The Ghali Kitchen (4 Greenwood, at Queen, 416-466-5140) Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a soda. Average main $8. Open Monday to Friday noon to 9 pm, Saturday 5 to 10 pm. Closed Sunday. Unlicensed. Access: four steps at door, washroom on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Just north of queen, the green wood bus groans to a halt in front of one of the most unique restaurants in town. The Ghali Kitchen is an eclectically decorated take-away that's also Toronto's only Jamaican pizzeria.
Open exactly a year, Egyptian-born George Ghali's tiny offbeat eatery features what his flyer describes as "Mediterranean Caribbean fusion, international exotic cuisine that makes gourmet love to your tummy."
Translation? Old-school Italian pastas 'n' pies sensationally spiced in island style. The results are some of the most startling multi-culti mash-ups I've ever encountered in a city that 30 years ago kicked off the inevitable cross-cultural culinary craze that's been sweeping the foodie world. Marshall McLuhan would approve.
"In 1971 my family emigrated from Germany to the melting pot of Malvern," says Ghali, who doubles as a character actor in local film and TV productions, explaining his inspiration. "That's where I fell in love with both my Jamaican wife and pizza."
After years working behind the scenes in other people's restaurants - the defunct Fritz in Hazelton Lanes as well as Zizi and Focaccia - Ghali has stepped into the spotlight for the first time. It won't be his last. His stage is somewhat minimal. Cluttered with as much cast-off bric-a-brac (a mirrored disco ball, beaded curtains, wonky paintings, intentionally ugly 50s lamps, a bundle of twigs) as the over-stuffed antique stores around the corner, the bare-brick-walled room with cramped seating for all of three customers centres around two custom-built pizza ovens.
Although he offers traditional pepperoni slices ($3), it's Ghali's Shiraz jerk pork pizza ($8 small/$15 large) that deserves applause. Piled with pink-centred slices of tenderloin, wilted spinach and grilled strips of slivered caramelized onion and sweet red pepper, its necessarily stiff thin crust gets doused with delicious basil-scented olive oil and a last-minute shaving of Parmesan and spritz of fruity Australian plonk (!). It's almost an open-face sandwich, and its generous toppings and very aggressive flavours might be too much for the faint-hearted.
More timid palates might want to opt for Ghali's vegetarian pizza - Veggie Baby ($15 large only) - a more orthodox 'za dressed with a garden patch of evenly chopped mushrooms, peppers and onion in a milder tomato-based barbecue sauce and minimal cheese. Pair your pizza with the house salad ($6), a mess of first-rate designer greens - ripped radicchio, arugula, solid iceberg and buttery leaves of Boston bibb - tossed with grilled and lightly marinated Mediterranean-style yellow zucchini, sweet bell pepper and sections of cauliflower in a peppery pesto vinaigrette.
Not everything works. The same top-drawer toppings that carpet the Merlot jerk chicken pizza become a jerk chicken sandwich ($5.99) when spread between thick slices of bland commercial focaccia. Some more substantial bread would greatly improve things. Similarily, unremarkable Bundt-formed banana bread ($3) might as well be made from a supermarket mix.
Ghali gets his groove back with his vegetarian Rasta Pasta ($7.99), those now-familiar grilled veggies combined with greens and rigatoni in terrific curried olive oil. Carnivores can request the meaty addition of JA-correct curried goat.
But it's his Oxtail, Saltfish and Ackee Pasta ($7.99) that's the most delicious collision of these seemingly disparate cuisines and will surely put the Kitchen on every adventurous epicure's map. Thick with garlicky tomato sauce, fresh basil, cheddar and glutinous knuckles of tender-sweet oxtail on the bone, this marvellous main gets further unexpected texture from slippery ackee fruit and shredded east-coast salt cod before being quickly stir-fry-finished and sloshed with more quality olive oil.
Oxtail Stew Beef Dinner ($7.99) fails to inspire only because of the stellar stuff that preceded it. Based on the same slow-cooked beef found in the pasta dish, it's sided here with a pleasant rice 'n' lentil mix that mimics more conventional rice and pigeon peas, as well as two or three broccoli spears and a couple of sweet red pepper strips. Big deal. Some slaw would be nice.
It's refreshing to come across a restaurant like Ghali Kitchen, clearly a labour of love and not some marketing model for a potential franchise. That's not to say George Ghali doesn't dream; his big break in showbiz could be right around the corner.
"I play 50 Cent's landlord in Jim Sheridan's Get Rich Or Die Trying," Ghali says about his role in the rapper's locally shot upcoming flick.