ONE OF A KIND PASTA & GRILL (746 Queen West at, Niagara, 416-203-2229) Despite its garish exterior, this inexpensive noodle noshery offers northern Italian mains in a nearly pretty setting. And while spicing is generally underpowered, portions are plentiful. Complete meals for $30 ($15 at lunch) per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Monday to Saturday 11 am to 11 pm, and Sunday 4 to 10 pm. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
blues legend willie dixon says, "You can't judge a book by looking at the cover." Certainly, that'd be his verdict on One of a Kind, an 18-month-old pasta spot on Queen West that looks from the street like a fast-food franchise. Think Mr. Pong's.
Outside, half the lights in the garish sign are burnt out. You can't look in because blown-up menus obstruct everything inside except for a few seashells, some plastic plants and a trellis clustered with fake grapes. I'm expecting a dingy dungeon.
Instead, first there's a vestibule enclosed in floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes. As the door closes behind me, a gust of air billows the curtains open to reveal a dusty-pink room that borders on pretty.
A highly polished dark wood floor matches a sideboard and several mahogany tables ringed by a total of 24 seats. The decor appears haphazard -- unrelated prints, a tabletop fountain, sculpted room dividers -- but it takes a back seat to what makes One of a Kind unique: good food, sizable portions and low prices.
Who cares if the solo piano CD playing over the sound system seems permanently stuck on replay, or that a microwave oven can be clearly seen in the open kitchen? So what if it gets a bit smoky in here once owner-chef Raymond To starts cooking on all burners? No one seems to mind that many of the dishes are cautiously spiced. At least none of the servers is sneering or -- worse! -- doing that touchy-feely ecstasy thing they do around these parts.
Mains, piled high on oversized square white plates, include tri-coloured ravioli stuffed with minced veal and sauced with an almost tangy curry that recalls Goldfish's far pricier beet-filled pillows. Or spaghettini Bolognese, thin Queen Pasta noodles topped with a wine-rich ground-beef sauce scented with cinnamon (both $6).
Pink Lady ($7) gets her name from the Szechuan peppercorns, Atlantic salmon and half-dozen medium shrimp that swim in a creamy rosé sauce alongside wilted spinach, button mushrooms and slender spring asparagus stalks over capellini threads.
Seafood aficionados will fall for Indigo ($8), squid-ink linguine layered with tender grilled calamari rings, ham and snow peas, all in a lovely white wine bath. Molluscs reappear in Blanco & Nero ($10), squid-ink striped wheat linguine tossed with three mussels in the shell and a handful of smallish shrimp in a desiccated-lobster sauce boozed up with brandy. All come with tasty, parsley-speckled baked-then-grilled panini garlic bread.
Best of the grill lineup, rack of lamb ($18) features six frenched New Zealand chops in a minty Merlot reduction sided with nicely lumpy roasted garlic spuds as well as char-grilled asparagus, peppers 'n' portobello.
The same veggies show up with a serviceable 10-ounce strip loin ($16) in demi-glace with surprisingly appealing McCain's frozen battered fries. There are so many, they arrive on a separate plate and could easily feed two or more.
I'm also surprised to see barbecued eel as a starter. Usually found only in Japanese or Korean restaurants, here the deliciously oily 8-inch snakelike fillet gets butterflied before being grilled. It's served with a honeyed soy dip and boring undressed mesclun. On a far more interesting bed of raw spinach, thin slices of barely seared scallops (both $8.95) come doused with Pernod and balsamic-sautéed tomato, onion and portobello wedges.
Not everything works. A big-enough-for-two dinner starter of 30 steamed mussels ($6) finds almost twice as many shellfish as usual in a dull red wine broth with only the slightest hint of garlic. Funghi ($7) -- yawn-some cheese tortellini in an underwhelming mushroom gravy -- needs more than exactly one slice of portobello and a few buttons to live up to its name.
The most Asian thing on its menu, One of a Kind's namesake pasta ($9) is a real kitchen sink: strips of chicken breast and roasted duck, a coupla shrimp, some sweet Italian sausage, onion, mushroom and red and green peppers in a nondescript garlic oil over skinny capellini.
Everything on the lineup is available for takeout with a 10-per-cent discount. In May, this bargain bistro will open a satellite take-away called Pasta Pickup in the St. Patrick Market (238 Queen West) across from Citytv.
Chef To promises the same Kind of quality at even lower prices. As it is, One of a Kind delivers considerable bang for the buck.
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