Portland Variety


In the area where I work, this was a hard spot to miss. The previous place closed down some time ago and this longly anticipated substitute kept us in suspense. Definitely no ordinary "variety" store.

From the outside the whole place is colored black - walls, window frames, fence, all but the bright yellow awnings. Their contrite side patio has a few fancy tall tables and a ledge, but hardly anyone is ever there. I cant wait for the sit-down patio area near the back to open.

Mornings draw quite the line ups to their pastries and coffee, however Cheri and I wanted to have a full sit down breakfast. I should note, the place recently opened for sit down lunch and dinner - a la carte.
One can enter from both King Street and Portland, but watch your step as that entrance still has a window frame enough to make sure you are awake as you stumble on it. The front room is a warm grey with marble high tables and plenty of hand-written chalk items on the walls. For the time being, we ordered at the main line while ogling at the walls. We then asked that they bring us our plates at the restaurant sit down area. That area welcomed us with a teaching sign: "Waiting is an art, so is patience."

This is one trendy place! We first noticed the unique incandescent light fixture - metal mesh cages with naked bulbs which came in various shapes with rustic adjustment knobs. Plenty of light marble table tops and caramel tan leather upholstery to freshen up the grey and blacks all around. A great addition are the extravagant flower arrangements at random places, and of course the large skylight. Overall - a very elegant interior, it felt to us like a modern take on 50s. All this was accented by ambient jazz music, and to be honest we through the way the room is set up would perfect for a small live jazz band once in a while.

We ordered a tea and a coffee which came in regular paper cups with a neat hand-touch - stamped their their logo on the side. Our food did take some time to arrive. We got their "Quite Farm Eggs, Bacon, Aged Cheddar on Croissant "quite a mouthful to order. I sure hope they get more creative with their dish names. This dish was the size of a croissant, cut in half and stuffed with many thin layers of plain omelet, some cheddar and a tad of bacon for a taste. Regardless of it's size this dish was filling and heavy.
Our other choice was their Brown Rice Organic Oats Quinoa Porridge. That was great - not sweet but very flavorful. It came topped with hazelnuts, dried cranberries, and a few slices of strawberry. It was also quite tiny but delicious none-the-less.

As we indulged in our dishes and enjoyed relaxing in the sunbathing interior, the place really felt like a dinner restaurant. We were reminded of a Chicago jazz bar we had gone to a while back. We would definitely be back to see how this ambiance transforms at night, must be quite the contrast.
Portland Variety Cafe on Urbanspoon


The Beast


From a passerby's perspective, The Beast may appear like a definite spot where locals would hang out. Makes sense, the restaurant is tucked in on Tecumseth, away from the bustling King St. West and not even visible from there. Ma cherie spotted this place due to its logo, which was now hidden behind a big, sprawling tree. But we did know that The Beast is a popular place well known in the city for its original dishes, passion to use local meats and trying to utilize the whole animal.

A busy patio would probably be the very first thing to capture attention. To be honest, that might be the last thing capturing your attention as well. Besides the fact that you probably would
not expect a restaurant in this residential pocket, there is nothing else interesting about it from the outside. A generic metal fence, simple furniture (wooden table tops deserve attention though), uninspiring glass doors and wall-sized windows. The inside was a bit more exciting, there were a few animal drawings on the wall and a cozier atmosphere. People definitely preferred the outside on that July evening. Overall, some theming would have helped to make the place more memorable, but we were here to eat so enough about that.

Our waiter was very prompt to mention the 5-7 "happy hour" and that we have 5 minutes to order to take advantage of their great offer. So we ended up quickly getting a glass of their white, red and two more glasses of Cava. Would have been nice to let us get wines staggered rather than all at once, but rules… We also asked for Green Onion Pancakes with Black Bean mayo which arrived fast. This appetizer was dense, not a prominent onion green onion bite and topped off with crispy caramelized onion shaves. The pancakes reminded us more of a naan bread with some burnt spots and a distinct oil smell. The black bean aioli really made quite the difference to make this plate worthwhile.

After the initial order rush, we had a bit of time to chart our next move. The menus appeared to be refreshed often, maybe even weekly. The choices were not very meat centered - we expected game meat based on their wordmark. Ma Cherie has a big fan of their wordmark - expressive type - impression on wild. Somewhat contrasting with the very tame inside environment. Our first choice was Grilled Lamb Liver with Quanciale, Red Onion, Nettle and Fregola – by the sound of it, the nightmare of people not fond of strong, heavy dishes. Second dish was Ontario Walleye Wrapped in Smoked Beef Tongue, Piquillo Fricassee and Salsa Verde on the side.

The Lamb Liver turned out to be exactly what we expected. It was a highly aromatic, opinionated dish best paired with a full bodied red. The portion is small (like all other offerings, to be fair), but the experience of digging into something out-of-the-ordinary was definitely present. We appreciated the addition of nettle and spinach, adding a deep green tone, as well as the fregola - to balance out the explosion of flavor. As far as the Walleye went, we found it slightly spicy. The thin crispy tongue wrap made sure the fish inside was tender. The bed of green salsa with red peppers accented the dish well too. Both options are worthwhile choices. We also received house made breads with butter on the house. These came on a branded carved wood board. Fluffy and soft, a great touch, but we wanted something else on top of it all. It ended up being a Poutine which took surprisingly long to make it to our table. Once again a small dish, it was of an interesting variety. Fried gnocchi replaced traditional fries. Bison ragu and cheese curds were very fresh and full of flavor. A must try for poutine lovers!

If you are in search of an original spot away from the beaten path, The Beast should be on your list. The food is very original, somewhat on a pricier side, but worth the experience.
One more quick thing - to get to their small washrooms one must pass by the kitchen - literally. A glance at where the magic happens made the whole experience feel very much down to earth.

