BALKAN BISTRO (126E McCaul, at Dundas, 416-913-0729) Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a juice. Average main $8. Open Monday to Thursday 7:30 am to 9:30 pm, Friday 7:30 am to 10 pm, Saturday 8:30 am to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Access: half step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
As I head to Balkan Bistro, I'm feeling sorry for owners Aykan Evrenoz and her husband, Levent. Located in a resto no man's land just north of the AGO's Henry Moore, this modest two - month-old café is surely doomed.
What was I thinking? A lunchtime visit just last Thursday finds the joint jumping with a steady stream of takeout customers as well as a respectable contingent of diners-in.
We join them and snag a seat by the bright storefront window before scanning a card whose contents stretch from southern Italy to eastern Turkey. Soon, we're tucking into the impressively portioned mixed salad that accompanies most mains - a large bowl of ripped romaine, radicchio and spinach layered with tomato and English cuke. Doused with sun-dried-tomato house dressing, the garlicky greens come paired with chickpea 'n' kidney bean salad and a creamy retro Russian salad of eggy mashed potato, crunchy carrot, gherkin and garden peas.
Hunkar Begendi ($9.95) follows, a slow-cooked veal-and-tomato stew that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, here plated as tradition dictates over a lovely cheese-rich purée of roasted eggplant. Wiener schnitzel ($8.95) arrives sizzling from the pan, a pounded and lightly breaded veal cutlet as substantial as those I vaguely recall from my college days in the many long-gone Hungarian haunts along pre-sushi Bloor West.
Translated from the Turkish as Women's Thighs Meatballs (!?), Kadinbudu Köfte ($5.95) turns out to be five ground beef 'n' rice nuggets wrapped in eggy batter, while eggplant kebab ($6.95) appears to be all-beef meatballs wrapped in ribbons of Italian eggplant in conventional tomato sauce.
Though plentiful, the 30-some crustaceans included in Shrimp Guvec ($7.95) are strictly cocktail and would be better served along with their white wine pepper sauce over angel hair pasta. All the above mains get generously sided with buttery white rice and an assortment of grilled peppers, zucchini and charbroiled broccoli.
Vegetable pasta ($6.50) stands alone, a tasty tangle of supermarket rotini in garlicky olive oil and pesto, dressed with grilled eggplant, button mushrooms, sweet red pepper strips and broccoli florets.
With the addition of melted Brie, the same harmonious ingredients (ix-nay the noodles) find their way between slices of sandwich-pressed focaccia to become grilled vegetarian panini ($5.45).
Just as delish, Yengen ($4.25) sees a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with tomato and spicy Turkish pepperoni. Wash them all down with a very reasonably priced V8 ($1.25).
Balkan Bistro may never attract the fabulosi who blindly flock to Lee and its luxurious ilk. But this comfortable Old World kitchen makes a viable alternative to the Village On the Grange's vile food court.