BISTRO 67 (641 Queen East, east of Don Valley Parkway, 416-778-4040) An offbeat east-side eatery that harkens back to the old Queen West dining scene - straightforward salad and soup 'n' sandwich lunches, promising Japanese noodle soups and substantial brunch dishes on the weekend. Complete dinners for $15 per person ($10 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and tea. Open Monday and Tuesday 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, Wednesday to Friday 8:30 am to 9:30 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Closed holidays. Unlicensed. Access: short step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Blink and you'll miss Bistro 67, the offbeat Queen East eatery hard by the DVP, tucked away beside a dilapidated vintage car garage and a shortbread cookie bakery. Named to commemorate Canada's centennial and proprietor Michael Phelps's birth year - "and the last time the Leafs won the cup," he laughs - the low-key spot's been slogging away for three years in semi-obscurity.
Together with partner/server/bookkeeper Haruko and cook Yuri Ohashi, the kimono-clad Phelps has created the kind of long-gone DIY diner that flourished on Queen West way back in the 70s. Post-granola but pre-fusion, these funky boîtes - the defunct Cow Café and Parrot, the still-running Peter Pan, Queen Mother and Rivoli - steered Toronto away from stuffy hotel-style continental dining toward food that was more eclectic. Bistro 67 has that same spirit.
It certainly looks the part. Behind a quaint Victorian exterior that once housed Toronto's first spiritualist church, it's all high ceilings and well-worn wooden plank floors. Tables inlaid with broken Schnabelesque ceramic tiles are paired with mismatched Goodwill kitchen chairs. Lit by a period sconce, a rather drab landscape on a warm yellow wall announces, "This is a shitty painting." A string quartet saws away at REM's Losing My Religion on the sound system. What's not to love?
A far from clamorous but steady crowd files in for Bistro's straightforward soup, salad and sandwich lunch deals. Daily soups ($4) include a chunky vegetarian chili thick with pulpy tomato and sweet green pepper that won't set off any fire alarms, and an earnest cream-free carrot purée that greatly improves with a shake of nanami togarashi, the powdered Japanese mix of chili pepper, orange peel, ginger and black sesame seeds that I carry for emergencies. Looks better, too.
Purists should note that although they're dubbed Croque #6 ($7) and Croque #7 ($7.50), neither is a true croque, monsieur or madame. Instead, you'll find pleasant sandwiches built with Ace baguettes, grilled veggies and melted cheese (#6), plus thinly sliced roast beef and a blast of horseradish added to the equation in #7. And although the menu claims that Cajun chicken salad ($7.75) comes "served on a bed of spring mix," I see chicken breast, bland chunky tomato and lettuce. All get sided with high-school cafeteria potato or macaroni salad or a slightly better Caesar approximation made of romaine and commercial dressing. Whither croutons, nay anchovies?
I'm about to write Bistro 67 off - or rather, not write about it at all - when I bite into the Rancho burger ($8 with salads). It doesn't look like much, just a generic McDonald's-style bun and a ho-hum patty layered with melted cheese and grilled peppers, dolloped with plain sour cream and a blob of likely bottled salsa. One bite flashes me back to Lobby's $26 Kobe beef burger. I'm positive this must be top sirloin at the least, but Phelps assures me it's strictly regular hamburger with "a lot" of chopped parsley and subtle squirts of miso-scented teriyaki sauce.
Udon ($7.50) - a large bowl of dark broth swimming with thick, slurpable noodles, sliced chicken and al dente zucchini strips - proves Bistro 67 is best when it turns Japanese.
We're back to prove that theory the next night. The laid-back luncheonette has only started doing dinners a few weeks ago, and while a wider variety of dishes is usually available, tonight it's only spring rolls, sushi and soup. Phelps - who like the rest of the crew appears to be multi-functional, one minute racing around the room, the next disappearing for long periods in the kitchen - seems a bit vague on the lineup.
Here's a definite: the kitchen transforms the lowly student staple of ramen ($8) into one of the best Japanese soups in town. A large bowl of astounding dashi rich with buttery miso, it also features a clump of wonderful squiggly linguine-like noodles, sheets of free-floating seaweed, a quartered soft-boiled egg, moist chicken breast, Chinese 'shrooms, and an artful tier of slivered raw scallion to finish.
Stuffed with barely steamed green bean and carrot strips, tasty fried spring rolls ($3.50 for eight) need more than pedestrian dips of hoisin straight from the jar and an anonymous sugary dunk to match the preceding soup's excellence.
While it's expertly prepared, Bistro's Makimono set ($8 for 12 small nori-wrapped cylinders) recalls the rudimentary sushi found in plastic containers on convenience store counters. We finish the last of our freshly brewed ice tea ($1.50) and a complimentary shortbread cookie and ponder why a kitchen that's capable of getting things right sometimes goes wrong.
The following Saturday, as the queue stretches out the front door of nearby Bonjour Brioche, Bistro 67's nearly empty. Phelps is running solo today, so delays are understandable. But the lukewarm results disappoint - hot, they'd be winners. Somebody buy this kid a plate warmer!
Made with superb Kristapson's smoked salmon, Eggs Sammy ($8) are easily the equal of Bella's famed lox and scrambled eggs, here sided with proper British breakfast baked beans from a tin and a poppy-seed bagel. But store-bought pierogi make a poor substitute for the menu-promised potato rosti. The namesake 67 Breakfast features the standard two-eggs-and-bacon lineup - plus beans 'n' pierogi - but it's the Breakfast Burrito (both $7.50), once reheated, that will bring in the brunch bunch. A 10-inch flour tortilla overstuffed with first-rate Huevous Rancheros, melted cheddar and a myriad of beans, it's the kind of dish that's had them lining up at La Hacienda for years.
Bistro 67 deserves to succeed, and will once it focuses on what it does best. Upgraded kitchen equipment and designated servers might help, too - nothing that an influx of customers and cash can't correct.