Now that the squeegee people have been outlawed and the streetcar cordoned off, there's not much excitement these days at the corner of Queen and Spadina. And if you want more than a hot dog from a 24-7 sidewalk vendor, the dining options are minimal. Since the Cameron stopped doing brunch, the nabe's a no man's land. For women, too.
But for the last month, there's been buzz about a new restaurant just south of Queen that's attracting old-time hipsters as well as the second generation of loft dwellers who live and work in the area. So last Friday I invited my personal trainer, Koolatron Abtwister, to join me for lunch at Jules, the boite du jour that's causing all the fuss.
We meet just past noon, and find the joint jumping. Nearly every seat is taken. Isn't that Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy, with his wife, actor Rena Polley? And look, there are art stars Kim Tomczak and Lisa Steele! Donna Lypchuk should be here any second.
Minimal design It's easy to see what's attracting Queen Street's A-list. From outside, this French cafe has an anonymous look, just a large expanse of unadorned glass. Inside, the design is equally minimal, almost watered-down Wallpaper -- regimental rows of blond tabletops and matching chairs, seamless terra cotta linoleum, warm lemony-yellow walls, a few potted daisies. Very Van Gogh, daddy-o.
Throw in 60 chattering scenesters, and Jules is the hottest spot to hit downtown since Tempo opened on College this spring. Don't be put off. This isn't some chi-chi eatery like uber-trendy Teatro. Jules combines a very cool (if noisy) space, a hip 'n' happening clientele and an absurdly inexpensive menu with not a single dish over 10 bucks.
Koolatron, who's been hoping to carbo-load, isn't impressed that the lineup doesn't include any pasta. My reaction's the opposite. Who needs the same-old same-old? Owner-chefs Eric Stribolli and Mahasti Stribboli -- that's their mopey 13-year-old son Jules wrapping cutlery in napkins behind the open kitchen's counter -- offer classic, casual French fare, the kind of food that fell off Toronto's culinary map a quarter-century ago. Cripes, there are even crepes!
First, Abtwister and I split an ap of Chevre Chaud ($5.95), three diagonal slices of toasted baguette topped with creamy broiled goat cheese, all atop a mess of mesclun greens dressed with a honey Dijon vinaigrette. Think cheese dreams with a French accent. They're very good, but since we're sharing it'd be nice if this large starter had come with a fourth cheese toastie.
We're only half-finished when the mains arrive. Luckily, the table is big enough to accommodate all our plates. I'm sure the Stribbolis are aware of this pacing problem -- one minute the place is dead, the next it's swamped. While Mahasti effortlessly patrols the floor making every customer feel welcome, our server, an obvious new recruit, seems a tad reluctant. And speak up -- we can't hear you over the din!
I tuck into La Rôtisserie ($6.99), a hefty quarter-chicken (your choice of white or dark meat) sided with a ratatouille of diced peppers, zucchini and eggplant, more mixed greens, and fabulous skinny fries (not pretentiously dubbed frites) that are better than McDonald's. That's a compliment, by the way.
Gargantuan knife Abtwister wrestles with La Bavette ($9.95), a six-ounce slab o' rare flank sprinkled with herbes de Provence -- a mix of dried fennel seed, rosemary, sage, savory and thyme -- that's served with a steak knife so gargantuan, it might have come from Leatherface's collection. It comes with similar sides. With his rather perfunctory but sizable crème brûlée ($4), Koolatron orders a cafe au lait but is brought a cup of freshly roasted coffee ($1) instead. Somehow, I find it refreshing that Jules doesn't do all that latte nonsense.
On other visits, we work our way through the rest of Jules's roster, selecting, to start, a smooth puree of leek that benefits from a major cracking of black peppercorns to accompany Le Parisien ($5.50, including a choice of soup, salad or fries). Starting with 12 inches of stellar Bonjour Brioche baguette -- at most places you're lucky to get eight -- chef Eric Stribboli piles on thin layers of sweet Black Forest ham and Swiss cheese, slices of tart, oversized cornichons and, sadly, barely ripe tomato. A real meal deal.
The charmingly accented French-Italian chef excels with quiche unlike any I've ever sampled or cooked myself. As Terroni is to pizza, Jules is to quiche. Instead of the expected thick, buttery pâte brisée crust that is this dish's hallmark, here it's paper-thin like the base of Terroni's famous pies, allowing the taste buds to concentrate on the fabulous fillings -- traditional (Swiss cheese with bacon cubes and broccoli spears) or Greek-style (feta with eggplant, both $5.50, with optional sides).
To finish, there's intense chocolate cake ($3.50) and a lovely tarte aux pommes ($4) baked by the husband-and-wife team. The couple are smart to let Jules grow gradually. For the time being, the lunch menu gets served at dinner -- but oven-roasted beef with baby carrots, greens and fries ($9.95) is a steal at any time of the day. And while lunch is often a zoo, it's still easy to get a table at suppertime.
(147 Spadina, 348-8886)
For some hipsters, Queen and Spadina is the centre of the universe. But there hasn't been anywhere to eat that's cheap, chic and unique. With classic, casual French fare as streamlined as its cool decor, this family-affair 30-seat cafe is a neighbourhood hit. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Monday to Thursday 11 am to 9 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am to 10 pm. Closed Sunday and holidays. Beer and wine only. Access: short step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN
BEST: Thin-crust quiche thick with either Swiss cheese, back and broccoli or feta with eggplant ratatoulle.