THE FISH STORE (657 College, at Grace, 416-538-1732) A decade ago, chef Leo Schipani was literally Toronto's flavour of the day -- his skillful Mediterranean-style grilled seafood and extravagant risottos made SiSi Trattoria Yorkville's primo dining room. Today, he's opened a tiny storefront to sell sushi-grade filets and a few fish sandwiches on the side. Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and a soda. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 10 pm, Sunday noon to 7 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, but difficult to navigate. Rating: NNNN
Keeping up with the openings and closings along the College strip is a full-time job. Mine, anyway. A week doesn't go by that some swank boîte gets launched or an unpopular spot shuttered. Currently, the joint du jour causing a buzz with local foodies isn't Brasserie Aix or Xacutti, but the Fish Store, a three-month-old seafood shack that's the antithesis of chic.
With its patio enclosed in clear corrugated fibreglass panels for winter and two cramped tables inside, this tiny fishmonger slash take-away specializes in simply superb grilled fresh fish sandwiches.
The day's catch -- contrary to the old fishwives' tale that claims fresh fish is only delivered to Toronto restaurants on Wednesdays -- is listed on a chalkboard out front.
Inside, owner-chef Leo Schipani sings along to 50s-era Ray Charles on the radio as he whips up spectacular grilled filets of yellowfin tuna, Arctic char (both $7), monkfish ($6) and shark ($5) on crusty Italian rolls slathered with superior olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes and minced garlic, then garnished with flat-leaf parsley, rings of raw red onion and ripe Roma tomatoes. On the street where it's a cliché, grilled calamari tendrils ($5) are perfect -- delicate, sweet and anything but rubbery.
That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the lofty heights of late 80s downtown dining. Back then, Schipani was literally the flavour of the moment at chi-chi SiSi Trattoria, the Avenue Road subterranean grotto that now houses pseudo-celeb haunt Sotto Sotto. Sure, it attracted the likes of Robert De Niro and those Roots dudes, but clientele came for SiSi's exquisite Mediterranean seafood grills and luxurious risottos, not the schmooze.
After 15 years in the fast lane -- he also started Mezza Luna on Eglinton (now the Jerusalem) as well as spending kitchen stints in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake -- Schipani returned to Calabria to rediscover his own roots. The result? The Fish Store.
I can't help noticing the lifesaver hanging by the entrance. Symbolic, perhaps?
"Who needs stress?" Schipani laughs. "I come from seven generations of fishermen. I have a life now."