BELLA'S BISTRO at FREE TIMES CAFÉ (320 College, at Major, 416-967-1078) Despite its hippie digs, this cozy, casual eatery offers a first-rate Jewish-grandmother-style Sunday all-you-can-eat (and eat and eat and eat) brunch that will make even you feel like a mensch no matter what your ethnic identity. Bonus: live soulful klezmer soundtrack. Warning: expect a full-throttle feeding frenzy, and lineups of those without reservations. Complete brunch for $16.95 per person (under 12 half-price, infants free), not including taxes, tip or additional beverage. Sunday brunch 10:30 am to 3 pm. Restaurant open Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2 am, Saturday 11 am to 2 am. $8.50 vegan brunch Tuesday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Licensed. Access: bump at door, otherwise barrier-free, but crowded at brunch. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
According to the clock in the tower of the College fire hall, it's 11:30. Below, a steady stream of high-end cars pull up to the street's hottest spot. Stylishly dressed passengers jump from their sedans, causing a chaotic sidewalk scene as they attempt to gain entry to Toronto's most exclusive club. Saturday night at Sutra? A private soiree at Swallow? Would you believe Sunday morning at the Free Times Café? This is where a throng of seniors, arty types and students have been fighting their way into Bella! Did Ya Eat? Jewish brunch every weekend for the past eight years.
From our perch in the funky storefront's open window, we watch the arrival of a hungry crowd the likes of which we haven't seen since we dined at 4 in the afternoon at a Denny's in Florida. Since the Troubled Balkan knows how to work a buffet table - "No one wants to be first, but once someone goes, it's a stampede" - he insists we arrive early.
Good call. As the morning's first customers, we get an look at Bella's pristine, impressive grandmotherly spread ($16.95): shiny chafing dishes full of fluffy lox-stuffed scrambled eggs, cookbook-correct potato latkes and matzo-mixed gefilte fish. Baskets overflow with kitchen-sliced St. Urbain bagels next to beautiful slabs of butter and cream cheese. Eastern European salads and and desserts are artfully piled on cake stands on the bistro's doily-clad bar. Half an hour later the place looks like it's been hit by Hurricane Bella, more food fight than feeding frenzy.
Who cares? Life is short, and the food's fantastic: buttery pickled herring with crisp Spanish onion, deeply sweet pickled beets and fabulous lemony blintzes replete with ricotta and a dollop of cinnamon-spiked apple sauce and smooth sour cream on the side. Not previously a fan of the dish, I'm won over by Bella's superb eggy French toast, a rendition that borders on an omelette, here sided with sugary apricot compote.
Adapted from a family recipe, owner Judy Perly's puréed eggplant salad goes beyond baba ghanoush by adding sharp red onion and crunchy bell pepper. But, oy vey! Avoid the minced salmon croquettes, dry, miserable little things that recall those made by my dear Scottish grandmother. Now that's authentic.
We also learn to keep clear of Bella's hard-as-rock baklava but fall in love with her rich, moist chocolate poppy seed cake and dense almost-fudge brownies.
Yet while Bella gets brunch right, the location of the buffet itself is a nightmare. Since it's set up right next to the restaurant's narrow entrance, to get near the food diners must physically push their way through an equally pushy queue of customers waiting for a table. Think Lee Gardens. Then, plates piled high, they have to push their way back through the lineup and a second wave of empty-plated patrons. All the while, servers calmly direct traffic to a soundtrack of nostalgic klezmer favourites.
We return a few days later to check out Bella's in less hectic circumstances and find Sunday's buffet rage replaced with serenity. While waiting for drinks to arrive - a 2-ounce Caesar ($6.50) and a pint of Keith's Pale Ale ($4.65) - we take in the room's mix of hippie chic and zany clutter: faux family portraits on warmly hued walls lit by 50s living room lamps, formica-topped tables with padded bentwood chairs.
Impressed by Sunday's smorgasbord, we want to try the Tuesday-only vegan buffet ($8.50), but they're not doing it today because of the long weekend. Instead, we order à la carte.
I stay traditional and opt for Bella's brisket platter ($13.50), 10 ounces of tender slow-braised beef sided with a trio of spectacular latkes, pickled beets and sweet English cuke salad. The Balkan's knocked out by the surprisingly meaty flavour of his veggie burger ($7.95) but reverses his opinion when he discovers that the veggie version is cooked on the same grill as the meat. Vegans beware.
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My low-life friends have been raving for ages about dirt-cheap John's (460 Spadina, at College, 416-944-2046), a very greasy spoon just south of the El Mocambo's neon palms. First impression? With its barred windows and nicotine-stain-yellow walls, John's is a dive even by dive standards. Ignore that and find a real student-friendly meal deal, a $9.95 12-ounce T-bone steak dinner that's the equal of the budget-conscious Tulip's.
For the money, I'm expecting nada, but I'm stunned by the value: a real-weight steak grilled sort of rare as ordered, topped with caramelized onions and sliced button 'shrooms sided with a wallop of lumpy Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Sure, the gravy's canned and there's no sign of the menu-promised vegetables, but anyone down to her last 10 bucks would have a hard time rustling up a better last supper.
The burger's not bad (today $4.25 on special, with OK fries and a Coke), but avoid anything listed under For The Spaghetti Lover.
His Master's voice I laughed last week at the macaroni and cheese at Lobby - named best in town by other reviewers - when it came tiered with an incongruous slice of seared foie gras. Consider that a few blocks west and 14 dollars cheaper, the mac 'n' cheese at Master's Buffeteria (310 Bloor West, at Madison, 416-924-7651) is more legit, a tasty cheese-rich brick of perfectly integrated pasta and cheddar. The kitchen bakes a good moussaka, too (both $5.65, with salad).
Flava favour But Friendly Flava (606 Yonge, at St. Joseph, 416-967-0700) gets the nod for Toronto's best foodie bargain. Every Tuesday the cheery spot sells its jerk chicken dinner - a moderately spiced thigh and drumstick, hot-sauce-lashed rice and peas, lightly dressed slaw, normally $4.99 - for a jaw-droppingly cheap $2.50! Remember to tip the nice people. Heavily.