POP BISTRO 686 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-461-9663. Complete meals for $55 per person ($22 at brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $18/$10. Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5:30 to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, small room, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Other than a new sign announcing Pop Bistro, little has changed to the nondescript exterior of the recently shuttered Albion diner in Riverside.
But once through the door of the rejuvenated east-side eatery, all traces of the former inglorious greasy spoon are gone. First-time restaurateurs Joe Hume and Marc DeGagné have stripped the room of its tchotchke kitsch and transformed it into an invitingly intimate space. Goodbye jukeboxes, hello supper club chic.
Where posters of the Three Stooges once graced its walls, large rectangular mirrors bounce light over a handful of tables formally set with white linen and glistening stemware. Jazz tinkles tastefully in the background. Seated by the front window and surrounded by orchids this chilly winter's eve, the Literary Device and I have the joint to ourselves.
Our orders swiftly taken, our likeable server - DeGagné, as it turns out - soon returns with the starters. Whose eyes don't light up when they spot crab cakes on a local card, only to have our taste buds disappointed after the first bite? Sadly, Pop's ($8.95) are no exception, a trio of pleasantly presented fritters sided with lemony aíoli that might just as well be seafood falafel.
Sandwiched between two flour tortillas, thin slices of grilled eggplant spread with herbed chèvre lack kick as well despite a liberal dousing of oily green salsa.
Pop's bruschetta sampler plate finally gets things right: a toasted baguette topped with garlicky ripe tomatoes or sweet grilled peppers. But we're curious as to how two people are supposed to split five pieces.
A luscious lemon-dressed salad composed of dilled beets and tart heirloom tomatoes (all $5.95) arrives missing its menu-promised German potatoes, but wedges of creamy goat cheese take their place, and the salad's better for it.
Delivered warm in a syrupy port glaze, nuggets of spicy chorizo combine with sugary seedless grapes ($7.95) to create a deliciously unique culinary collision. More, please!
Perfection on a plate, market fish steamed en papillotte - tonight flaky Canadian cod ($17.95) - comes swimming in beurre blanc and coupled with blocks of spaghetti squash, their faux pasta threads untangling on the tongue. We love the meat loaf, made with ground lamb, rolled roulade-like around braised celery and blobs of blue cheese, sided with mashed buttery yams ($14.95).
To finish, the Device has been looking forward to Pop's chocolate bread pudding - I've got pear tarte Tatin in my sights - but we're informed that none of the house's desserts (all $5.95) will be ready for another hour.
To placate, the kitchen comps us a tiny taste of the bread pudding plated with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. It'd be almost worth the wait.
A couple of days earlier, a gang of us show up to do the brunch thing and find a somewhat fuller house. Again DeGagné serves.
After getting our order down, he returns to the table shortly after to inform us that neither oven-baked spaghettini with ricotta and Reggiano sauce nor a strata of spinach and Gruyère (both $10.95) are available. In fact, he shows us the menu where chef Florindo Caiella has pencilled the word "no" next to nearly half of the lineup.
We settle instead for poached Eggs Norwegian ($10.95) and Florentine ($8.95), the first with terrific cured salmon gravlax, the second over raw leaf spinach, both plated on Ace Bakery brioche and sauced with smooth hollandaise.
Tendered alongside a pseudo Caesar salad, Pop's Spanish omelette ($8.95) certainly improves on Albion's proletarian take, here a near-frittata fluffy with feta, chorizo, tomatoes and stoned baby black olives.
Manhattan clam chowder ($6.95) finds mini mollusks, cubed spuds and pulpy tomato in a tasty thyme-strewn red wine broth, a length of grilled baguette jauntily perched on the bowl's brim.
Only French onion soup ($6.95) lets Caiella's kitchen down. More of a deconstructed version than cookbook classic, instead of coming in a brown ceramic crock crowned with bubbling Gruyère and crusty bread, it arrives in a large, flat bowl, cheese to one side, sinking baguette to the other and in need of a serious shot of sherry.
After a month afloat, Pop Bistro is still on its shakedown cruise. Weekday lunch has already been jettisoned, and its ambitious roster - several dishes turn up at both dinner and brunch - needs careful trimming.
And, considering that owners Hume and DeGagné have served together in some of Toronto's finer dining rooms - last at the late Adriatico - service is a little shaky, but then, they are doing both sides of the house for the first time.
Give them another couple of weeks and, rather than fizzling, Pop Bistro could be downtown's next big bang.