AGORA (3015 Dundas West, at High Park, 416-761-9991) Complete lunches or brunches for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and a fair trade organic coffee. Average main $7. Open Monday to Friday 8 am to 5 pm, Saturday 8 am to 4 pm (brunch 10 am to 2 pm). Closed Sunday, holidays. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Green-food-related businesses are converging on west Dundas West
Starbucks? The first sign that the ’hood is movin’ on up isn’t the opening of a corporate coffee house. No, it’s the sudden appearance of independent cafés and food shops in once-derelict storefronts that indicates that property values are on the rise.
By that real estate logic, the Junction is the next Leslieville. This low-rent stretch of Dundas has long been the subject of speculation. But it’s only in the last year or so that its long-predicted renaissance has finally taken hold. And it’s quirky hole-in-the-wall eateries like Ciara Bracken-Roche’s Agora that are leading the way.
Agora first opened under different ownership in 03 but went under three years later. A former regular, Bracken-Roche loved the place so much she bought it 10 months ago and has turned the business around by making it an eco-conscious spot with a rotating roster of fair trade roasts served in biodegradable cups, a short, mostly organic sandwich ’n’ salad card and a selection of her mom’s retro desserts. Like the Junction itself, Agora’s a palatable mix of the old and new.
Splendido this ain’t. A long, narrow room, its wall are exposed brick, and a few tables in the sunny front window give way to comfy couches at the rear. We’re a bit disoriented at first, but soon after we figure out that orders are placed at the cash, we’re tucking into Saturday brunch.
Eggs Tuscany sees sweetly stewed tomato and peppers topped with poached free-range eggs and sided with grilled house-baked crostini. Agora also bakes the whole wheat bagel that comes with a Welsh rarebit sauced with Guinness and sharp Irish cheddar, as well as the thick white bread that supports its textbook Croque Monsieur (all $6.99 sided with standard fruit salad and very good home fries).
A few days later at lunch, we pair a panini of chicken breast, artichoke heart, creamy feta and startlingly strong grainy mustard ($6.75) with an excellent Tex-Mex-inspired bean salad in dilled citrus vinaigrette ($1.75).
And who can resist lemony 50s-style cupcakes topped with sprinkles and marshmallow meringue ($1.50)?
The beet goes on
A block away, Michelle Vella and Heather Osler have just opened The Beet (2945 Dundas West, at Pacific, 416-916-2368), a small café-slash-grocery-store in a former bank. More hardcore than Agora, this high-ceilinged spot not only boasts a menu that’s entirely organic, but also sports furnishings made from sustainable materials.
Both falafel-like zucchini-cashew-tofu balls thick with crunchy cashews, and mung bean pakoras ($4.99) are the good-for-you starters you expect after learning that Vella is a certified nutritional practitioner and Osler a homeopathic doctor.
But the Beet’s tastes-good-too tofu burger ’n’ fries ($8.99) turns out to be a lovely nut-crusted pâté on an organic St. John’s Bakery roll sided with roasted sweet potato wedges. Equally tasty, the Beet’s chicken, chickpea and spinach roti ($7.99, both with salad) – in an organic dalpuri wrap, no less – is some of the healthiest island grub in the GTA.
Agora and the Beet aren’t the only Junction businesses going green. Even the local burger shack has jumped on board.
Witness Bronto Burger’s (2982 Dundas West, at High Park, 416-604-9342) 6-ounce preservative-free Beretta Farms bison burger ($6), the alterna-Whopper it serves up alongside its 14-ounce non-organic Belly Buster topped with two fried eggs, bacon, cheese and chili ($8.50). Bonus: Bronto deep-fries everything in trans-fat-free canola oil.
Across the street, you’ll find a far more extensive range of Beretta’s meat as well as an extensive array of organic veggies and prepared food at the newly launched Sweet Potato (2995 Dundas West, at High Park, 416-762-4848).
Conceived by Digs Dorfman (he organizes the farmers’ market in nearby High Park), this one-stop eco supermarket gives the Big Carrot a good run for its money. And the Potato is relatively inexpensive to boot.
However, the Sweet P’s in-house café-cum-smoothie-bar needs work. I should have known that the Hippie Wrap ($5.99) – marinated strips of tofu, raw avocado and tomato dressed with grated beets and tahini – would be little more than salad wrapped in a tortilla (and a soon-soggy one, too).
And I doubt that the friendly staffer who made my cold Reuben ($6.99) with Beretta corned beef, Emmenthal and sauerkraut had ever done so before, so disappointing was the result.
But when a generously portioned salad – pear with arugula and grape tomatoes, or baby spinach with strawberries and chèvre (both $6.99) – goes for only $2.99 when combo’d with any sandwich, all is forgiven, especially after I manage to polish off one of Alice’s Farm’s exceptional blueberry pies ($9.99) all by myself.
After shuttering her successful Queen West cantina, Citron, several years back, co-owner and pastry chef Jennifer Rashleigh took time off to concentrate on her new family. Now she and husband Jeff Brown have opened a charming chocolate shop in the Junction called Delight (3040 Dundas West, at High Park, 416-760-9995).
Their terrific small-batch truffles – more than a dozen including chai masala, chili lime, vegan coconut (all $1.25) – are not only made with fair trade chocolate but are completely organic, too. Chocoholics with a conscience won’t want to miss their insanely rich brownies ($2.50) and individual-serving DIY melted chocolate cake ($3.75).
Does she miss Queen Street?
“The people out here are absolutely fierce about their neighbourhood,” says Rashleigh. “They’ll support anything that improves the area.”
Named for the sad-eyed hound who waits patiently by the door, Rebas Café (3289 Dundas West, at Gilmour, 416-626-7372) can be found in what owner Arlene Levin jokingly refers to as the West Junction. Levin abandoned Queen Street for Dundas Way West more than 20 years ago, when the hipster strip became “too commercial.”
Open two years in August, Rebas features de rigueur fair trade organic coffee as well as a small lineup of sandwiches like grilled eggplant with zucchini and a wild Pacific salmon burger (both $6 with salad and Strub’s dill pickle).
There’s also a very meaty chili ($3.50). Splash it with Jimmy of Mezzrow’s homemade hot sauce if you dare.
“The Junction reminds me of Queen West back in the 70s, when places like Peter Pan and the Queen Mother proved you could do something different and succeed,” says the apostrophe-free café’s Levin. “We’re the last frontier!”