ZORBA'S (681 Danforth, at Pape, 416-406-1212) Old-school taverna with home-style Greek grub on the boulevard of broken plates. Ignore the printed menu and point at whatever you fancy from the steam table. Warning: scary offal-stuffed lamb heads. With teeth. Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Open Tuesday to Sunday 8 am to 4 am, Monday 8 am to midnight. Licensed. Delivery. Access: short step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Like Bruce Springsteen, goatees and the off-side rule in sports - how can you be off to the side after you pass forward? - I just don't get the Danforth. Sure, it's a lovely avenue to stroll and the patio scene is one of Toronto's best, but the food? Other than their address and phone number, is there any difference between Asteria (679 Danforth, at Pape, 416-463-9765) and Astoria (390 Danforth, at Chester, 416-463-2838)?
All of Greektown's interchangeable restaurants might as well be supplied by one huge Greek kitchen hidden in the Chester subway station pumping out souvlaki on a stick. With rice. And potato. And salad.
But the boulevard of broken plates has been evolving of late.
To see for yourself, check out this weekend's Taste Of The Danforth food fest, where the grub goes beyond moussaka to embrace Thai, Tex Mex and teriyaki (see Danforth sidebar, next page).
Back in the day, long before going Greek was synonymous with blue and white stripey awnings, hanging geraniums and the Gipsy Kings, doing the Danforth meant smoky tavernas where you went into the kitchen and pointed at whatever food you wanted. Gentrification killed these mom 'n' pop spots, but east of Pape a few stragglers remain.
Aunties and Uncles' David Ginsburg recently tipped me to Zorba's, a Danforth trat that he swears is exactly like the good old days (1986 by my calculation).
From the sidewalk, the drab storefront doesn't promise much, but once inside, we're home. In the back, there's a large high-ceilinged room decked out in naíf murals depicting religious motifs, and up front a smaller bar where posties from next door inhale unfiltered Export Plains while watching the game on the tube. Opposite them, an open kitchen houses a long steam table full of unidentified stuff. Here lies treasure, mehopes.
The first thing I glom onto on the steam table appears to be a very cooked ham. With teeth. When I ask Zorba's co-owner and chef Constantinos Carasoulos what it is exactly, he tells me lamb. Actually it's Kefeli ($6.75), a cleaved sheep skull stuffed with offal. I will resist the obvious punchline.
Next, I point to what appears to be bacon-wrapped tenderloin but turns out to be Koukouretsi ($7.50), lamb intestines wrapped around a number of variety meats like minced tongue, cheeks and kidneys. An acquired taste, I'm sure.
Superbly grilled meaty lamb ribs (Pidakia, $10 ) don't so much fall from the bone as slide from it, their meaty flesh thinly layered with delicious fat. Side them with fabulous slow-cooked garlicky gigantes (lima beans rich with chopped tomato, carrot and celery seasoned with fresh dill) and boiled-then-roasted patates to fourno, spuds in olive oil.
We score again with juicy lamb shank in a lovely dilled avgolemono lemon sauce (Arni Fricassee, $12), not minding that its half-dozen artichoke hearts come from a can. A different veggie mix - fresh thyme-scented carrots, spinach and, alas, frozen garden peas - and a whack of plain white rice complete the sizable plate.
"That's not moussaka," cautions the cook when I order unnamed Pastitsio ($9.95), a delicious square of barely cooked pink ground lamb under penne in near-bechamel topped with eggy, minty mashed potato. Think lasagna with tubular noodles. And like all of Zorba's mains, it comes with whichever side combo you choose.
A steady stream of locals go the takeout route. Fearing the worst - rotisserie birds have a very short shelf life - I'm surprised by Zorba's two-pound chicken ($7.95), remarkably moist and much better off minus the sugary commercial-tasting barbecue sauce served with it. Couple it with the house cold platter ($12.50), tiny tendrils of delicate baby octopus marinated in lemon and oregano surrounded by hillocks of tasty hummus, smoky eggplant melitzana salata, thick creamy tzatziki and whipped parfait-like carp roe tarama salata. Scoop it all up with wedges of char-grilled pita.
Most regulars know to skip the printed menu and order from the steam table, although its lineup is ever-changing.
Carasoulos's son Bob, who helps out along with his mom, says his dad cooks whatever he feels like that morning.
Pray it's not Kefeli.
firstname.lastname@example.org - FRESH DISH -
Don't you just hate it when the Man sticks it to the people? Here's something no one's noticed that's right up there with the devaluation of Canadian Tire money: the LCBO has quietly introduced new, thinner plastic bags! These once-sturdy carryalls favoured by everyone from fashionistas to bike couriers and the homeless have been replaced by bags made from polyethylene that's 20 per cent thinner. No doubt this "considerable cost saving" will be passed on to the LCBO's customers. Toronto's chili-heads have been in a dither ever since their supply of Mado's , the sensational locally produced Caribbean-style hot sauce, seemingly dried up. Fear not, fire freaks: the drought has ended and Kensington's House of Spice (190 Augusta, at Baldwin, 416-593-9724) is fully restocked. Although this is the only store currently selling the stuff, Mado's continues to add its distinctive papaya kick to the grub at Old York (167 Niagara, at Wellington, 416-703-9675), Universal Grill (1071 Shaw, at Dupont, 416-588-5928) and Blur (549 Bloor West, at Bathurst, 416-535-8965), among others.
In passing: the unfortunately named Pho Hung Long at Broadview and Gerrard has closed. Guess they couldn't keep it up - rim shot.