E.L. RUDDY (1371 Dundas West, at Rusholme, 647-351-0423) Complete meals for $15 per person, including tax, tip and a refilled mug of I Deal coffee. Average main $8. Open Tuesday to Thursday 9 am to 8 pm, Friday to Sunday 9 am to 6 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Helena Kosikova had been planning on transforming a Dundas West storefront into a used bookstore when her career trajectory suddenly changed.
"We were removing the plaster on the east wall to expose the bricks underneath, but we found this mural instead," says the newbie restaurateur. "The second I saw it, I knew the space had to be a café."
The Depression-era graphic she uncovered also gave the quirky three-month-old vegetarian joint its name. Back in the day, Ruddy owned every outdoor billboard in town.
The cozy 20-seat room's a Goodwill jumble of mismatched formica-topped kitchen tables and random chairs, its shelves stocked with current copies of the NME and veggie pioneer Linda McCartney's Beatles trivia game ("Name the two surviving original members." Answer at end of this review.)
The single-page menu may start off on a bad foot - "Boring breakfast ($8)," "Slow service after 4 pm" - but soon finds its bearings. Finished with a photo-perfect leaf of flat Italian parsley, Kosikova's impossibly rich cream of tomato soup comes across like Campbell's in excelsis, a garlicky vegan purée further sweetened with yams and crushed cashews. All it needs is some chicken breast to make it the tastiest butter chicken in town.
"We don't hold back," laughs the self-taught cook. "We butcher the flavour in."
In contrast, the wallop in her spice-free Mexican black bean soup (both $6 with whole wheat toast) comes from the ingredients themselves, a clean tomato broth thick with baby kidney beans, corn kernels and diced bell pepper. Pair them with the kitchen's clever take on Vietnamese banh mi subs ($3), house-baked whole wheat buns spread with mayo or vegan margarine and convincingly dressed with garlic-marinated tofu, cucumber, coriander and pickled daikon.
Her low-sodium mains are just as ingenious. You'd swear there's a whack of dairy in Kosikova's buttery fennel and baby pea risotto, but the luscious combo is completely free of animal by-products, its creaminess coming naturally from classic arborio rice. Served in soufflé ramekins, leek 'n' potato pot pies sport spelt flour lids, one of several gluten-free entrees on the card (all $8, with organic greens in a peppery balsamic vinaigrette).
I've eaten at countless beaneries over the years, but for the first time ever, when the Ruddy dish I order at brunch is placed in front of me, someone at the next table leans over and excitedly says, "I'll have what he's having!"
That'd be a massive platter of four Belgian waffles the size of oven mitts. Made again with spelt flour and dolled up with maple syrup, whipped cream and a doll teacup's worth of stewed strawberries, they're so remarkably light, I manage to polish off the plateful ($12).
Rather than pile her brunch plates with cantaloupe that no one ever eats, Kosikova offers a small fruit salad - one grape, a nectarine section, a halved strawberry and three pomegranate seeds - right off the top. Those who don't do dairy should stay well clear of her marvellous wild blueberry scones ($2.50), leaving more for the rest of us.
Aged organic white cheddar omelettes get sided with perfunctory home fries, house greens and toasted molasses-laced brown bread that will send anyone who remembers Gay Couillard's legendary Vienna Home Bakery into raptures. And while it doesn't pack a visual punch, Huevos Yelapa (both $9 with I Deal coffee refills) with either two eggs or more of that terrific tofu plus refried beans and cornbread benefits from a hit of in-yer-face salsa.
Wherever does chef get her inspiration?
"When you're a vegetarian, you're forced to be inventive."
Trivia answer: Paul McCartney and Pete Best.