Canteen chef Paul Brans (left) shows off the gnocchi and braised lamb and couscous salad with chicken; executive chef Jason Bangerter prepares the gnocchi and displays Parmesan fries (below).
O&B CANTEEN (330 King West, at John, 647-288-4710, oliverbonacini.com.) Complete lunches for $25 per person (breakfasts $20/dinners $40), including all taxes, tip and unlimited sparkling Q water. Average main $10/$18. Open Monday to Friday 7 am to 4 am, Friday and Saturday 8 am to 4 am from September 9 to 19. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Surrounded by tourist traps, meat markets and donut franchises, the O&B Canteen on the ground floor of the new TIFF tower has a captive audience.
Where else round these parts can you grab a quick between-flick sandwich of deli-sliced smoked beef brisket, sauerkraut and havarti - hold the mustard - on a buttery house-baked croissant for 7 bucks?
Now in its fourth week, Canteen already plays to full houses. As one would expect from an Oliver & Bonacini operation - others include Jump, Biff's and Canoe - this bright 'n' buzzing 90-seat room is the model of efficiency, with low-slung brown leather banquettes, bare-topped tables equipped with both pepper and salt mills and an always busy open kitchen partially hidden behind a wall of colourful Le Creuset casseroles. A geeky army of servers suffer matching turquoise plaid shirts tucked into khaki Dockers with smiles.
As a streetcar rattles by, floor-to-ceiling glass opens to a wraparound patio and a view of the picturesque sidewalk cafés across the way. Course, the folks across King get to look at what appears to be a monolithic block-long Sears store covered in black aluminum siding, with a generic 46-storey condo plopped on top and a restaurant on the first floor.
Back there, early birds dig into breakfast butties stuffed with maple-smoked back bacon, sunny-side-up eggs and slices of gooey Canadian cheddar on either pain au lait hamburger buns ($4) or Thuet-calibre croissants ($6) spread with stellar house-made ketchup. But if Canteen's soup du jour ($6) is not only "seasonal" but "chef-inspired" to boot, as the all-day menu claims, today's pale beige parsnip purée suggests that executive chef Jason Bangerter of Auberge du Pommier dreams of wallpaper paste.
We pass on Monday's quiche special - halibut and potato ($15), we think not - for the Al Parma pizza ($16), a surprisingly simple pie upgraded with a cracker-style multigrain crust brushed with sauce and tossed with shaved Parmigiano, a few translucent sheets of prosciutto and peppery fresh arugula. Gnocchi ($14) are just as straightforward, a dozen or so doughy pillows dressed with strands of braised local lamb and more sharp Reggiano.
Our perfunctory steak frites ($21) goes back after we've eaten half of it, as it gets progressively rarer than we've ordered. No prob. The flank comes back correctly cooked, with a replenished pile of those terrific Parmesan frites, something the roasted half-chicken ordinaire ($18) and just about everything else on the card could use as a side ($5). And other than a Saturday special ($16 to $19), where's the signature burger? Isn't that mandatory these days?
Trade out the carbs for Thai coleslaw ($6) made with "100k root vegetables" (translation: carrot and cabbage) in sweet nam prik vinaigrette or de rigueur heirloom beet salad ($7) finished with hazelnuts and snippets of tarragon. Avoid the temptation to make either a main with the addition of dreadful falafel-like chickpea fritters ($7).
Until sampling Canteen's version of the light, lemony custard, I'd always assumed posset ($6) was a Dame Edna double entendre ("More posset, possum?"). Wash everything down with bottomless glasses of carbonated Q water, aka l'eau du Lac Ontario filtrée ($2.50 "per guest"). Low sodium, too!
O&B has a long history of producing resto blockbusters, and knows better than most how to put bums in seats. Tighten up the script, bring a burger on board, give the cast a better wardrobe and Canteen could run for years.