93 Harbord (93 Harbord, at Sussex, 416-922-5914) Toronto's first intentionally anonymous restaurant, this stylish, understated Annex boîte focuses on Palestinian chef Isam Kaisi's contemporary spin on modern North African and Middle Eastern mainstays. Reasonable prices, minimal attitude, zero scene and DJ-free - so far. Now, if they could just come up with a catchy name! Complete meals for $40 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of house red. Open for dinner Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday 5:30 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm, bar till close. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Although we already have a Bistro 990, a Café 668 and a Five Doors North, 93 Harbord is Toronto's first restaurant not to have a name. Yeah, there's been a signless spot or two before, suggesting that if you don't know where it is you obviously don't know where it's at. But 93 Harbord's anonymity has nothing to do with snobbery. Its unintended handle came with the place. It's the address painted in large letters on the awning over the front door of the just-opened upscale North African/Middle Eastern eatery - an eatery that's got the Annex in a lather, if a somewhat confused one.
"People are coming in and telling us that everybody's talking about this exciting new restaurant called 93 Harbord," explains its co-owner, Charlotte Dowd. "We've been trying to agree on a name for weeks, but the neighbourhood seems to have decided for us."
There's reason for the buzz. After 20 years slogging away in other people's restaurants, first-time restaurateurs Dodd and partners chef Isam Kaisi and his brother, Ali al-Qaisi, have created a smart supper club that's very much of the moment. It's a stylish, comfortable room - warm brick walls hung with simply framed mirrors, warm lighting, long banquettes, kraft-paper-topped tables, tinkling cocktail jazz - coupled with a reasonably priced lineup of inventive North African and Middle Eastern dishes. This ain't the usual Annex falafel joint.
Not that the tepid complimentary starter of recently grilled pita triangles sided with a pleasant olive tapenade and a slightly stronger parsley purée would be out of place at Aida's, but it's free, and let's not be too churlish.
Our initial surliness dissolves this drizzly Thursday evening after an impressive parade of plates that begins with a near-Napoleonic tower composed of layers of chewy bulgur, barely cooked baby red and yellow heirloom beets and a potent top tier of licorice-scented mint chutney spiked with boozy arak ($7).
Pooled in tangy sun-dried red currant jus, a circular base of grated sweet Jerusalem artichokes strewn with wilted dandelion greens ($9) demonstrates chef Kaisi's skill at balancing bitter with sweet. His perfect en point spears of asparagus ($9) are wrapped in tender-pink slices of grilled sirloin napped with syrupy tart tamarind sauce tossed with black sesame seeds, another collision of vibrant colours and bold flavours.
The mains continue in this spirit. A tasty slab of organic kibbeh beef ($16) - think Middle Eastern meatloaf - rides a bed of steamed greens splashed with pomegranate jus. Kaisi's wine-braised lamb shank ($19) steals the show. Slow-cooked and fall-from-the-bone, the gorgeous entree gets sided with a smoky mound of fareki (roasted still-green wheat kernels) tossed with pine nuts, as well as an architectural cross-section of butternut squash and a delicious puddle of honeyed date yogurt.
Call vegetable and fruit tagine ($15) 93's sensible vegetarian dish, a no-nonsense stew of thick grilled zucchini, nutty chickpea and crisp red bell pepper over mildly spiced basmati rice, garnished with requisite mint sprig that will satisfy the vegan in the party.
Back a few nights later, we start with an enjoyable arugula salad ($8) scattered with walnuts and salty feta-like akkawi cheese in a citrusy honey-clove vinaigrette, but wish its accompanying pear slices were less al dente. A quartet of cigar-sized deep-fried wonton wrappers packed with organic chicken and pine nuts ($8) arrives on a plate dusted with piquant sumac, while an impressive pair of seared scallops and tail-on shrimp served on thin apple rings ($12) get undone by an overly acidic coulis made with tiny lemony sour grapes.
We finish with a very moist seared organic chicken breast pocketed with diced almonds and mild olives and served over capsi pilau ($17), lovely basmati infused with a not-too-fiery sauce of sun-dried tomato and lime mixed with ground ginger, cumin and nutmeg. Polishing off the last of the no-frills house red - 2001 Quartana Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($5.95 glass/ $21 bottle) that costs only a bit more per bottle at the LCBO than it does here per glass, so who's complaining? - we drink to 93's imminent success.
Like any new venture, this charming spot has yet to work out some of the kinks, especially when a third-full 60-seat room doesn't allow the kitchen to work at its full potential. Plates often arrive lukewarm after the trek from open kitchen to table, and some consistency on the CD player - one minute barely audible, then blaring, then completely dead for about half an hour - would also help pull things together. Minor quibbles all.
Harbord Street has always been a dining destination. As of now, Number 93 - or whatever it's called - makes it more so.