The sushification of Toronto continues to spread north of Eglinton on Yonge. This upwardly mobile nabe feels like a amalgam of the Beach, the Annex and Queen West, and Japanese eateries rub shoulders with the likes of Lush, the Bloor Street Diner and San Francesco's.
Beyond Lawrence, I encounter what surely must be one of the strangest dining experiences in Toronto, regardless of area -- and I speak as someone who's weathered the Rainforest Cafe. In a third-floor walk-up in a medical building is the Grace Gallery Cafe, a Korean art gallery run by the Park family. And if you're not interested in calligraphy, they'll sell you lunch instead.
Holistic healing Well, actually, I didn't discover the place. Effervescent NOW receptionist Alyssa Fielder did. She takes a holistic healing course in the neighbourhood, and stumbled on it.
But her description hasn't prepared me for this. Yes, it's an art gallery -- but not in the downtown groovy-loft sense. Asian prints and vases of varying sizes line the plain white walls. The ceiling is plain acoustic tiles, the floor beige linoleum.
Toward the back, a multi-panelled screen shields an exercise machine, a TV set, a piano and a living-room sofa. It appears that someone lives here! Back in the gallery proper, a few grey formica tables and vinyl chairs are scattered about the room. Occupying centre stage is a formal dining room set, complete with artwork-filled sideboard.
Chester Drawers and I are joined tonight by club kid extraordinaire Jennifer Convertible -- so-named because after she's had two drinks, she adapts to any situation. Let's see how she handles this challenge. We're about to grab one of the lesser tables when owner Chung Soo Park steers us toward the plastic-covered family seating.
Chester's and Jennifer's eyes are shooting daggers. Not only are we the only people here, but because the background classical music is playing at a near-indiscernible volume, every word we say can be heard by Mr. Park and his 13-year-old daughter, who draws silently at a desk close by.
"You've dragged me to some weird restaurants," Drawers whispers menacingly. "But this takes the cake."
"I want to go home," says Convertible.
Soon, Park proffers three demi-tasse cups and saucers of sugary ginseng tea ($1), and my friends begin to warm up. After our orders are taken, there's nothing to do but check out the art. That kills five minutes. From the kitchen, we can hear chopping. Slow chopping.
After 30 minutes, Jennifer's ready to take matters into her own hands, but I point out that that would be rude. After all, this is their home and we're their guests, albeit paying ones. Maybe they have a deck of cards we could borrow to pass the time? Half an hour later, our supper arrives all at once -- starters, mains and dessert. This may be common practice in Korea, but we're ready to eat the tablecloth.
The food is surprisingly good, much lighter than the usual Korean fare, which is gloopy with heavy sauces. There are only two ways to cook miso soup, abysmally and ambrosially. Here, it's the later, a lovely golden broth swimming with tofu cubes and vivid green-onion rings.
Crisp daikon While it's not as elaborate a spread as those found in Bloor's Koreatown, the quality of the complimentary namuls that accompany our meal is first-rate: crisp raw daikon threads, thin julienne of carrot, pickled lotus-root slices and crunchy dry spinach studded with sesame seeds. And both of the homemade hot sauces have a subtle kick that sneaks up on us.
Nowhere near as spectacular as Tempo's otherworldly sushi, the versions here -- raw shrimp, salmon or tuna over sticky rice -- are simply presented and inexpensively priced ($2). There's even a 10-piece dessert sushi plate of rice-wrapped sweet dwarf banana and contrasting cool cucumber.
Jennifer's Hwae Nang Mien ($8.95) sees tissue-thin raw red radish and apple layered over uncooked salmon and tuna fillet piled on a room-temperature mound of soothing buckwheat soba noodles. She raises the heat with a whomp of hot sauce.
Stone bowl Chester's expecting his Bi Bim Bap ($6.95) to be served the traditional way, in a stone bowl that continues to cook the dish's ingredients, including the raw egg that's usually swirled into it at the last moment. Presented on a plate, Grace Gallery's unconventional interpretation blows him away, even though the rice's toppings, other than its lightly spiced chicken, are identical to the namuls.
My Tang Su Yuk ($14.95), an almost too saccharine mix of apple, snow peas, peppers and tempura-battered fried chicken, strikes me as an odd combination. Tasty, but odd.
As our dinner winds down with fresh fruit salad (free), Mr. Park convinces the reticent Grace to play the piano for us. Although she's only been playing for three years, she's quite accomplished, knocking off demanding works by Debussy and Chopin. We're informed she's also responsible for some of the gallery's paintings. Talented kid.
By now, my once-doubting pals are enthralled with the place. Jennifer suggests that perhaps we could offer to help with the dishes. Will we come back? In a shot -- but next time we'll pack that deck of cards.
GRACE GALLERY CAFE (3310 Yonge, 486-1495)
Quite possibly one of the most unusual dining experiences in town, this family-run Korean art gallery also serves surprisingly tasty and healthful noshes. Although it's a bit unsettling at first, the atmosphere warms when 13-year-old daughter Grace knocks off some Chopin fantasies on the piano. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch 11 am to 3 pm, and for dinner 5 to 8 pm. Unlicensed. Smoke-free. Access: 34 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN