L'Espresso Bar Mercurio (321 Bloor West, at St. George, 416-596-2233) Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $10. Open Monday to Friday 7 am to 11 pm or close, Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 11 pm or close, weekend brunch till 4 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN
Pushing open the large glass front door at L'Espresso for the first time, I'm taken aback when one of several servers working the large, airy room looks up from her table, makes eye contact, smiles and - gasp! - says hello. Knock me over with a hazelnut biscotti, baby, but I'm ignored in some of Toronto's finest dining establishments on a regular basis. I've stood in the middle of a completely empty Amuse-Bouche twice and had an entire phalanx of extremely professional staff act as if I didn't exist. And I had reservations!
So you can understand my initial surprise upon entering L'Espresso Bar Mercurio, the newly launched offshoot of Bar Mercurio across the way, as I sink into an oversized ultrasuede-upholstered armchair and check my bearings.
Situated on the ground floor of U of T's new Woodsworth College tower, L'Espresso's only been open a few weeks and is already doing a roaring trade.
Students mix with academics on classic black-lacquered Parisian café chairs, while locals linger over small crème brûlée lattes ($2.76) at marble-topped tables. During the week, customers place orders at the counter, then have them delivered to table from a very busy open kitchen. On the weekend, there's table service.
The card is quite short. Panini (all $6.50) come cleverly plated on long, narrow, Japanese-style rectangular white dishes only slightly larger than the sandwiches themselves.
Full of the tasty likes of thinly shaved roast pork, house-smoked salmon with capers or breaded veal cutlets with a terrific herbed tomato sauce, they're all encased in fabulously chewy baguettes that L'Espresso bakes on the premises. Salads go two ways: regulation mesclun with a fruity balsamic vinaigrette, and a Caesar that's as wrongly prepared as any other in town.
At weekend brunch the lineup expands to include omelettes with free-range eggs, like the Calabrese with artichoke, spicy sopressata and Asiago, or one with multiple mushrooms coupled with roasted red pepper and creamy mascarpone (both $10 with salad, grilled baguette and fries that, though likely frozen, are crisp perfection). Over flaky house-baked brioche, Eggs Benedict ($8) finds a pair of properly poached eggs daubed with buttery hollandaise and dressed with tissue-thin sheets of Black Forest ham, a crumbly house-baked scone spread with strawberry preserves riding shotgun.
In my years on the front lines of the resto trenches, I've had my share of appallingly inept servers, from the woefully under-trained to the aloof and snooty. But the service at L'Espresso is personable, polished and genuinely hospitable. As we leave, we're met with more smiles and a "See you again!"
You know what? L'Espresso more than likely will.