Poor John's Café (1610 Queen West, at Callender, 647-435-2688) Complete meals for $10 per person ($15 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a fair trade coffee. Average main $6/$9. Open Monday to Friday 8 am to 6 pm, Saturday 9 am to 5 pm. Brunch Sunday 10 am to 3 pm. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Don't feel sorry for John Silva. The first-time restaurateur and his partner, Kristine Remedios, have just launched Poor John's Café on the westernmost front of Queen and are doing very well, thank you.
Open since December, the funky storefront and former travel agency slash tailor shop - Bermuda shorts? - has already found a loyal following along this ever-growing stretch of ye olde antique shops, coffee houses and art galleries that are slowly gentrifying Parkdale whether locals like it or not.
Silva, who's on a leave of absence from an Etobicoke high school where he teaches art and photography (stay in school, kids, cool jobs do exist), and Remedios have flipped several properties in the nabe. Now that they've opened Poor John's Café, it looks like the couple will be around for a while.
The room's a riot of castaway mid-century furniture that's probably today worth 10 times what it originally cost: an overstuffed 30s velvet settee, turquoise formica dinette suites from the 40s, Danish modern arm chairs opposite white-lacquered medical desks. The interior's brick walls have been partially exposed, as if someone gave up halfway through the job, but look better for it. Bright winter sunlight streams through the front window, which, come spring, will swing open to the passing Parkdalian parade.
"Make that seven Brie and avocado," Silva barks to his sister-in-law Denise Moraes, who's busily assembling sandwiches in Poor John's small open kitchen. "Four to stay, three to go."
It would seem that every person in the joint this mid-week afternoon has ordered what, in eight short weeks, has already become Poor John's signature dish. Piled with buttery ripe avocado, smooth creamy Brie and thick slices of super-sweet mango spread with basil pesto (all sandwiches $5.50), it's an edible orgasm between two slices of Micalense marbled rye.
For an extra buck-25, I pair it with house greens tossed with dried cranberries and toasted walnut, dressed with a balsamic mango vinaigrette that's both fruity and tart and so good Poor John's should bottle it. And if that weren't the 5-N frosting on the cake, Moraes's spectacular carrot cake ($1.95) comes laced with raisins and currants and recalls some fantastic fruitcake finished with whipped cream cheese icing.
The remainder of the card consists of four sandwiches that come grilled on a press, the best of the lot being strips of roasted portobello mushroom, peeled sweet red pepper and unnecessarily canned artichoke on an onion panini crumbled with chèvre and smeared with tasty honey-chipotle mustard.
In contrast, curried chicken, Gruyère with bacon and Portuguese chorizo with mild St. Jorge cheese could use a makeover. Toasted, perhaps, with more veggies?
But beef barley soup ($2.50 small/$3.25 large/$1.25 with sandwiches) redeems itself, a hearty potage thick with tender strands of steak, cubed potato, onion and carrot in a creamy broth that packs more of a wallop than expected.
Returning for Poor John's second-ever Sunday brunch, we find another mixed bag. Masala Frittata turns out to be neither. More exactly, it's a lightly curried scramble wrapped in a chapati and dolloped with raita that gets sided with a too-sugary chutney that's closer to a compote, fab chunky oven-baked home fries made from both waxy regular white and sweet yellow potato, and regulation brunch garnish.
Better still, the impressively poached eggs du jour (both $9) come served over buttered cornbread toast and layered with pulpy tomato sauce and sharp Portuguese Pico cheese. A grilled rasher of spicy chorizo, more of those terrific taters and even more brunch garnish complete the sizable plate.
Back in my merchant seaman days, chipped beef on toast was commonly referred to as "shit on a shingle," the unfortunate words that first come to mind when I clamp my eyes on PJ's Goan Breakfast ($8.75). More charitable types would describe this dish as pulled curried pork on rye toast, but its sides of additional bread, chutney and raita seem redundant when we could be tucking into those splendid spuds instead.
Over organic, shade-grown Sumatran espressos ($1.50/$2.75) and Moraes's dense double-fudge brownies ($1.95), we size up the score. Sure, Silva and Remedios have only been up and running two months. But with a little fine tuning, Poor John's Café will be laughing all the way to the bank.