RETRO ROTISSERIE (508 Yonge, at Grosvenor, 416-960-6159) Classic diner updates cafeteria favourites to a big band soundtrack. Think Kresge's lunch-counter hot meat sandwiches. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and an old-school bottle of Coke. Open Monday to Friday 11 am to 11 pm, Saturday noon to 11 pm, Sunday 5 to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
A few doors north of sneakers, the Yonge Street hustler bar famed for its chicken, Bill and Rose Christopher-Kozjan have just opened a comfort food café that sells a different kind of meat, not from a rack but a rotisserie. Having lived in the nabe for several years, the couple know first-hand its dearth of decent eateries. Unless diners are interested in bad pad thai served up with a side of nude pudding wrestling, locals are out of luck.
Creating a modest bistro setting - exposed brick, dark-chocolate wainscotted walls, mahogany tables and chairs - for classic Canadian comfort food that recalls a Kresge's lunch counter gone way upscale, this rotisserie may be retro, but it's completely contemporary as well.
The two based their concept on Kozjan's parents' similar spot in Welland. Whereas that resto serves no-nonsense hot meat sandwiches, the kids have reworked the diner template for somewhat more sophisticated tastes. Lean, shaved Angus beef and tender spit-roasted pork remain old-school constants, but the nouveau fixin's are several notches above the norm.
The basic Retro Rotisserie Beef Sandwich ($8.25) features a quarter-pound of trimmed meat doused with commercial-tasting but conceptually correct gravy piled on a whole wheat kaiser. Alongside, find creamy cole slaw, buttery caramelized baby carrots in a brown sugar glaze scattered with crushed almonds, and hand-cut double-cooked curly fries. The alternate mashed, over-processed spuds could use a few lumps.
This two-fister gets even better with the addition of hot pickled banana peppers, slices of tangy farmer's cheese and tissue-thin Spanish onion (Supreme, $8.75). However, Retro's hot pork sandwich fails to benefit from far too subtle Brie and pointless avocado ($9.75).
With so much meat, salads are secondary. A hockey puck of wonderful Woolwich goat cheese rides a bed of sweet spring baby greens (frisée, radicchio, arugula, spinach, red oak), English cuke and cherry tomatoes in a simple olive oil vinaigrette ($5.25 small/$7.45 large). The same salad accompanies Salmon Cakes ($6.95), recycled and griddled mash with only the slightest suggestion of fish. And Beef Vegetable Barley Soup ($3.95) strikes me as cruel cafeteria gruel.
Staying with the retro theme, desserts just like Mom used to make are actually made by Christopher's mother, Angelina: trad wedges of deep-dish apple, cherry ($3.95) and Southern pecan ($4.25) pie and three-tiered frosted carrot cake ($4.75).
The service seems friendly enough, perpetually on the prowl up and down the narrow bistro's only aisle, to a big band soundtrack. Don't panic if something ordered doesn't arrive. The food comes out in stages, and no sooner do you wonder about a missing dish than it turns up at the table. And when's the last time you saw paper-wrapped toothpicks, perfect for après-dinner digging?
With all of Toronto on its doorstep for Pride weekend, recently opened Retro Rotisserie deserves its own parade.
YUMMY BAR-B-Q (597 Yonge, at Gloucester, 416-920-1874) Small, food-court-style alterna noodle noshery specializing in inexpensive chili-tastic Korean combos. Bonus: lots of traditional sides, but skip the macaroni salad. Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and tea. Open daily 11 am to 9 pm. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN let's talk ttok, the doughy kor ean rice-flour noodle that's the diameter of a dime and the length of a caterpillar. Spicy Rice Cake ($5.50 with chicken, beef or pork), aka ttok, not to be confused with the Japanese puffed-rice diet cracker, rarely appears on the Seoul food menus along Bloor. But here it is on the lineup at Yummy Bar B-Q, a terrific take-away on Yonge's discount drag. A large plastic takeout container arrives loaded with slippery ttok, its innate blandness erased by nuclear blasts of sweet 'n' spicy kochujang red pepper paste, and a mess of crisply stir-fried zucchini, green pepper, broccoli florets, napa cabbage, carrot threads and a big whack of onion. Listed as a side order, this sizable dish could easily sate a pair of heat fiends; cooling comfort comes from pepper-dusted daikon pickle and meek kimchee.
The same banchan and namul sides show up with Bar B-Q Spicy Chicken ($5.65), tasty, tender chili-marinated, then grilled chicken strips that are quite possibly the Yummiest thing on offer. Bar-B-Q Spicy Beef Short Ribs ($7.50) are very short indeed, thinly cut Korean-style a quarter-inch thick - across the bone for minimal gristle and against the grain for maximum meat.
Unlike most other Korean carnivore joints, Yummy hasn't forgotten vegetarians. Egg-battered zucchini ($3.73) finds a dozen slices of toothsome zuke seared in a frothy omelette-like coating, while dense slabs of fried tofu ($3.27) swim in a briny broth with slivered scallion. Fish eaters should check out Charcoaled Mackerel Pike ($4.35), another so-called side that turns out to be two delicious 8-inch barbecued pseudo-sardines dressed with sweet soy and chopped chive garnish.
Most anywhere else, kimchee fried rice ($5.65) would blow the top of your mouth off. But because Yummy's house-made cabbage pickle has so little firepower, this dish comes across as sodden Kimchee Cacciatore despite its Bi Bim Bap-style runny fried egg topping.
The garishly lit food-court resto's strengths and weaknesses combine in the eponymously dubbed Yummy Special ($9.99). Here are more of those first-rate spicy ribs and barbecued chicken strips, joined with nippy shaved beef and lovely egg-battered zucchini. But two minced pork gyoza-style pot-stickers taste like they came straight from a supermarket freezer case, napa coleslaw has an odd sesame oil dressing, and bland 1950s macaroni salad continues Korea's baffling culinary fascination with all things KFC.
Bonus: instead of providing a view of dump trucks loudly lumbering past on their way to condo construction sites, the uncomfortable café chairs on Yummy's tiny curbside patio will be front-row seats for this weekend's Pride parade.