EAT TO THE BEAT
WITH THE NEW EAT CAFÉ, DUNDAS WEST KEEPS PICKING UP STEAM

BY STEVEN DAVEY

Though it's the splashy flavour-of-the-month supper clubs like Lobby, Rain and Blowfish that grab the headlines, it's the smaller, less-hyped local eateries that endure. Long-running spots like Epicure, Swan and Universal Grill, and recent additions Niagara Street Café and Edward Levesque's Kitchen prove that Toronto foodies want well-executed grub at reasonable prices in a neighbourhood setting. Who cares if Kevin Spacey is sitting at the next table?

Add Anila Dhanji's EAT Café to that select list of nabe nosheries. Located on the still-dismal strip of Dundas West that real estate agents euphemistically refer to as trendy Little Portugal, the casual brunch- 'n' luncheonette opened unnoticed last June. It's just started doing dinners Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

Word of mouth has already packed the place for weekend brunch. But once word gets round that classy EAT delivers expertly executed takes on classic French and Italian comfort food with de rigeur Asian accents for under 15 bucks, it won't be a secret much longer.

The room has a generic modern bistro look with cool white walls, contrasting dark mahogany moulded plywood chairs and matching linen-free tables, and a few mirrors.

Dinner starts auspiciously with complimentary shrimp chips. Instead of the flavourless prefab Styrofoam wafers we've come to expect from local Thai joints, these are made-to-order, still-warm psychedelically coloured crackers we dunk into a first-rate peanut dip. At first, we're put-off by the strong Provençal herbs that almost overpower a melted terrine of baked goat cheese, baby Roma tomato and fresh basil ($6). But as the last of the goo gets spread on remarkable truffle-oil-glazed crostini, we're fans.

From the mains, the Literary Device mulls over Chicken Wellington – a puff-pastry-wrapped breast that's baked to order in 12 minutes flat, then sided with garlicky wilted spinach and rosemary-scented roasted spuds ($15.50) – before opting for Thai Red Curry Chicken ($13). The nicely spiced stew consists of tender boneless breast, peppers, Japanese eggplant, bamboo shoots and shiitake 'shrooms as well as raw carrot and celery for texture. Separate bowls of sweet jasmine rice, crushed peanut and coriander leaf mean the pleasing plate requires some assembly.

Dhanji tells us she learned the recipe at the Thai Culinary Institute on her Bangkok honeymoon.

I'm very impressed with Slow Braised Veal Shank ($15.50), a cookbook-correct interpretation redolent of good red wine served over super garlic mash and caramelized shallot.

The Device knows her bread pudding and declares that EAT's is the best she's ever eaten. The menu calls it Crème de Pain de Chocolat ($6.25 dinner/$5 lunch or brunch) made from brioche and drizzled with chocolate and custardy crème anglaise. I nod in response, mouth full.

There are minor flaws. Service is efficient if a little loose and staff are obviously learning on their feet. Cooler types might sneer at the coffee table CDs playing over EAT's sound system – Sade, Nelly Furtado and other lightweight fluff – but as the wine pours and the conversation level increases, EAT's dinner Muzak fades into the background where it belongs.

Back for brunch, we begin with a downy brie and Roma tomato omelette ($7) sided with crispy pan-sautéed home fries dusted with fresh garden-picked rosemary, sage and thyme, and house greens lightly dressed in a canola-balsamic vinaigrette sweetened with maple syrup. A deftly grilled Atlantic salmon fillet ($9) gets sauced with an almost too-salty Portuguese-style tomato sauce kicked with lemon pepper – Dhanji oven-dries then grinds lemon peel and combines it with crushed black peppercorn. It arrives alongside lemony haricots verts and sliced potatoes.

Traditionalists will dig EAT's parsley-speckled Gratinée à l'Oignon ($5) – French onion soup that, like much of the brunch menu, is also available at lunch – a Vesuvius of oozing Gruyère over a crostini crouton that dissolves to reveal a rich Dijon-nipped broth thick with sugary caramelized onion.

Terroni and Marcello's have new competition for the best-pizza-in- Toronto crown. Thin-crusted pies regularly get portrayed as tissue-thin or crackeresque, but EAT's deserves the description. Minimally dressed with sliced Yukon Gold potato and raw arugula leaf and tossed with sea salt, crushed black pepper and roasted-garlic olive oil, Pizza Rucola e Patata ($10 12-inch dinner/$7 9-inch lunch and brunch) has a crust so thin it makes everyone else's taste like deep-dish at Pizza Hut. We have a winner, folks.

Dhanji credits her pizza's success to Todd English, the American superstar chef she introduced herself to while having dinner at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"Most people swoon over movie stars, but I go for chefs," sighs the Montreal-raised first-time restaurateur. The morning after, English sent a special gift to her hotel room. Jewellery, perhaps?

No. "Inside this lovely little envelope was his secret pizza crust recipe!" Dhanji demurs.

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