Avenue Cafe & Bistro (480 University, at Dundas, 416-979-0500) Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and a tea. Average main $7. Open Monday to Thursday 7 am to 5:30 pm, Friday 7 am to 5 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Originality is highly overrated, especially in the restaurant game. As in any business, successful new ventures are often modelled on already existing winners. Common sense, really. Who wants to invest time and money in an unproven concept?
Such is the case with Avenue Café & Bistro, the five-month-old casual lunch spot launched by the deep pockets responsible for turning the former RCMP headquarters on Jarvis into the Grand Hotel.
They've obviously done their homework, appropriating the name of their eatery from the swanky lobby lounge of the Four Seasons in Yorkville, using in its motto "Excite Your Senses!" the name of the Metropolitan's Senses café and lifting its menu and decor whole hog from Montreal's MBCo, itself a carbon copy of the hugely successful UK chain Pret A Manger.
And why not? Funny thing is, unlike poor MBCo (NOW's least favourite resto of 2005), Avenue C&B balances commerce, fashion and cui-scene better than most.
Located on the ground floor of an anonymous office tower a few blocks south of Queen's Park, the room has great bones. You may remember it from its days as Toronto's swankiest McDonald's back in the 80s, or more recently as that unfortunate temple to retro chinoiserie, Lichee Garden. Think New York City glitz 'n' glamour.
Now decked out in twinkling 60s-style chandeliers spun from fibreglass, the elegant space's detailing long, white marble counters lined with tall white leather stools, stark white walls accented by undulating up-lit louvres, neutral ceramic tile on the floor nails the MBCo vibe to a T, right down to the lengths of raffia that bundle Avenue's chic black plastic take-away knives and forks.
But there are significant improvements on the blueprint as well. Avenue's twice the size of cramped MBCo, comes equipped with plasma TVs playing iconic black 'n' white flicks like The Wild Ones, with Marlon Brando, and Casablanca, with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, and the gorgeous grub's better prepared and cheaper to boot. That's a lot of class for 10 bucks.
In contrast to the Yorkville template, Avenue C&B dispenses with the pretense of baking its own bread, buying it from Ace Bakery instead. Good move. Thick wedges of black-olive sourdough contrast nicely with flaky pink salmon salad laced with scallion and buttery leaves of Boston lettuce. A forest of slimly sliced 'shrooms (portobello, oyster, shiitake, cremini) on multi-grain rolls comes contrasted with creamy, mild chèvre, the whole lot, like most of Avenue's sandwiches, grilled to crisp perfection on a press (both $6.90, all sandwiches with side salad).
Lovely shaved roast beef gets piled on a multi-grain baguette with sweet caramelized onion, sharp horseradish and mellow Brie, while the Reverse Lox rides an inside-out toasted white baguette spread with cream cheese and tossed with red onion and capers (both $7.50). Patachou's exemplary croissants form the basis of the Classic ($6.50): Black Forest ham, ripe Roma tomato and a soupon of that tasty Brie ($6.50). As with MBCo's $9 lineup, all are accompanied by ramekins of mayo-like sandwich cream.
At these all-inclusive prices, a side salad of iceberg lettuce dolloped with Miracle Whip would be more than acceptable, but Avenue ups the ante with greens that can proudly stand on their own. Mixed mesclun red leaf, frissée and lots of bitter radicchio and abnormally ripe cherry tomatoes bursting with midwinter sweetness get dressed with pleasantly tart balsamic. The Greek's ($5.90 á la carte) an even better deal, consisting mostly of Rastafarian red, yellow and green cubes of bell pepper crumbled with quality feta and kalamatas.
Although the Caesar's ($5.50) a typical anchovy-free Toronto misinterpretation, the side fruit salad ($5.20) arrives loaded with fresh chunks of pineapple, melon and cantaloupe strewn with seedless grapes. Soups ($3.50 with bread) sell out quickly, the only one available on my several visits a granular potato purée thick with cream, butter and little else.
Uptown, fashionistas shell out $14 for MBCo's chi-chi lobster and shrimp quesadilla. Closer to the core, Avenue does virtually the same thing for $8.90, substituting actual shredded crab for the pricier seafood, and smoky provolone for kitchen-cupboard cheddar, even if its so-called salsa accompaniment adds up to little more than a very fine dice of far from incendiary chilies. The flatbread pizzas MBCo describes as "Montreal fashion" ($10-$12) Avenue calls accessible things like "vegetarian pizza" ($6.90) even though they're built on comparable commercial wraps.
Not everything works. Avenue's entrée-sized eponymous salad ($7.90) seems little more than basic greens topped with shaved rare beef and soggy green beans that would be quite palatable if they were coupled with something more interesting than bland feta and kidney beans and chickpeas that taste like they came straight from a can.
Halfway through an extremely rich egg-white omelette, a quick glance at the bill reveals that I've been served the whole-egg version with Black Forest ham and sweet pepper strips instead (both $5.90 and available till 11 am). Any hopes of lowering my cholesterol are further dashed by the pulverized bacon bits sprinkled all over the large, square white ceramic plate it arrives on and half a loaf's worth of grilled and lightly olive-oiled slices of Ace whole wheat baguette. Finish this for breakfast and you'll be napping all afternoon.
Like MBCo, Avenue's set-up is self-serve. It takes a lot longer than you'd expect to get what's ordered finally delivered to table about 10 minutes when the joint's not jumping, and between noon and 2 pm the wait's even more drawn-out. But relax, sip a super extra-tall Illy decaf ($1.90), flip through a complimentary paper and tap a toe to the obligatory Buddha Bar soundtrack while Bergman and Bogie smoulder silently on the silver screen.
Here's lookin' at you, MBCo!