NIAGARA STREET CAFE (167 Niagara, at Wellington, 416-703-4222) Fans of long-gone Lotus's shabby chic will love this mostly organic neighbourhood noshery in a side-street storefront. Though the food's not in Susur's league -- whose is? -- this pleasant, casual spot serves middle-of-the-road grub at reasonable prices. No wonder the Jags and BMWs are lined up out front! Complete meals for $50 per person ($22 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or an organic beer. Open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm, and for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Licensed. Access: two short steps, small washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
New Yorkers know West Greenwich Village as the meat-packing district. The once run-down nabe of waterfront slaughterhouses and sleazy sex clubs has morphed into MePa, the site of some of Manhattan's trendiest restaurants and bars. And since Toronto loves to mimic NYC (remember when local business types tried to dub Queen West Soho?) how long will it be before some wag starts calling the neighbourhood southwest of King and Bathurst Hogtown's meat-packing district? Want proof? Quality Meat Packers, at the foot of Tecumseth, has blighted the area for years, and until recently there haven't been any hot spots to rival New York's Florent or Hogs 'n' Heifers. But the luxury sedans parked out front of Niagara Street Café, a mostly organic 30-seat storefront on a very downtown and low-rent side street, suggests things are changing.
Susur Lee caught a similar shabby-chic wave at Lotus in the 90s before moving on to the haute heights of his eponymous supper club on King West. While Niagara Street Café's non-fusion grub won't be profiled in Gourmet magazine like Lee's, this casual, intimate resto will appeal to anyone looking for something off the eaten path.
Planning on Sunday brunch, my gastro biker gang arrives just before noon to find a street clogged with BMWs and Jaguars. Once inside, we find every seat in the place taken by bunches ranging from wide-awake club kids to near-nap-time seniors.
Soon we're seated on mismatched chairs and a cramped banquette under a bronze-tinted mirror and butterscotch walls with brass trim and copper crown moulding. Fugly 70s wallpaper adds accents, while an equally uncoordinated soundtrack -- Beatles through Ella to salsa -- shuffles randomly on the CD player.
No one cares. All eyes are on beautifully plated dishes like eggy challah French Toast Fantastica ($11) stuffed with strawberries and raspberries, sploshed with whipped cream and tossed with crushed pecans, or the curiously named Inevitable With Meat ($10), a quasi-BLT layered with guacamole-like avocado in slightly garlicky mayo.
Today's Mom-elette ($11) combines mid-strength Stilton, sliced pear and wilted watercress. All three of these dishes get sided with Brunch Garnish -- here, sliced banana, kiwi, blood orange and cantaloupe as well as more strawberries and raspberries -- and dry deep-fried home fries that cry out for a kick-start.
Halfway through, we catch our busy server's attention and ask for more syrup for the toast and some salsa for the fries.
We score the sweet sticky stuff but lose out with watery Tabasco. Memo to the kitchen: add Citron's fabulous Emperor Tomato Ketchup -- named for the Stereolab set -- to your shopping list immediately.
And why does a wonderful house-baked scone with lovely berry compote arrive after we're almost finished?
A few days later, on an early weeknight, we return to find a near-empty restaurant. Famished, we down Stella-esque imported organic lager (St. Peter's, $7/500ml) before starting with a half-loaf of gorgeous cornbread slathered in butter.
Two dozen smallish mussels steamed in Hoegaarden white Belgian pilsner ($9 small/$12 large) is large enough for the three of us to split as an ap, and greatly improves with a dollop of Dijon.
But don't mussels usually get served with bread to sop up the best part, the molluscs' beer-soaked broth? Not here.
A pleasant pale-green parsnip-and-apple soup ($7), squiggled with house-made crème fraîche and sprigged with baby arugula, has the texture of applesauce. Sitting on top of a massive bed of citrusy mesclun, a pair of blini-style red-pepper pancakes don't excite despite their gooey goat cheese melt ($10).
The mains improve. Tasty wide tagliatelle ($17) come in a white wine cream studded with sliced green olives and layered with large shards of duck confit and tender duck breast. Perfectly grilled monkfish ($21) sees balsamic-braised fennel, new potatoes and sautéed curly-leaf kale as sides.
Southern-fried chicken ($15) -- from Cumbrae's on Church -- features breadcrumb-battered fowl alongside lumpy mashed potatoes and biscuits ladled with fabulous chicken sausage gravy.
As delicious (and organic) as it is, apple and raspberry pie ($8) seems overpriced.
First-time owners and chefs Deborah Nicholas and daughter Jen Johnson (ex-Grapefruit Moon on Bathurst) have created the kind of spot everyone wishes were just down the street from home.
With a little fine tuning, they'll have one of Toronto's hottest boîtes. Even if it is around the corner from an abattoir. email@example.com
mill street brews
You don't have to visit the local Cineplex to experience Gangs Of New York. Head down to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery complex (55 Mill, at Trinity) and relive the 19th century surrounded by cobblestones and mud, albeit minus Leo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. There, up against the Gardiner and filthy with film crews and condo conversions, find the Mill Street Brewery (416-681-0338), a brand new outfit in a Victorian building that brews Ontario's first 100 per cent certified organic beer.
Up and running a month, the brew crew has released an effervescent lager that recalls a pale Pilsner. Scheduled future suds include a sparkling ale and a coffee porter made with roasted beans from nearby Balzac's (416-207-1709) coffeehouse. Drop by the brewery for a tour and a free sample at the former tank house's tasting bar. Bonus: the beer store is open every day of the year except Christmas.
It's at a few LCBOs -- Queen's Quay East is one of them -- and Mill Street's organic lager is also available at Riverside Café (730 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-406-2943), Cantine (138 Avenue Road, at Davenport, 416-923-4822) and Milano (325 King West, at Witmer, 416-599-9909) as well as Blue Moon (725 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-463-8868). Warning: Mill Street's fizzy stuff doesn't come cheap. Retail, six small 200ml bottles go for just under 10 bucks.