TASTY RESTAURANT (692 Bloor West, at Clinton, 416-537-7553) Complete meals for $22 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $10. Open daily 10 am to midnight. Bar till 2 am. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, but not patio. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The last magnificent Friday of summer finds the Literary Device and me parked on the well-worn terrace at the Tasty Restaurant.
We've almost polished off the last of our tasty lunch when our server returns to our wobbly wooden table and asks, in that uninterested tone most waitrons seem to use, if everything is all right. "Marvellous!" gushes an enthusiastic Device.
"Really?" is the surprised reply.
That's the reaction of just about everyone who hears that Tasty, up till now a long-running and beloved Koreatown greasy spoon, has become a first-rate soul food joint.
Of course, once they learn that Elena Embrioni, for 14 years the chef at Southern Accent, and Sang Kim of King West's chi-chi sushiteria Blowfish, as well as partners David Kim and Shawn Park, overhauled the rough 'n' tumble resto three months ago, that initial shock gets replaced with culinary curiosity.
Watch them drool once word hits the strip that a mush-mouth main like sensational southern fried chicken sided with optional soufflé-like Jack grit cakes and cookbook-quality caramelized-leek-and-Yukon mash goes for $12.95 ($9.95 on Mondays).
Sadly, from a list of eight alternatives, I've foolishly paired the crisp cinnamon-scented battered leg and thigh with frozen onion rings and too-sweet, vinegary commercial-tasting slaw. The Device fares better by teaming her splendid cornmeal-and-crushed-pecan-crusted catfish ($12.95/$9.95 Friday) with two scoops of nutty candied yams and a healthy helping of barely seared collard greens laced with double-smoked bacon.
Who cares that a request for mineral water results in a warm can of ginger ale and a straw?
Certainly not us. We're back for Monday night's Argentine barbecue ($9.95). While a table of inebriated Korean grandmothers laugh uproariously over a split Greek salad ($3.95 small/$5.25 large) and a baseball-capped rounder opts for Tasty's traditional Banquet Burger ($6.75; I doubt he augments it with the chef's Roquefort and sour cream sauce), the Device and I are the only ones digging into perfectly executed blackened flank steaks and plump, spicy chorizo from Segovia on Augusta. Despite the terrific kick from a thimbleful of jerk-style chimichurri, we're vexed by its accompanying salad ordinaire and undercooked frozen fries.
"You guys look like the HP type," says a server proffering a bottle and a plastic pitcher of Carlsberg ($13.03). Does it show?
Over the next week, we sample most of the old-school soul food card. Juicy slow-braised beef short ribs swim in a cheeky tomato sauce strewn with celery, red pepper and onion ($12.95/$9.95 Tuesday).
Five partially frenched and fabulously meaty St. Louis-style pork ribs luxuriate in a lightly curried barbecue baste loaded with Jack Daniel's ($13.95). And in Embrioni's skilled hands, a pounded and battered fillet of top round becomes superb chicken-fried steak plated with oniony green tomato salsa ($13.95/$9.95 Thursday). But where's the advertised side of Mississippi caviar baked beans?
"No one ordered it, so we took it off the menu," the chef explains after describing the vegetarian navy bean side dish sweetened with caramelized mirepoix instead of molasses. Ask for it any maybe they'll put it back.
Fans of Tasty's previous all-day breakfast will be relieved that the new crew has left everything the same, only made it better.
But why settle for everyday French toast ($4.95) when you can have Scarlet O'Hara Chowdown, two poached eggs on a toasted English muffin coupled with grit cakes, breakfast sausage and gravy?
Those expecting the Jim Beam and Percodan cocktail with which the author of A Streetcar Named Desire often started his day will be disappointed to discover that the Tennessee Williams Breakfast (both $6.95) is merely poached eggs dolloped with tarragon-tinged Béarnaise, accompanied by fried green tomato, collard greens and good home fries.
Come spring, Embrioni and company plan to open Turquoise, a far fancier Caribbean-inspired cantina, once they find a space deep downtown. We can't wait. Their make-over of the dumpy ole Tasty is very tasty indeed.