LESLIE JONES (1182 Queen East, at Brooklyn, 416-463-5663) Complete dinners for $35 per person (lunches $20), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $15/$10. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 10 pm, bar till close. Closed Monday. Licensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, but small washrooms. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Running through Sunday, this weekend's Leslielicious prix fixe dinner fest shines the spotlight on a number of deserving east-side eateries. Alongside familiar names like Kubo, Barrio and Verveine, you'll find a few that are still unknown to all but the most adventurous of foodies. Places like Leslie Jones.
Since its low-key launch three months ago, this storefront café just east of Jones (hence the handle) has built up a local following that's seen it grow from an unassuming coffeehouse to a laid-back lunch spot with a secluded, quiet patio out back.
Now, owner/chef George Wensley has stepped up his game by introducing a three-course $25 dinner deal for the event. If the grub's half as good as the daytime lineup, Leslie Jones could be Leslieville's next big thing.
The room's certainly small enough - a narrow exposed-brick-lined space decked out with comfy sofas and a working 60s console stereo complete with a stack of vintage LPs. That's Wensley rattling those impressive pots and pans in the open kitchen.
You might recognize him from his previous short-lived Ten Twenty Five, or from his stints at Gio's and Five Doors North back when they were on the cutting edge of culinary cool - about eight years ago, by my book. Further back, he apprenticed at the long-gone China Blues under Greg Couillard and Restaurant Makeover's David Adjey.
Wensley learned well. His baby spinach salad comes dressed with strips of raw red pepper, slivered strawberries and shredded Asiago in a cautiously curried vinaigrette. Tender al dente orzo gets tossed with crumbled feta, pine nuts, wilted spinach and a tasty lemon dressing (both $5 small/$9 large).
And don't miss his superb parallel spin on salade niçoise, here a tangle of organic greens layered with sliced new potato, whole briny capers and Kristapsons fabulous smoked salmon garnished with snippets of straight-from-the-garden dill ($6/$10).
Sided with triangles of doughy toasted pita smeared with the tangy house pesto, pastas are generously portioned and inexpensively priced. Spaghetti arrives heaped with grilled chicken and 'shrooms in an assertively Old World tomato sauce ($11).
Better still, a large bowl of slippery linguine gets topped with sizable tiger shrimp, a coupla scallops and chunky tomato as well as a splash of Wensley's herb-infused olive oil ($12).
A definite contender for Toronto's best pulled pork sandwich, Leslie Jones's open-face rendition finished with ripe mango salad and a squirt of sambal-olek-kicked mayo rides a round of crisply grilled flatbread piled with gently jerked tenderloin that virtually disintegrates on the tongue. In contrast, an otherwise delish if somewhat messy grilled chicken and avocado coupling can't decide whether its sandwich or salad (both $9).
A week after our visits, I ask the easy-going Wensley if he has any qualms about the imminent opening of a Leslieville branch of Starbucks at Queen and Logan. Is he worried that too-kewl Leslieville will change?
"Why would I?" he laughs. "It's a good thing for everybody. In fact, we could use another five or six restaurants out here."
For more great Leslieville restos, check out this week's Recently Reviewed (page 39). For more information on Leslielicious: www.eastendnoise.com.