CURIOSITY (430 Bloor West, two blocks east of Bathurst at Howland, 416-968-0404) Despite cozy digs that verge on deluxe -- well, for the Annex -- this contemporary-menu cafe lives up to its name. With an open kitchen that ranges from pretty good to godawful, weird hours and service from the Whatever School, Curiosity will remain an oddity until it gets its act together. Complete dinners for $40 per person ($15 at lunch and brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for coffee daily from 8 am to noon, lunch Wednesday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, dinner Wednesday to Sunday 6 to 11 pm, and brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday for lunch and dinner. Fully licensed. Smoke-free. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN
looking for an alternative to sushi in the Annex? Located in a former health-food store, stylish boite Curiosity is a pleasant nouveau-Arts and Crafts space -- square straight-backed chairs at matching linen-covered tables, sandblasted brick, adobe-style curved plaster walls, silver faux pressed-tin ceilings. Over the CD system, Bob Dylan caterwauls The Times They Are A-Changin'.Sounds great up until that last ambience-destroying detail, doesn't it? But it's just one of many peculiar particulars that mean Curiosity lives up to its name.
I arrange to meet the Poncey Pseud and club kid Jennifer Convertible for dinner at Curiosity. When I arrive, at 6-ish, the pair are parked on a bench out front. Curiosity is closed. On a Tuesday. While we're trying to fathom the hours posted in the front window, several other potential customers walk up and give the locked door an unsuccessful tug.
With resto rents on this stretch of Bloor as costly as those on Queen or College, you'd think owners would want to attract as many diners as possible. But no, Curiosity is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, although it serves coffee every morning from 8 am. Except at lunch, when a latte will have to do. Got that? 'Cuz I'm still confused.
Since everyone needs some time off, the crew slink away and return for lunch a few days later. Scanning the single-page menu, we immediately glom onto the specials -- any combo of half-portions of two items for eight bucks, thirds three for $10. We go with the latter meal deal.
My pals start with cream of carrot and leek soup ($4 a la carte), a lukewarm, pasty potato-ish puree that our server informs us comes garnished with Thai basil but looks like the Italian version to me. And it's a mystery how carrot soup can be white. In the same vein, Poncey's green mango salad ($6) is a tame mix of slivered fruit, multicoloured peppers and red onion tossed with crushed peanut. Jennifer's Mediterranean salad ($6) seems to be a tangle of mildly marinated bell peppers.
My romaine salad ($5) finds a few ripped lettuce leaves, two slices of the same pathetic baguette that's brought to the table automatically along with a Rorshach pool of balsamic and olive oil. The Parmesan-drenched gaufrette (think potato chip) adds minimal crunch. Our two pastas -- tomato-sauced penne with two strips of grilled veal ($10), and minimally saffron-creamed spaghettini with mushrooms, eggplant and peppers ($8) -- offer little inspiration.
The 4-inch-thick potato foccacia that comes with our sandwiches is next to impossible to eat without a knife and fork. Veal reappears in the meat s'wich ($8), while mozzarella-like Fior di Latte ($7) and cold grilled peppers show up on the veggie ($7), both layered with cliched balsamic-dressed mesclun.
Hoping that Curiosity's dinner menu is better, I'm back a week later with the reluctant Pseud and Convertible in tow. My rich vegan root-vegetable puree squiggled with bitter arugula oil marks an improvement over the tasteless soup of our previous visit ($4). The oil contrasts nicely with Convertible's cured salmon stuffed with shredded shrimp and avocado ($10). Beats me why the menu calls it a chartreuse. Because it's green?
Poor ol' Ponce has not-bad luck with deep-fried hearts of palm, spread with bland-on-bland mascarpone and white bean paste on a hockey puck of diced peppers that taste suspiciously like the peppers that appear in both the Mediterranean salad and veggie sandwich filling. His perfectly grilled -- though no one bothers to ask -- lamb chops ($24) are undermined by a dreadfully too-sweet tamarind sauce. Another cookie-cutter of listless polenta and some baby bok choy offer little compensation.
But my braised short ribs ($19) fall from the bone into a lovely port jus next to yet another disc -- sweet potato, this time -- and tiny zucchini and carrot spears. The identical sauce works well with the extremely garlic-fortified supreme of chicken ($20), a partially deboned ballotine stuffed with truffle-oiled spinach and sided with a circular risotto cake. Everything's piled high in early-90s fashion and festooned with veritable shrubs of rosemary.
After we're clearly finished, our likable server passes our table five times in the course of 15 minutes without asking us if we'd like dessert or coffee. Maybe, Poncey jokes as we leave, Curiosity doesn't do coffee at dinner, either. firstname.lastname@example.org
Hearts of palm
Known as palmitos in Latin America, hearts of palm are the inner core of the cabbage palm tree. In Florida, Costa Rica, Brazil and Mauritius they're available fresh, but here in Toronto they're only sold in water-packed 14-ounce cans that start at $2.79. Whether served raw in salads or cooked in a casserole, they should never come in contact with metal dishes because they will discolour. Hearts of palm are familiar to most as a salad ingredient, where they are usually drizzled with citrus vinaigrette. They can also be deep-fried like at Curiosity, sautéed in butter with sliced untoasted almonds, used as a designer pizza topping or included in quiche. Here's a recipe for Vegan Hearts of Palm Burritos that also works with artichoke hearts or asparagus. Drain and rinse two cans of hearts of palm and cut into half-inch pieces. Dice and sauté 3/4 cup onion with 3 minced garlic cloves for a few minutes until golden. Add 1/2 cup each diced bell pepper and tomato to the mix along with hearts of palm and achiote paste, habanero salsa and salt 'n' pepper to taste, then stir-fry over medium-high heat until done (about 10 to 12 minutes). Serve with heated flour tortillas and several cold beers. Simple yet decadent.