VERY GOOD FOOD (1193 St. Clair West, at Dufferin, 416-656-2928) This stylish café run by the Picheca sisters – Christine is the former pastry chef at Agora in the AGO – offers upscale soups ’n’ sandwiches to eat in, prepared salads and mains to go and pan-global gourmet catering. Complete catered meals from $15 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday to Friday 11 am to 6 pm, Saturday 10 am to 5 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
holiday entertaining doesn’t have to be a hassle. And your menu doesn’t have be a clichéd lineup of pigs-in-blankets, shortbread cookies and the nog of the egg. You can just sit back, relax and let the caterer do the work
One of the newest arrivals on the St. Clair West scene is Very Good Food, a charming, modish café with a lineup of tasty takeout. After a stint at Mildred Pierce and as pastry chef at Agora in the AGO, Christine Picheca opened this gourmet storefront with her sister Donna last summer. Quite simply, Very Good is very good.
Picheca’s prowess with pastry exhibits itself in chicken pot pie ($6), a beautifully crusted single serving rich with roasted chicken, onion, spuds and squash swimming in gravy. Equally lovely to look at, poached, sushi-grade, very-rare-centred salmon ($6) with lemon aioli over watercress tastes even better, topped with “flowers” made of pink pickled onion and tissue-thin cucumber.
Salads, too, demonstrate a strong graphic sensibility. What could be more brilliantly festive than red roasted pear and pomegranate salad ($3), especially when paired with ruby-veined green Swiss chard, red leaf lettuce and arugula dressed in sweet cider and Dijon vinaigrette? Or al dente orzo and wild rice ($5) with celery and scallion crunch in light walnut oil amplified with smashed walnut pieces?
If you’re planning a cocktail party and only need nibbles, risotto croquettes stuffed with soft fontina cheese, curried beef in phyllo cigars with delicious chili-spiked mango jam, and smoked chicken ’n’ quince chutney in dim sum-style phyllo bundles ($1.50 each) are sure to impress.
For those insisting on the whole sit-down deal, Very Good’s all-inclusive holiday special ($13 per dinner, 8-person minimum) includes chicken breast with cranberry apple chutney, two salads (as well as the magnificent pear and pomegranate, there’s butternut squash with chickpeas and arugula), buttermilk rolls, disposable plates and cutlery. Alcohol and annoying relatives optional.
MARKETTA ARTUSO (1860 Queen East, at Rainford, 416-693-4614) Complete catered Cal-Ital meals from $15 per person, including all taxes. Open Monday to Friday 11 am to 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 6 pm. Closed holidays. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
the queen east block just west of Woodbine is another food magnet – French bistro Sauvignon, tony patisserie Tournayre and gourmet groceteria Marketta Artuso all call it home. Marketta’s known as the only outlet in the city that sells La Paloma’s spectular gelato, but it also offers superb pre-cooked entrées and salads that make throwing a bash a breeze.
Unless you’re partying with Neanderthals this season, slow-cooked fall-from-the-bone lamb shank in white wine and sage ($7.99) makes clumsy finger food. But pancetta-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with chèvre and sun-dried tomato and spicy eggplant penne (both $4.99) with thick pulpy sauce and a healthy dash of superior olive oil are buffet highlights.
Not just a buncha noodles in bland sauce, Artuso’s veggie lasagna ($4.99) finds multiple layers of ripe tomato, zucchini and eggplant topped with salty shavings of Reggiano and astringent basil leaf. One of the best in town.
CITRON RETAIL (811 Queen West, at Manning, 416-504-2647) Complete catered Mediterranean-style meals from $15 per person, including all taxes. Open Monday to Friday 8 am to 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 8 pm. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, no washrooms. Rating: NNN
over on the west side, citron is one of the nabe’s most popular eateries. It’s just opened a take-away right next door – Citron Retail, not so oddly enough – offering Mediterranean-inspired dishes that can constitute a quickly assembled spread. Many Onion Soup ($4.95) finds scallions, shallots, leeks, Vidalia and Spanish varieties in a hearty vegetarian broth, while sandwiches on Fred’s baguettes, like chicken breast in medium-strength Tunisian harissa hot sauce ($5.95), can be cut up into delectable hors d’oeuvres.
Eggy triangles of challah tossed with cubed ham and melted cheese, garnished with rosemary, make Savoury Bread Pudding ($4.95) a cross between silky frittata and a grilled cheese sandwich. Delish. Call fabulous Potato Shiitake Lasagna ($5.95) with oodles of gooey Gruyère and basil pesto “Fabulous Scalloped Potatoes” and be closer to the mark. And don’t miss cumin- and chili-heavy Emperor Tomato Ketchup ($4.95), soon to be as much a Citron signature as its divine coriander pesto ($3.75).
NATURALLY YOURS (First Canadian Place food court, King and Bay, 416-368-0100; Commerce Court food court, Bay and Wellington, 416-364-7401; and 919 Kingston Road at Beech, 416-691-7055) Complete catered vegetarian meals with many dairy- and wheat-free options from $12 per person, including all taxes. Open Monday to Friday 8 am to 6:30 pm (Kingston Road: Monday to Thursday 10 am to 5 pm). Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
year round, naturally yours is the tastiest takeout in the downtown underground PATH system. But especially at this time of year, its vegetarian vittles readily combine to make an alternative and festive feast – toothsome cabbage rolls ($3.99), zucchini lasagna ($4.49), latkes (finely shredded potato, yam and root veg, $1.69 each/$17.99 dozen) and lactose- and wheat-free vegan pizza with nutty basil pesto and sun-dried tomato on crisp unleavened flatbread ($2.79/slice). No cheese, chilies or garlic, naturally, but very flavourful nevertheless.
Many will be surprised by the taste intensity of scary-sounding seaweed salad – slippery hijiki, crunchy almonds, red pepper, celery, black beans and sweet bell pepper in a zesty dressing spiked with wasabi, soy and turbinado sugar. Couscous Carnival packs both crunch and punch – finely diced mango, apple, Technicolour peppers and dried cranberries over grains in a wonderful apple cider vinaigrette. Super-grain quinoa comes mixed with cubes of meaty tofu in garlicky honey Dijon balsamic (all $1.69/100 grams). Count me converted.
I later learn there’d been a spicing mix-up in the kitchen, which explains why vegetarian tourtiere ($12.99) looks exactly like the Quebecois Christmas pork pie but is so overloaded with cloves – cloves!? – that a slice could cure a toothache. Nice gothic touch: a cross in the top crust formed in fork prints.
On the dessert front, gluten- and dairy-free cheesecake topped with blueberries ($19.99) tastes almost as rich as the real thing. According to the fine print on the packaging, Cool Hemp organic non-dairy dessert ($5.95/500 ml) – think fake chocolate ice cream – is cholesterol-free. It also contains zero THC. (Damn.)
For more vegan and veggie-friendly options, check out the info-packed Web site (www.naturallyyours.ca) that allows you to arrange catering online.
VIENNA HOME BAKERY (626 Queen West, at Markham, 416-703-7278) Charming, old-school diner with stellar baked goods. Complete meals from $10 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Wednesday to Saturday 10 am to 7 pm. Closed Sunday to Tuesday. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free but narrow room, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
not the puritanical boozeless doorstops of Christmases past, dark fruit cakes ($13.50/pound) baked by Vienna Home Bakery’s Gay Couillard feature fresh citrus juice and zest instead of preservative-laden candied fruit. And she adds a healthy pour of rum. Each November Couillard bakes over 500 pounds of these irregular rounds that also include her own homemade plum jam and house-dried cranberries. Did we mention plenty of rum?