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
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.