UPMARKET CAFÉ (533 Parliament, at Winchester, 416-922-9998) It sounds snooty, but this casual coffeehouse is anything but. Expect house-baked muffins, strong joe, light lunch/brunch combos and deluxe takeout fixin's. Complete meals for $13 per person, including all taxes, tip and a house-blend fair trade brew. Open Monday 11 am to 4 pm, Tuesday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm, Saturday 9 am to 4 pm. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Though flashier joints grab the headlines, it's lower profile neighbourhood spots like Beaver, Le Petit Dejeuner and Clafouti that are pointing the way to Toronto's dining future. Locals want casual, affordable cafés delivering quality food without pretense, and Cabbagetown's Upmarket Café is just that. Open two years, this upscale coffeehouse has become the hang of choice for area residents who find Jet Fuel a touch outré. Since he lives around the corner, I've invited my brother along to rate the nabe's latest hot spot. I rarely do so - he's picky about what he eats and overly opinionated to boot. Genes, I guess.
Past the golden Labs tied to the pole out front, we find a very narrow, Victorian storefront, one wall lined with a few small tables. Display cases opposite hold the takeout salads and baked goods prepared in Upmarket's basement kitchen. After securing a table and ordering at the counter, our early lunch soon arrives.
We're doing quiche - his a custardy slice rich with portobello and Swiss sided with first-rate mesclun and the house's sweet, syrupy balsamic ($7.95); mine a Mediterranean mix of sun-dried tomato, chopped black olive, chèvre and 'shrooms that I pair with green and yellow string bean salad in a light sesame vinaigrette ($8.95). The buttery, near-phyllo-crusted pies have been reheated in the microwave. So, knuckleheadedly, has my bean salad.
We also order a slew of takeout. Upmarket knows its clientele - those who can afford not to cook - and so offers a changing lineup of dishes that can be quickly assembled for meals at home (12 ounces $3.25/16 ounces $4.25). Macaroni and cheese defines comfort food, a bit bland but soothing, the slightest saltiness stemming from mellow cheddar. Barely pickled sweet beets trigger memories of childhood lunches long gone, while couscous speckled with tiny flecks of red chili, tomato and parsley adds a North African twist to any plate.
Do couple them with a moist, lemony 4-ounce boneless chicken breast ($3.85) garnished with rosemary branches and sage leaf, but pass on Upmarket's picayune baked spring rolls ($1.25 each) stuffed with minced carrot, taro and cellophane noodle.
At lunch, we tuck into large bowls of low-fat veggie chili ($3.75), a medium-strength soupy purée of beans, pulpy tomato and sweet bell pepper whose accompanying potato scone from Fred's Breads makes it an even more filling nosh.
And kudos to a kitchen that can create a sandwich - shredded beet and carrot teamed with creamy goat cheese on a grill-pressed scone ($4.50) - that's both nutritious and tasty. We finish with slices of vanilla-frosted carrot cake ($2.50) that has the texture and taste of Grandma's gingerbread.
Now, that's comfort.