NIAGARA STREET CAFE (169 Niagara, at Wellington West, 416-703-4222) Complete meals for $50 per person ($20 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of plonk. Average main $18/$9. Open for dinner Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 6 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 pm. Brunch Sunday 10:30 am. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Licensed. Access: two short steps at door, small washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Much has changed at Niagara Street Café since NOW found this terrific trat in a tiny row house around the corner from an abattoir two years ago. At the time, we jokingly referred to its south-of-King West nabe as the meat-packing district - a nod to the ultra-hip New York City dining district similarly surrounded by slaughterhouses - and danged if the name hasn't caught on. Since then, Niagara's original owners - mother and daughter team Deb Nicholas and Jen Johnson, who stressed the organic content of their comfort food card - have handed over the apron strings of their funky luncheonette to former Pastis and Biff's chef Scott Pennock and a pair of top sommeliers, Anton Potvin of Eau and Rob Kent of Jamie Kennedy's Wine Bar.
The new crew kept a lot of Niagara's quirky charm - pots of mother-in-law's tongue in the front windows, ill-matched thrift-shop furniture topped with brown kraft paper ideal for doodling, fugly wallpaper in the washroom - but painted out most of the wretched retro 70s detailing.
They also downplay the previous team's emphasis on organics. Like a lot of local restaurateurs, they'd like to feature them but have trouble finding reliable suppliers.
Initial word on the new Niagara was positive, but four months into the run, Pennock split for parts unknown.
Left in the lurch, Kent, who'd never cooked in any capacity in a restaurant before, took over the very small kitchen. Smart move; the guy's often very good.
On what should be a fairly slow evening, Niagara is more than half full, jumping to a soulful CD soundtrack. Our orders taken quickly, we're soon tucking into Kent's innovative interpretation of the much-misconstrued Caesar salad. Leaving the large romaine leaves intact, he layers them with crispy pancetta, whole anchovy fillets, crunchy croutons and a last-minute runny poached egg yolk before briefly popping the starter under a salamander - the kitchen appliance, not the lizard-like amphibian - to gently wilt the lettuce. Ingenious and delicious.
As is his house-made pappardelle (both $9). This an appetizer-sized pasta thick with shreds of sweet braised duck and roasted oyster mushrooms and dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Of the mains, we choose Kent's Crispy Skinned Pickerel ($19), the flaky low-fat fish riding a pillow of puréed celeriac, sided with a Basque-influenced red 'n' yellow bell pepper pipérade and squiggles of citrusy mustard.
I also can't help but thumbs-up Beef Cheek Bourguignon ($17), a robust stew brimming with tender cheek and a slew of baby veggies: petite fingerling potato, pearl onion, top-knotted carrot and roasted button 'shrooms. We're also very impressed with Niagara's wine list, especially the flavourful red we sip while we sup (2003 Negroamaro Salento, $5 glass/$25 bottle). But a shared dessert of dry banana bread pudding ($5) tastes straight from the fridge despite its warm caramelized fruit topping. It remains unfinished.
Back a few days later for Sunday-only brunch, we find a full house even though we've arrived only a few minutes after the 10:30 am kickoff time. As advertised, tumblers of recently squeezed raspberry-apple juice ($3.50), a Bodum of strong coffee ($5 small/$8 large) and a fabulously friable potato rosti dolloped with sour cream and roasted-apple sauce - the best thing on the morning lineup - arrive at table within two minutes despite the crowd. Oh, that the rest were as remarkable.
Eggs Benedict comes par for the course, ladled with lemony herb-flecked hollandaise and partnered with peameal bacon and a heap of lightly dressed arugula, its disappointingly room-temperature eggs perched on an English-muffinesque house-baked biscuit. Along with some multi-grain toast, the same salad accompanies today's diced tomato omelette (both $9), otherwise a rendition ordinaire.
I'm looking forward to Kent's pulled barbecued pork sandwich ($13) but am severely disappointed by the dish's execution. The meat seems dehydrated and under-sauced, the bun the stuff of supermarket shelves, and the menu-promised refried black beans have gone AWOL. A side of Asian-style shredded cabbage and daikon cole slaw is so imperceptibly dressed, it may as well be naked. And instead of golden brown, the home fries are beige mush. Reparable, I'm sure.
Niagara Street Café has obviously changed, some for the good, some not so. People continue to love the place; it is intimate and relatively inexpensive in spite of being downwind from a meat-packing plant and the police department's horse barns. On the occasions when Niagara gets it right, this born-again boîte comes up smelling like roses.