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Cardinal Club (left) and Brisket Panini. Photo by David Laurence
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Mac ’n’ cheese becomes Maki N’ Cheese at Cardinal Rule. Photo by David Laurence
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Co-owners Katie James (left) and chef Marta Kusel reimagine the classics. Photo by David Laurence
CARDINAL RULE (5 Roncesvalles, at Queen West, 647-352-0202, cardinalrulerestaurant.com) Complete dinners for $25 per person (lunches/brunches $20), including tax, tip and a pint of preservative-free lager. Open Tuesday to Friday 11 am to close. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 4 pm, dinner both nights to close. Closed Monday, holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Cash only. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Cooking is like any other art form. Just when you think it's all been done, something radically new comes along.
Witness Cardinal Rule co-owner and chef Marta Kusel's macaroni maki, aka deep-fried Kraft Dinner sushi. No mere mac 'n' cheese this, what arrives is a long rectangular plate à la Susur, six golden cylinders of panko-dusted pasta upgraded with better cheddar and slices of jalapeño ($8).
She also transforms meat loaf into muffins ($6), or, rather, beefy barbecue-sauced meatballs in phyllo pastry cups that wouldn't look out of place on a tray of cocktail canapés. All they need are mashed potato icing.
At weekend brunch, boring old eggs Benedict ($10) become cleverly deconstructed Hail Caesars ($12): eggs poached in Clamato juice over grilled Genoa salami and English muffins, the lot garnished with diced pickle and celery Worcestershire salsa, hold the hollandaise.
Kusel sides them with the same griddled potato-and-leek latkes that find their way into partner Katie James's Breakfast Pie ($9 with salad), a cross between a cheesy quiche and a veggie frittata with a bacon (!) crust. Where'd she ever get the idea?
"It came to me in a dream," says James. "I described it to Marta the next morning and she made it right away. I guess you could say she made my dreams come true."
Back in the real world, basic all-day Burger de Boeuf ($9) - 6 ounces of juicy Grace Meats chuck dressed with sharp Oka cheese - morphs into a Wallop Burger ($12) at brunch with the addition of bacon, a runny fried egg and a latke, while the tasty pork teriyaki burger gets finished with Asian mango slaw in a sesame oil vinaigrette.
The Cardinal's seemingly meat-mad menu includes health-minded fare like vegan and gluten-free French toast with ginger-tea-poached pears in maple syrup ($12), daily specials of tofu "phish" and chips ($8), and grilled baby bok choy and sweet peppers over sesame-scented buckwheat noodles ($6 small/$10 large). Carnivores don't know what they're missing.
Every bistro seems to do a token veggie burger these days, and, sadly, most of them taste like prefab cardboard hockey pucks. The Rule's faux Quarter-Pounder is the rare exception, a credible mix of deep-fried falafel-like chickpeas, lentils, black beans and corn on a whole wheat kaiser ($7).
Slow-braised in rum 'n' Coca Cola, beef brisket turns into pressed ciabatta panino ($9) when souped up with buttery sautéed mushrooms, aged cheddar and caramelized onions. Best to pair it with a generously portioned salad, either gently curried Granny Smith apples, sun-dried strawberries and a swoosh of pecan-crusted chèvre over spinach in fruity balsamic, or still-warm-from-the-oven roasted beets, toasted pecans, organic mesclun and crumbled feta in a bourbon-honey-mustard dressing (both $6 small/$9 large).
And make sure to leave room for James's retro desserts. Key lime pie packs a considerable punch, as do chocolate caramel squares, especially as the latter's gooey, sweet topping gives way to a salty pretzel crust (both $5). Shame both come straight from the fridge, their crusts virtually impenetrable with the flimsy forks provided. Chainsaws, perhaps?
Don't come to Cardinal Rule expecting fine dining. Located on a rough 'n' tumble corner steps from the lake, this 40-seat former spoon isn't for those expecting Scarpetta or Lee Lounge. But the welcome is warm, the soundtrack bounces from vintage Bowie to early ska and Stevie Nicks, and pints of Beau's all-natural microbrew go for all of $6.50. And where else are you going to find macaroni maki and meat loaf muffins?