FRESHWOOD GRILL (293 Roncesvalles, at Westminster, 416-537-1882) Complete dinners for $25 per person ($17 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $14/$10. Open daily 9 am to 11 pm. Licensed. Access: ramp at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
An early summer breeze whispers through the trees, and the sun dapples the flagstoned garden at Freshwood Grill.
On the secluded Roncesvalles terrace, both young moms with stroller-bound toddlers and urban hipster types with unusual facial piercings sit on wicker chairs at small, round glass-topped café tables, enthusiastically chowing down on the retro resto's generously portioned comfort-food card.
The contrast between the Grill's bucolic backyard and its neon-lit interior couldn't be more dramatic: like day and night, one might say. Although a taxidermatized marlin leaps from one wall, the ex-greasy spoon is dominated by an open kitchen just off the entrance that uses a hardwood-burning stove to cook most of its all-day lineup. Fresh wood grill - get it?
And while the smokiness of the Grill's, er, grill gives the house's sizable 6-ounce sirloin burger topped with charred yellow onion ($8) the authenticity of real down-home 'cue, I imagine the overpowering aroma of all that burning wood-cured flesh would be enough to make most vegetarians gag on their mugs of caffeine-free chamomile tea ($1.50). Even salad gets fried on the damned thing.
There was a time - oh, about 15 years ago - when you couldn't swing a Jack Russell terrier on College without running into grilled radicchio drenched in balsamic, such was its ubiquity on the menu of virtually every Cal-Ital trat on the strip. Freshwood revives the long-forgotten starter by not only quickly searing the bitter greens, but adding crisply caramelized onion, toasted walnuts and barely melting Gorgonzola in a citrusy vinaigrette to the delish dish as well ($10).
Carrying on, the table orders a plentiful plate of chunky sweet potato fries with devilishly assertive roasted garlic mayo ($5). Take a pass on the chipotle version (there's also three other types of mayo: plain, pesto and olive), since any trace of the smoky chili is undetectable. Must be all that competing smoke.
Very good regular skin-on potato fries and a non-fried radicchio-strewn house salad come with the perfectly grilled half-chicken, another enormous main ($12). But when I start sawing through its juicy meat with the somewhat flimsy knife provided, most of the spuds and greens, which have been curiously plated underneath the bird on an already crowded platter, end up on the floor. Bigger dishes and sturdier cutlery, perhaps?
It's nearly impossible to fault Freshwood's shepherd's pie ($9). Made with the same quality beef as its burger, it's got more bottom than topping: Martha Stewart-correct cubed carrots, fresh garden peas and ground round layered with old-school smashed spuds. Of course, to be truly 1950s-authentic, Martha would use canned peas.
The Grill offers all-day breakfasts - three eggs, toast, home fries, baked black bean veggie chili, with bacon or grilled tomato ($6) - but larger dinner specials start around 11 in the morning and run till close. We're particularly partial to the one we had the other evening: four meaty lamb chops coupled with roasted red beets and an intoxicating puree of white navy beans lashed with more Gorgonzola ($18). Recipe, please! But we're quickly tiring of the one-note flavour imbued by that wood-burning stove, as if everything has been doused with liquid smoke
Instead of leavened dough, the Grill's pizzas - our favourite: beefy and, yes, smoky, portobello mushroom, sweet onion, roasted garlic and chèvre ($9) - are built on house-made flatbread, the same wraps that swaddle its sensationally tasty pulled pork sandwich (both $9).
Because of the set-up, service can be understandably harried during peak periods. Besides the bustling patio out back, whether they're coming or going or just hanging around, customers tend to congregate by the front door next to the kitchen and cash register as staff armed with steaming platefuls of grub - "Watch your back!" - attempt to manouevre through the obstacle course. Things will shake down soon, no doubt.
After opening less than three months ago, local boy and first-time restaurateur Dov Szava has a hit on his hands. Round these parts, there's no finer diner. Why, Freshwood Grill could be just about the biggest thing to hit the avenue since streetcars and pierogi.