favourite of yore, here given an unexpected but lovely Mideast kick from cumin. The curiously labelled Green Eggplant turns out to be a super purée of roasted 'plant pulp and mellow diced onion, getting its colour from coriander and scallion (both $3.95 small/$6.45 large).
Expecting prefab mesclun from a box, we're impressed by Side Door's precisely plated house salad that comes as a standard side with all entrees or as a $5.95 stand-alone starter. Composed of arugula, frisée and red leaf tossed with red onion rings, shredded carrot, ripe tomato and English cuke, it arrives dressed in a lemony oregano vinaigrette made from quality olive oil.
The Device pronounces her tilapia ($14.95) the best fish she's ever had, but then she's prone to hyperbole. Served on the oval oven dish on which it's baked, the deliciously flaky fillet is sauced with basil-scented tomato and paired with that unfortunate rice. She would've been better off opting for the excellent twice-cooked roasted red potatoes peppered with caramelized onion ($2.95/$4.95 by themselves) that accompany my marinated beef kebab ($12.95), two stainless skewers of cooked-to-order tender steak. Smoky from the grill but not tasting of it, they get further flavour from a sweet, citrusy hot sauce served on the side.
A few days later we do takeout and become instant converts to Side Door's beefy Kefta Kebob - three tasty cigar-sized skinless sausages ($10.95 with salad 'n' spuds) - as well as its pounded and pan-fried chicken schnitzel ($11.95). But our hearts belong to chef Yori Yzraiiv's lamb chops ($14.95), four thick medium-rare grilled chops dressed with squirts of lemon and slim-sliced raw onion so delish they have us gnawing the bone(s). Though previously frozen, even the fries I sample in the interest of culinary science are correctly cooked.
I learn later that Weinberg first teamed up with Yzraiiv when he managed Me Va Me, the wildly popular Jerusalem-style restaurant at Bathurst and Steeles. That would explain why such apparent anomalies as pierogi with fried onion ($6.95) sit next to falafel ($4.50) on Side Door's lineup.
"It's an Israeli thing," says Weinberg on the blower. "Since many of them have ties to eastern Europe, they think of dishes like goulash and pierogi as comfort food."