EDWARD LEVESQUE'S KITCHEN (1290 Queen East, at Hastings, 416-465-3600) Though it looks small from the street, this converted diner opens to a larger, funkier space in back. Owner/chef Levesque's lineup has a retro feel, too, updating classic comfort food with some Asian spins. Expect a queue for weekend brunch. Complete meals for $45 per person ($20 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday to Friday 9 am to 4 pm, dinner Wednesday to Saturday 6 to 10 pm, and brunch Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 3 pm. Licensed. Access: four steps to dining room, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
East of the gentrified lifestyle emporia of Leslieville, Queen returns to its shabby roots with dollar stores and donut shops. Deep in the nabe that condo developers forgot, the first day of spring has arrived. To celebrate, local rounders hang out open windows over dingy diners and bellow to a passing parade of stumbling humanity.
"Hey! The sun's all out, eh?"
Across from the beer store there's cause for celebration, too, at the former Queen's Dinning Room (complete with unknowing typo): it's morphed into Edward Levesque's Kitchen.
That's Edward in a T-shirt in his tight open kitchen fronting a crew that numbers five. Past walls covered in oddball memorabilia and shelves artfully displaying imported oils and heritage tomatoes, three steps lead up to a large space that recalls a Sudbury church basement circa 1956 -- shiny terrazzo floor, low acoustic-tiled ceiling, pale wood panelling.
But it's all been gussied up -- albeit on a budget -- with yellow gingham linen and matching napkins. Cut flowers reflect in parallel mirrors opposite two long banquettes that line both sides of this glowing amber room.
Fearless Eater has warned me about the legendary lineups at Levesque's for weekend brunch, so we've arrived sharpish at 10 am. And , quickly seated, we know to order a dish the chef learned while cooking with northeastern Italian authority Lidia Bastianich at Frico, her midtown Manhattan restaurant: Manchego Frico ($9.25).
An eggless omelette, this lacy crepe is made of Spanish Manchego sheep's cheese and comes stuffed with thyme-dusted home fries and double-smoked bacon, all topped with terrific Mom-authentic zucchini chili sauce. On the side, an inoffensive mesclun salad gets dressed in the house's multi-purpose miso/honey-roasted garlic vinaigrette.
Fearless wolfs down toasted brioche layered with sautéed sweet balsamic-marinated mushrooms -- meaty portobello, more delicate cremini and oyster -- and draped with melted Brie and fresh sage leaves ($8.75). He later successfully tries out the recipe generously provided by the resto's Web site (www.edwardlevesque.com).
The only misstep happens with grilled thyme-topped tomatoes ($3) that arrive at room temperature as if they'd been made in advance. Forgivable considering the brunch crush.
We're back for an early Thursday dinner with the Troubled Balkan riding shotgun. Except for a customer in sweatpants reading the paper and a soccer mom with a couple of kids, the joint's near empty.
We start with thick, warm triangles of pita spread with garlicky anchovy tapenade and follow with Chopped Raw Salad ($8.50), a tasty tangle of bitter greens, caramelized beets, shaved Danish blue and toasted walnuts in a red wine vinaigrette.
Rarely does the word tender fall in the same sentence as calamari, but ELK's Mediterranean-inspired squid rings ($8.75) decked with cubed feta, cucumber and Niçoise olives in medium-heat chili oil deserve it. Smooth Thai shrimp mousse ($9) smeared on challah toast points generates heat via its fiery red-pepper jelly.
Oven-roasted to order, Crispy Cornish Hen ($18) marinated in bay leaf and mucho garlic gets plated with tart olive ratatouille and lumpily perfect mashed spuds flecked with basil.
Braised in roasted cumin and citrus and riding a bed of shredded red and green cabbage, grilled swordfish ($20) garnished with ripe melon salsa is a delicious collision of Middle Eastern and Polynesian cuisine.
Stunning in its simplicity, agnolotti ($14) finds actual house-made pasta pillows -- as opposed to the so-called real thing sold elsewhere -- packed with fresh ricotta and minced Swiss chard in cookbook-correct beurre noisette. To finish, we inhale unseasonably ripe strawberries tossed in quality balsamic, honey and mint ($5.50), credible coconut lemon tart ($5.25) and the last of a second robust French red (Chateau de Gourgazaud Syrah/Mouverde, 2001, $7.25 glass/$30 bottle).
Back again for lunch, we can't miss Levesque's awesome daily soups ($4), velvety purées of cauliflower with creamy feta, hearty cabbage with chorizo or a celery-apple combo further sweetened by carrot mirepoix. Salmon cakes ($8.75) contain real-though-farmed fish and little filler, a clever way to recycle the night before's grilled salmon filet with lemony garlic shrimp (two), French green beans and warm avocado mash ($16). The pair of sizable cakes come with a lovely lemon-dill tartar sauce and a side of house-dressed greens.
Levesque should be praised for including it on the card, but his lamb-burger's ($8) hand-formed patty is a tad dry from oven-roasting and not as juicy as Bellevue Diner's notable sandwich. Shame about the rather humdrum bun spread with hummus. Another flashback, cobb salad ($12) is a good take on the classic from Hollywood's Brown Derby, a meal-in-one that includes ripped romaine, grilled boneless and skinless chicken breast, diced buttery avocado, more double-smoked bacon and Danish blue. Missing in action: cheddar cheese and chopped hard-boiled egg, but then again, considering the extra cholesterol, maybe that's OK.
And while it's churlish to complain about this wonderful find, ELK's casual service can run from charming to vacant to shirty. In one sitting. But Edward -- and everyone calls him just that -- is a pro, with stints on the line at Prego and Rosewater Supper Club behind him, and will no doubt have these minor blips under control shortly. Though if that laid-back style of dining bothers, you're more than likely not going to get out of your locked car around here, let alone enter what appears to be a greasy spoon.
"It might not look it from the street, but there's more to my Kitchen than just bacon and eggs," Levesque laughs. firstname.lastname@example.org