BODEGA (30 Baldwin, at Henry, 416-977-1287) Complete brunch for $20 ($25 at lunch) per person, including all taxes, tip and a mimosa. Average main $9 brunch, $14 lunch, $22 dinner. Open daily 11:30 am to 10 pm, brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
Though it's one of the more up scale restaurants on Baldwin, Bodega manages to achieve a rare balance between easy comfort and fine dining. Proprietor Paul Biggs, former chef at Le Select Bistro, purchased La Bodega Cuisine Française in 2003 and reopened with all the necessary elements for success: welcoming professional staff, a highly skilled chef in Derek Kennedy and a very knowlegeable sommelier. The two soft-yellow rooms are small enough to feel intimate - both have working fireplaces - and fresh flowers adorn a side table beneath the day's wine recommendation.
The brunch menu is small at just four items, but the extensive lunch menu is available at the same time. We consider ordering the prix fixe lunch ($17.95) with a well-chosen $12 wine package, but it's only 11:30 am and too early for cognac peppercorn paté, wild mushroom risotto and wine.
Since the waiter recommends the blueberry pancakes ($7.95), I submit to his will. Two and a half 6-inch pancakes arrive, a quarter-inch thick and stuffed with large berries. Served with whipped cream and maple syrup, they are excellent and incredibly filling, but options such as confit of duck leg ($13) with wild mushroom bread pudding and sour cherry sauce make me I wish I'd come for a slightly later meal.
One guest orders the smoked salmon and dill omelette ($9.95) from the brunch menu but receives the Brie omelette ($10) from the lunch menu instead. Since it's perfectly done, he has no quibble and puts it down to a minor communication error, in no way indicative of a problem in the kitchen.
The grilled chicken sandwich ($10) is served on exquisite apple-walnut flat bread, with a light pear mayonnaise, fresh tomato and cucumber. Braised oxtail ($9) on a bed of spinach and squash is enough for a medium appetite, even though it's an appetizer. The oxtail slips effortlessly off the bone, and the puréed squash is velvety and slightly flavoured with maple.
Additional items beg to be sampled: seafood bouillabaisse ($15), shrimp and ginger ravioli ($10), grilled buffalo sirloin ($15). It's a place you can visit often without ordering many repeats.