JOY BISTRO (884 Queen East, at Booth, 416-465-8855) Complete dinners for $50 per person ($25 lunches/brunches), including all taxes, tip and a glass of Ontario plonk. Average main $20/$10. Open for lunch Monday to Friday from 11:30 am, for dinner nightly 5 to 11 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 8 am to 4 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
If it's tinseltown glitz 'n' glamour you're after, Leslieville isn't the first neighbourhood that comes to mind.
Sure, chrome-dome condo king Brad Lamb declared Queen East the new Queen West 10 years after the fact, and this formerly down-at-the-heels east-side nabe is home to some of Toronto's most adventurous trats. Still, the stomping grounds of champagne-swilling A-listers? We think not.
But that's all about to change now that Leslieville's Joy Bistro is officially a TIFF "hospitality partner." Joy, that sleepy low-key brunch spot by the park, has joined the ranks of Sassafraz and the Drake and will be partying hard until 4 in the morning every night of the fest.
How did this happen? Well, it helps that one of the team who recently bought the long-running bistro,John Young, is a TIFF corporate fundraiser, and his partners Peter Brauti and Scott Manicom own 2 Cats and the Kitchen. A third, Steve Pelton, managed Wayne Gretzky's. Throw in ex-Jamie Kennedy sous Bryan Burke as chef and watch the celebutantes and fabulosi flock.
This isn't the first time Joy Bistro has attempted to go upmarket. Just two years ago, former owner Ted Koutsogiannopoulos hired whiz-kid chef David Chrystian to turn it into one of Toronto's top dining destinations. The marriage lasted nine months. Seems Joy's conservative clientele balked at $16 burgers and $30 main courses, everyone else stayed away and Chrystian soon hightailed it to Le Germain Hotel's Chez Victor. And so Bistro went back to Benedict.
No fools, the new crew still do brunch. But it's first-time headlining chef Burke's reasonably priced comfort-food lineup that's going to win Joy an even wider audience.
At this moment, though, other than a vacationing Edward Levesque, we have the patio to ourselves this balmy Tuesday evening. Once word gets out that the house's exceptional three-course prix fixe dinner goes for 25 bucks Sunday through Wednesday, the joint will be packed with more than Film Fest schmoozers.
We start with a summery gazpacho. Dressed with chives, shaved parmigiano and a crouton made from Fred's ancient grains, the pulpy purée needs assertive spicing (garlic? basil? pepper?) to make it more than a very pleasant cold tomato soup. But a heap of ridiculously fresh organic arugula tossed with parmigiano and doused with a fruity honey-balsamic vinaigrette quickly puts the kitchen back on track.
Many restaurants put pasta primavera on the menu as a cheap way to keep vegetarians happy. But Burke's take - renamed Pasta Provençal - is so much more than boiled noodles topped with grilled leftover salad. Here, it's a tasty tangle of house-made tagliatelle layered with zucchini, sweet roasted bell pepper and caramelized red onion.
Tonight, the carnivore option is a meaty slab of smoked pork ribs glazed with tangy barbecue sauce plated over spaetzle, leafy rapini, shiitake mushrooms and shredded pork-shoulder confit. A keeper!
No fiends for caffeine, we're not as buzzed about Burke's unconventional mocha crème brûlée, but his lemon trifle alternative with "local berries" - both of them - fondly reminds us of pudding cakes of yore.
The problem with Bistro's corned beef sandwich isn't its contents - shredded house-made brisket, melted Swiss cheese and sour dill pickle on panini-pressed caraway rye - but its name. Call it a Cubano and those expecting deli won't be disappointed. Better yet, stick to the house burger (both $9), a good quarter-pound of medium-rare ground round garnished with pickles and pepper chutney. Side both with the day's soup - a tarragon-nipped cream of cauliflower, say - or a pile of crispy frites with bourbon-spiked aioli for only 2 bucks.
Burke's slow-braised beef cheeks in a rich Cabernet Sauvignon demi-glace from the à la carte card ($20) are the real stars of the show. Since cows only come with two (four if you count rump roasts), cheeks are a rare treat, indeed, and so tender here that you only have to look at them and they virtually dissolve.
Too bad they're served alongside a mound of overcooked gnocchi mixed with al dente green beans and wilted spinach. Better: plate the gnocchi in the reduction under the beef with the veggies as a separate side.
And Levesque's verdict?
"The beef cheeks are great," says the irascible Leslieville restaurateur.
"But the gnocchi needs salt."