East Meets West (744 Gerrard East, at Howland, 416-462-9965) This casual Riverdale boîte gets an upgrade now that chef Signe Langford helms its fusiony kitchen. It's not downtown slick, but expect comfort, value and occasional excellence. Open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm, brunch Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Complete meals for $30 per person ($18 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and an Australian sparkling ale. Closed Monday, Tuesday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Although a hot new boîte seems to open on the west side every week, hip little bistros are few and far between east of the DVP. So one can understand the nabe's dismay this September when chef Signe Langford left Queen East's popular Riverside Café. After five years in the Lilliputian kitchen, Langford split with Café partner Patrick Guinane to take some deserved time away from the restaurant grind and re-evaluate her career. That was the plan.
Following a month-long sabbatical away from the stove, Langford has hooked up with first-time restaurateur Bill Ma and taken charge of East Meets West, the casual 27-seat eatery on Gerrard East. Though it's been open sporadically for several years, East - now with Langford firmly in control - is finally finding its feet.
It's a pleasant, if anonymous, space with gauzy curtains over the storefront window, black lacquered tables, padded wrought-iron café chairs and warm beige walls hung with generic restaurant art. But there's nothing incognito about Langford's new card, much of which is similar to the lineup she created at Riverside, including her acclaimed mussels.
Our amiable if rather reserved server - speak up, lad! - brings a basket of baked-to-order baguette that's quickly demolished with healthy splashes of quality olive oil.
After studying the somewhat baffling menu - first courses are labelled tapas, salads have their own section but automatically come with entrees - we decide against a heavy-on-the-heavy-cream saffron corn chowder ($7). Instead, we opt for Langford's signature dish, ambrosial slabs of Bavarian Baby Blue, a lightly veined cheese that's as soft as brie but sharper, layered on toasty baguette ($10). Next to it, shreds of five-spice barbecued pork, roasted almond and Calvados-soaked apple add considerable contrast.
And though we've been cautioned that the house salad comes with the main course, we've ordered Langford's East Chinatown salad regardless ($12). It arrives a great tangle of baby greens doused in nutty maple syrup vinaigrette napped with Dijon, and tossed with caramelized pear and more licorice-scented Chinese pork.
The first salad finished, the second and third follow, only these are the unadorned house mesclun in tahini balsamic dressing that come with most mains. Reluctantly, we tuck into more salad.
Later, Langford tells me she uses the salads as pacing devices - they allow her to finish most of the mains, as well as her half-baked baguette, after they've been ordered. Seems a bit odd to me, but the social chef says her regulars like the set-up and some even save the roughage course for afterward.
While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the house's grilled chicken breast ($18) - a great deboned, herb-speckled bird sided with a Mediterranean sautée of purple onion, tomato, black olive and crumbled feta - we've seen its accompanying tri-coloured gnocchi so often elsewhere we immediately recognize them as pedestrian Queen's Pasta.
However, Jenny's Famous Moroccan Spiced Lamb Shank ($20), a hold-over from the previous chef, lives up to its reputation. A remarkable fall-from-the-bone shank covered in red wine gets tossed with raisins over a mound of garlicky Yukon Gold mash. Alongside, a trio of oven-baked fresh figs stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with maple syrup push this already impressive plate over the top.
Fans of Langford's work at Riverside will breathe a sigh of relief when they learn that the mussels that made her famous, stellar renditions like Mas Fina steamed in Corona with jalapeno, Moulin Rouge in Pernod and shallots, fiery Ethiopian Berbere in butter ($9 small/$15 large), are all on board here. I go for the smaller portion of Mud Bugs and find 16 first-rate mussels - no broken shells or dead ones here like at Café Brussel - in fabulous Tabasco-fired white wine cream. The bugs in question are three sizable crawdads. Pinch the head off and the crunchy critters are dang good eatin'.
When I first heard that Langford had moved to larger facilities - Riverside's kitchen is so small there's no room for a deep-fryer - my first thought was that she'd finally be able to do frites, the traditional pairing with mussels. But she's decided not to go the French fried potato route. She still serves her mussels with soppable baguette but has come up with an even better solution for what to do with all that brilliant leftover broth. Customers add a scoop of Japanese mochi sticky rice to the bowl that turns the super soup into a dreamy custard and absorbs every drop of gorgeous cooking liquid.
A few days later, we're back for Sunday brunch. As we sip from tumblers of frothy iced organic grapefruit juice ($2.50), we're informed that our Belgian waffles ($8) will be delayed while the plug on the waffle iron is repaired - clearly, East Meets West needs an electrician. Its arrival proves anticlimactic - the huge waffle is sauced with a monochromatic mango purée in desperate need of boozy berries and melted chocolate.
It's nice to see a brunch menu that's not all about the Benedict ($12), and despite alternatives like smoked Gruyère and chicken crepes in tarragon black currant sauce ($9), where are the mussels? Once they're added to the lineup - and after somebody kills the excruciating Kelly Clarkson soundtrack - East Meets West could be the east side's next big thing.