Art Square (334 Dundas West, at McCaul, 416-595-5222) Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a sugar-free iced orange pekoe tea. Average main $10. Open Monday to Friday 8 am to 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 6 pm. Unlicensed. Access: four steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Though plenty of eateries regularly exhibit work by local artists, Art Square is downtown's first gallery that doubles as a restaurant. Situated across from the AGO but hard to find amidst the current construction, this charming café slash salon might be the first resto to break the jinx that's sunk virtually every spot that's opened and quickly closed on this block in the last 30 years.
You'd think a location across the street from one of Toronto's most popular cultural institutions and tourist attractions would be a licence to print money, but this hasn't been the case so far.
Yet when Frank Gehry's monumental reconstruction is complete, Art Square will be sitting pretty, especially once its projected curbside patio is in full swing next spring.
From the street, enter a traditional gallery set-up where textile artist Nieves Carrasco's well-hung geometric canvases face a pair of oversized leather club chairs that look too expensive to sit on.
Toward the back, the formal space gives way to a small, modern eating area and open kitchen as well as a cozy, romantic walled-in terrace that has to be the most clandestine rendezvous around.
From a short card of crepes both savoury and sweet, we start with the version dubbed Blue & Sea ($8.50). Built upon a thin, folded and quartered pancake, it comes layered with a half-dozen or so grilled tail-on shrimp and an equal number of whole, gently roasted garlic cloves in a mild blue cheese sauce, its citrusy undertow reinforced by several slices of seedless orange on the side.
Another inside-out crepe, grilled chicken and Mayan organic chocolate, turns out to be thick slices of breast spread with smoky bittersweet cocoa and melted mozzarella before being sauced with a first-rate garlicky tomato-pepper purée.
That sweet pulp also shows up over veal parmigiana, a tasty breaded cutlet filling in for the bird, minus the chocolate, of course.
Both impressive plates come finished with slices of grilled zucchini and eggplant lavishly dressed with quality olive oil.
Slathered with a lightly dilled oil, another crepe gets topped with great tissue-thin sheets of smoked salmon, a block of creamy French chèvre and a cookbook-correct toss of raw red onion rings and briny caper berries (all $11.50 with organic greens in balsamic vinaigrette).
Classic simplicity itself, Art Square's spinach and walnut crepe ($8.50) finds a peppery buckwheat gallette folded over wilted greens, crumbled feta and crushed nuts, the lot drizzled with lovely walnut oil.
The joint also scores in the beverage department, particularly its frozen fruit smoothies ($3.75) and something called Siege Of Art ($3.25), a deliciously iced shot of Illy decaf espresso blended with organic fair trade chocolate and sweetened with brown sugar.
The one dish that, oddly, doesn't turn our crank is Square's Serendipity Afrodisiac (sic) dessert crepe ($16.50 for two). A pair of pleasant pistachio pancakes come dusted with bee pollen, ginseng and some 30 other allegedly stimulating herbs and spices and get splashed with chocolate and sugar-free caramel.
But where are the menu-promised garnishes of pure edible gold and silver? And wouldn't it be nice if someone on the premises could read our fortunes in the murky grounds of the Turkish coffees that accompany this somewhat anticlimactic love-inducer?
One thing's perfectly clear: despite a few correctable gaffes, Art Square's future is definitely bright.