Eatons’ eats no treat

Rating: NNNNNaubergine! to the rest of us it's an eggplant, but to the newly resurrected eatons it's a concept to.

Rating: NNNNN

aubergine! to the rest of us it’s an eggplant, but to the newly resurrected eatons it’s a concept to make us forget the dowdy department store and think with-it, upscale shopping experience.They’ve even gone so far as to pull a k.d. lang and go all lower case ­– it’s eatons now. This new branding gets reinforced by a TV commercial that pays homage to ­– cineastes will say rips off ­– Stanley Donen’s 1957 movie Funny Face, right down to the over-processed Technicolor film. And doesn’t the chain’s new logo look suspiciously like a hit of ecstasy?

A visit to eatons’ downtown flagship reveals that the new eatons looks an awful lot like the old Eaton’s, complete with the Roots, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger gear that’s found in every mall in North America.

True, they’ve installed Wal-Mart-style greeters to replace the old store’s notoriously uninterested staff, but other than that it’s business as usual. Only happier! More expensive! Positively aubergine!

Finding eatons fourth-floor eatery, CuiScene, proves daunting. Hidden away in a far corner next to a fake TV studio with high-definition monitors and closed-circuit cameras where Food Channel hacks like Ken Kostik flog cookbooks, I find the cafeteria just past noon in full feeding frenzy.

On my way to lunch, I’ve already been wished a good morning by a dozen staff.

But there’s no one on duty to explain how this cafeteria-in-the-round operates and no posted instructions that spell out the drill. Instead, chaos: shoppers laden with multiple purchases and heavy winter coats wander randomly from station to station attempting to figure out what’s on offer, how much it costs and where to line up to get it. Throw in a handful of knee-high pre-schoolers and anarchy ensues.

After several visits, I figure out the stations of the nosh. Grab a wooden tray next to the cutlery, scope the menus near the differing food arenas, then join the queue. Drinks are by the checkout ­– there’s free tap water in the main seating area. Then pay the cashiers.

The best seats ­– comfy rattan armchairs at round wooden tables ­– are located in the quieter space next to the coffee stand.

From the grill, I select stuffed roast turkey ($9.95), two 1-inch slices of rolled bird sided with black-peppered green beans and withered roast potatoes. Like everything I try here, my meal’s reached unappetizing room temperature by the time I’ve made it to my table. A plastic packet of ketchup helps perk things up a bit.

Two days later, this same turkey has moved over to the sandwich station, where it makes a far better appearance between super Ace baguette spread with cranberry and raisin jam ($6.95).

The counter person making the sandwich has to come out front to check the menu to see how to make it. At least it’s freshly made. But enough with the balsamic-dressed mesclun on the side.

Waiting 12 minutes for seared salmon ($9.95) at the Asian station a few days later is a waste of 12 minutes. The thick slab of fish looks promising lying in a puddle of white sauce and a pile of julienned veggies, but it’s been cooked about nine minutes too long.

Not only is it mushy, but it’s stone cold by the time we make it past the cashier, who hasn’t quite got the hang of the register yet.

Because the sushi station seems to be the least popular, who knows how long the California pizza ($8.50) has been sitting in its plastic container. It’s no worse than most, an 8-inch sticky rice base layered with chunk tuna, English cucumber and flying fish roe, but no wasabi.

Pastas and pizzas fare a bit better. The 9-inch smoked-salmon-and-red- pepper pizza ($10.50) pales when compared to those served at nearby Terroni. Veal tortellini ($9.95) would verge on passable if it weren’t luke-warm by the time we sit down.

But, hey, the cook throws in some balsamic-dressed mesclun free of charge. Gee, thanks.

And I should have just chucked out the clam chowder ($3.95), a gluey gloop of recycled salmon and veggies that would not be out of place in a bottle labelled Elmer’s.

Sure, CuiScene’s convenient when you’re shopping. But within a block of the Eatin’ Centre, bargain hunters can easily score better food at far more reasonable prices. But then, it wouldn’t be aubergine.CUISCENE (290 Yonge, 343-2111) A fourth-floor cafeteria in the recently revamped downtown eatons offers not-so-fast food in the round. With stations for Ital-ish pastas ‘n’ pizzas, grilled burgers, ersatz Asian stir-fries and pre-fab sushi, this chaotic eatery offers convenience only. For quality and value, try the food court downstairs or the dozens of worthy eateries nearby. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes and a mineral water. Open Monday to Saturday 9:30 am to 9:30 pm, Sundays 11 am to 7 pm. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: barrier-free. Rating: N

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