1 of 3
Fabarnak chef Eric Wood displays the Square Peg lunch. Photo by David Laurence
2 of 3
Photo by David Laurence
3 of 3
Photo by David Laurence
FABARNAK (519 Church, at Dundonald, 416-355-6781, fabarnak.com) Complete dinners for $25 per person (lunches $15), including tax, tip and an Illy coffee. Average main $14/$9. Open Monday and Tuesday 8 am to 4 pm, Wednesday to Friday 8 am to 9:30 pm, lunch from 11:30 am, dinner from 5 pm. Closed Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN
They don't come any more virtuous than Fabarnak.
Located in the stylish new addition to the 519, the six-month-old café is a social enterprise initiative run by the Church Street Community Centre. There, three marginalized youth from the local LGBT community who face employment barriers learn positive life skills by working in a restaurant for up to a year.
"You make the sandwich, you serve the sandwich, people like the sandwich," says former West Coast chef Eric Wood, who heads the program. "We're not really geared for steering someone into the hospitality industry."
Would that they were! I'm expecting some well-meaning mung bean sprouts and kelp on flaxseed sourdough but instead get an extraordinary Black Hoof-style house-made whole wheat quesadilla stuffed with house-smoked Beretta beef tongue, Thunder Oak gouda and grilled radicchio, on the side a house-pickled salsa and salad of 100-kilometre organic greens in an apple cider vinaigrette ($10).
And where else will you find what the surprisingly sophisticated card calls The Square Peg, a "refined cafeteria tray lunch" bento box worthy of nearby Kaiseki Sakura for 8 bucks? Today's features naturally raised pan-roasted quail in piri-piri jam on a bed of baby Swiss chard topped with a fried quail egg, paired with kimchee coleslaw, new potatoes in coriander pesto and the best Portuguese pastel de nata custard tart in town.
That remarkable pastry crust, courtesy of sous chef Jason Becker (ex of the Danforth's Auld Spot!), reappears in quiches ($4), one day smoked pastrami with smoked blue cheese, another day andouille sausage with Woolwich chèvre. Turn them into a Quiche Me combo ($7) with a bowlful of peppery vegan San Marzano tomato bisque splashed with virgin alpine evergreen oil - needles house-infused in cold-pressed canola, of course.
Mains (all $12 lunch/$14 dinner) are just as unexpectedly spectacular. Braised in Mill Street's coffee porter for 12 hours, super-tender short ribs fall from the bone alongside "smashed" new potatoes and sweetly roasted banana peppers. Southern-spiced quarter chickens roasted under bricks accompany a heap of wilted greens and old-school cornbread.
Macaroni laced with a white bean and cauliflower purée and four local cheeses - more Thunder Oak gouda, a Monforte toscano, an aged cheddar of no particular provenance and a cloth-bound varietal from PEI - is not only gluten-free but delish to boot. Love that chunky house-made ketchup!
Only seared Ontario trout with a garlicky tomato-bean ratatouille and a more-tame-than-wild mushroom-barley risotto miss the mark, the former's side overpowering the subtle flavours of the fish, the latter over-seasoned with sage. And what's with the frozen peas?
"We picked them ourselves and froze them last summer," says Wood.
As one does. But I'll gladly lift my moratorium on clichéd beet salad for Fabarnak's innovative twist, a mix of heirloom beets, apples and frisée tossed with bacon, chèvre and candied walnuts. And while it might be anchovy-free, the kitchen's take on the much-abused Caesar gets a considerable kick in the keister from a lemony aioli spiked with smoked trout and freshly shaved Parmesan (both $4 small/$9 large).
A room this striking - pale blue ceramic tiles on the walls, a long communal table flanked by lime green chairs, panoramic floor-to-ceiling glass (even if it does overlook the parking lot of The Beer Store and the stoop 'n' scoop parkette next door) - and food this fab, produced by two unproven pros and three kids with no previous interest in food, deserves a bigger audience. Have they considered brunch?
"We'll be introducing an extended Saturday breakfast menu this spring," Wood says.
Sundays are reserved for feeding the homeless. "We're not about profit - we're about change."