SUPERMARKET (268 Augusta, at College, 416-840-0501) Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a pint of lager. Bar open Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 pm to 2 am. Kitchen open 6 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday. Licensed. Access: three steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNNN
First came the conversion of Kensington Market's George Brown College campus into a block of anonymous condos for yuppies. Then, in this zone of starving artists, Nike installed a fake art gallery to hype its expensive running shoes. And recently, an actual supermarket has opened in Toronto's lowest of low-rent nabes. Is it any wonder the locals are in an uproar?
But the launch of Supermarket on Augusta - the Lava crew's latest supper club slash night spot - has been met with remarkable approval from Kensington's rabble-rousing denizens. And why wouldn't it be? Supermarket and the Market are as perfect a match as a vintage polyester shirt, some stripy stovepipe trousers and a pair of Beatle boots.
Created by College Street resto Tempo's Greg Bottrell and Rob Elkove, Lava itself fell victim to condo conversion last summer, ironically. The pair searched high and low for a new home for their wildly successful club before leasing a cavernous Portuguese tavern cum pool hall at the top of the Market.
But anyone expecting another semi-swanky lounge like Lava will be in for a pleasant shock. Instead of luxe, Supermarket is so purposely down-market, it makes Planet Kensington look like Planet Hollywood.
That's not to say Supermarket's a grungy dive - it's just sort of not finished. Walls have been torn down haphazardly, often leaving portions of the previous working men's club ripped out or exposed. Lava's gorgeous semi-circular booths have been curiously relocated to the rear party space, leaving the raised dining area up front to be furnished with cast-off wobbly tables and vinyl stacking chairs that even Goodwill wouldn't think twice about tossing in the trash.
None of this matters, of course, when the joint's packed to the gills for Wednesday night's Mod Club or resident DJ John Kong's late Saturday sessions. However, earlier in the evening, when the exceptional pan-global card of chef Manh Nguyen (ex of Lava, Tempo and Edo on Eglinton) is the draw, the thrift-shop decor and often casual service can be hard to stomach. Yet while regular readers know I'm not a fan of so-called tapas or dining rooms that morph into discotheques, despite all this, Supermarket manages to do both surprisingly well.
Lightly dusted with ground chipotle and sea salt, very thinly sliced deep-fried sweet potato chips ($3.50) arrive tepid by the time they reach table. But a whopping portion of steamed PEI mussels in tomato pulp, slivered lemongrass and Thai basil comes steaming from the stove, fiery from Caribbean-style hot sauce ($5.50). Korean-style pork tenderloin gets paired with al dente asparagus and crunchy kimchi cabbage, the whole lot assertively doused with garlic chili sauce and sesame seeds ($6.95).
I've eaten so much ineptly prepared pad thai over the years that I now refer to it as bad thai. But Nguyen's innovative rendition is both traditional and contemporary, a delicious tangle of rice noodles, scrambled egg, pressed tofu and baby bok choy garnished with crushed peanuts and coriander ($7.95/$8.95 with chicken and shrimp).
But it's his astoundingly tender five-spiced and slow-braised oxtail and veal shank topped with an incendiary chiffonade of multicoloured bird chilies ($8.95) that is sure to be Supermarket's signature dish.
Part bar, part bistro and totally terrific, this Supermarket is truly one-stop shopping. If this is gentrification, bring it on!