TARO GRILL (492 Queen West, at Denison, 416-504-1320) Complete lunch/brunch for $17 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic pint. Average main $8. Open Monday to Friday 11:30 to 2 am, Saturday and Sunday 9 to 2 am. Access: washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
In the 13 years it's been open, I'd only visited Taro once before. It was past midnight and we were drunk and hungry after a bizarre double bill of poetry readings and karaoke at the Gladstone. Taro was the one place we could think of with a kitchen open late on a week night, and I vaguely recall sharing a large bowl of mussels, two baskets of fresh bread and what my friend called a final, cleansing ale.
I regretted that final drink as I now regret never having given Taro more of a chance. Its welcoming bar, high tin ceiling and jazz playing at the right levels all contribute to a relaxed and comfortable bistro atmosphere.
My guest for lunch believes the marinated grilled steak sandwich ($7.85) on focaccia is a litmus test for success and requests it blue. I like the idea of grilled calamari ($7.95) served on mango chutney with wasabi drizzle. Both arrive with a large portion of mixed greens adorned with a pile of fresh shredded beets.
The focaccia, fresh from the oven that morning, holds two slices of tender, rare beef topped with sautéed onions and mushrooms, tomatoes and lettuce. It's declared one of the best $8 steak sandwich in Toronto, and it's so large we have a portion wrapped up for later.
The calamari is perfectly grilled and seasoned and the wasabi an excellent choice of condiment, but the kitchen has run out of mango chutney, which is only a greedy quibble.
Returning the following day, we find the charming, unaffected server remembers our drink orders, a simple way to make you want to become a regular. Given the success of the steak sandwich, we order the Grilled Yummy Chicken ($7.85) and a brunch item, two poached eggs with hollandaise and smoked Arctic char ($8.45) on a potato latke with sour cream and apple sauce.
The eggs are done perfectly, yolks still slightly runny, and the sour cream and apple sauce for the latke makes me wish I'd ordered a second ($1.95) on the side. Again, the focaccia is fresh that morning, the chicken plentiful, moist and sliced into manageable pieces. The mayo is made in-house and a topping of diced marinated tomatoes works perfectly.
The latest in-spot will come and go, but Taro's consistency, quality and charm should see it through a second decade.