The Left Door (424 Parliament, at Spruce, 416-961-9425) Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a pint. Average main $12. Open daily 11 am to midnight, bar till 2 am. Licensed. Access: 11 steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Cabbagetown might be one of Toronto's most exclusive neighbourhoods but you'd never know it from strolling down its main drag. A jumble of discount stores and cheap coffee shops that attract the down-on-their luck and the just plain unlucky, Parliament is the polar opposite of the leafy avenues lined with million-dollar piles only a block away.
Sure, there's Jet Fuel, the Pear Tree, the House on Parliament, Provence on Amelia for francophiles, Rashnaa around the corner and, for the champagne cocktail crowd, that Laurentian Room.
But when it comes to trendy trats, Cabbagetown is a major no-go zone.
It wasn't always this way. Back in the early 70s, C-town - as no one referred to it then or now - was downtown's first post-Yorkville gentrified quarter, and Parliament was its hub, a strip of alternative restos, boutiques and burgeoning street life. But by the time the 80s rolled around, the west side's three K's - Kween, Kollege and Kensington - became action central, and Cabbagetown turned into the sleepy burg it is today.
Named for its original owner, the Ben Wicks Pub has been around since those early days. Over the years, it evolved from a fake Brit local decked out with the Cockney cartoonist's caricatures into its current incarnation as the kind of boho-chic bistro cum watering hole one would expect to find on Ossington rather than south Rosedale. The southernmost space of the sprawling subterranean boozer has been cleverly designated the Left Door, since on entering the pub, the resto's to your left.
The room's a riot of retro: cast-off couches, swag lamps and potted plants everywhere. The foliage spills out onto the pretty candlelit patio out front, which is down a flight of stairs from the street, so all you see of the passing pedestrian parade is shoes. The soundtrack's just as nostalgic - the B-52s give way to the Cure and mopey Morrissey's Smiths.
Though much of chef Chris Mentier's card covers familiar pub grub ground - nachos, chicken wings (both $9) - there are several surprises. A Southern soul food classic, chicken and waffles ($13), is reason alone to venture through the Left Door. Sandwiched between two waffles (no Eggos these), thick slices of chicken breast come deep-fried and coated in Cajun spices, topped with sadly sodden rapini and surrounded by a sweet puddle of down-home chicken gravy.
Fish and chips are far more perfunctory, a pair of crisply battered fillets sided with first-rate house-made tartar sauce and a massive pile of properly cooked hand-cut fries that your friends will enthusiastically help you finish whether you want them to or not. Taking a chance on Breakfast Flan (both $10), we're somewhat disappointed when it arrives a good 30 minutes after we've ordered it and all it turns out to be are four sunny side up eggs fried in a skillet with some sausage and red pepper. Big deal.
Nothing can prepare us for the serious letdown that is Left Door's butternut squash and leek tart ($9 with salad). Sounds inoffensive enough, doesn't it? But imagine a mound of plain mashed squash plopped on a sheet of phylo puff pastry and crumbled with a soupçon of melted Stilton. That's it. For this we wait 45 minutes?
The pulled pork sandwich ($10) is quite pleasant as long as you think of it as fat-free pork tenderloin in bottled-tasting barbecue sauce, and not fall-from-the-bone North Carolina-style slow-cooked pork shoulder - though its side of creamy coleslaw keeps it traditional. Big meat eaters will also approve of the house burger ($9), which can be ordered with a second ground round patty for an additional two bucks.
Mentier's lean lamb curry ($14) also surpasses expectation, a meaty if gently curried stew in a gingery garlic gravy that, though initially underwhelming in terms of firepower, builds to a slow burn. While it's garnished with chopped tomato, cucumber, slivered scallion and yogurt on the side, it would be twice as impressive if it were served on something a little more interesting than what may as well be Uncle Ben's short-grain rice. Rice-a-Roni, that San Francisco treat, perhaps?
Open a year, the Left Door has quickly become a Cabbagetown favourite. A minimal $10 markup on all bottles of wine doesn't hurt. But with a little work - more soul food and better vegetarian options, please! - this quirkily casual kitchen could turn Parliament into a dining destination all over again.