Beast on Urbanspoon


Sakata Bar & Grill


A nice clean place for a casual lunch or dinner. We had Toronto, Crispy Spicy Salmon and Philadelphia rolls. The food service was fast and our tea cups were refilled promptly too. The rolls were fresh and the server remembered we inquired about the spiciness of the dish. She came back and offered to remove the spicy ingredient from the roll. The avocado inside our rolls was perfectly ripe. The only issue problem we had is that I we asked for grilled salmon on Philadelphia but got fresh instead. We did not actually realize it until half way through the meal so left it as-is.

An interesting detail about this place is that one can actually order their meal on a tablet instead of scrolling through a traditional menu. The thing lacking through was an actual description of the dish. Our waitress was quick to correct it and supplement us with the list of ingredients on demand, but we felt that the interactive menu idea was not fully explored.
Sakata Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon


Gusto 101


We ventured to Gusto one Tuesday evening. The place is tucked in on Portland and almost Adelaide, two minute walk from Ma Cherie's work. We remember it being extensively renovated for few months, but the results of this inconvenience are definitely worth seeing. If you love 50s-60s vintage signs, industrial / mechanical theming and abundance of iron-clad surfaces; Gusto is your place to visit.

You may pass by Gusto without noticing it. It is both good (for the people already knowing where it is) and bad (for the folks yet to discover the place). There are few reasons for that: the restaurant is not very wide, but fairly deep, resembling an elongated garage shape; the visitors on the first floor patio are shielded by some shrubs and are not very visible to passersby; lastly, the Gusto sign is finished in muted tones and can easily be missed when walking up or down Portland.
Our reservation was on a second floor patio and we walked straight up. The vintage feel upstairs was further accented by large concrete patio stones lining the floor (some were shaky) and aluminum furniture. We noticed a skylight in the middle of the area resembling a Louvre pyramid concoction of glass and steel albeit a lot smaller. There were bar stools around that section and a lively crowd.
We got our seat right under a large Good Year sign. Behind us was a wall clad in rusting iron and adorned with a mesh for plants to climb on. The new HVAC ducts right above were not fitting the picture well, but besides that, the interior was well thought out.

Our waitress was attentive, but unfortunately did not know much about the wines offered. We were curious to know more about Gusto’s own home wine which was made on premises and came in Reserve brand as well. We ended up ordering a jar of Reserve. The aging for it is apparently in the basement and we saw some barrels while exploring the private party room downstairs. A very good touch for a restaurant in terms of adding a hint of originality to their offering, but hardly the best way to age wine – right in a potentially often used room with uneven humidity, lighting and constantly changing temperature. But we might have misunderstood, maybe not all their Reserve is stored there. The house wine was apparently simply placed in mini-barrels right at the bar.

We first asked to try their two house wines (white, red). While the house offerings were very reasonably priced, we found the white too sweet and warm, the red appeared to be more acidic than we wanted with a hint of vinegar in its taste. We narrowed down on a half-liter of Reserve at the end. It was very strongly oaked, spicy, but with a relatively weak finish. Still a decent choice for the price.

We got a paper bag of bread after agreeing that we want some. The wine arrived next along with a side of Tuscan fries. The drink was served in an interesting container imitative an amphora. As far as fries went, we received them with chipotle lime salt and a side of tomato-based rosemary dip. Our other choices were Braised Ontario Rabbit with mafalda pasta and fennel pollen plus Braised Ontario Lamb with tomato, green olives, pecorino and gremolata. To our taste, the rabbit dish had a smell of chicken noodle soup - lots of chicken stock, some chopped carrots, celery. It was a fairly straightforward dish on a heavier side with fennel pollen hard to notice. The meat was tender and tasted like it was pulled. At the same time we felt that it lost its identity, it almost tasted like chicken. The lamb was not overly opinionated, a good thing for those of us not found of the smell, but with a healthy dose of hard pasta and tomato sauce. Both dishes were large enough to be shared and might have been a better choice for an evening out in a more formal setting. Although our Reserve wine proved to be a workable choice for both, the sunny patio ambiance deserved something lighter to savor.

We left Gusto full and happy. The meals are wholesome and the interior kept us entertained. Their patio is one of top rated Toronto venues and for a good reason – there was some serious thought put behind the d├ęcor and functionality of it. Definitely a worthwhile place to check out while it is still warm outside. We will likely be back here later in the year to fully check out their interior dining options.

Gusto 101 on Urbanspoon


School Bakery Cafe


We went to explore our neighborhood on a sunny Saturday morning. Liberty Village is surprisingly quiet - the offices are closed and bars not yet open. Our quest was for a breakfast place and it took us a bit of time to find an interesting spot.

The School Bakery Cafe is visible from afar with a sizable lineup in the morning. A school bell at 9:30 signaled the restaurant opening. Definitely a nice touch, but kind of late for a breakfast place (8:00 during the weekdays).

We were seated by Dean, our waiter and started looking around. The School Cafe is of a very considerable size especially including the patios. Yet it filled up in no time. Other interesting elements capturing our attention inside were the bookshelves, lights with sticking notes, wall clocks stuck at 15:30 and custom blackboard-imitating upholstery. One more thing, each table had an apple ready for "students" to sink their teeth in (although ours appeared in need of a wash which was promptly addressed by Dean).

The staff was in a great mood, helping to brighten the atmosphere further. Their menu has a long list of dishes and descriptions, some sounding quite complex for brunch. We decided to order Mini Cornbread-Jalapeno Muffins while waiting, followed by Smoked Salmon Scramble and Black n' Blue Flipjacks.

Cornbreads and coffee arrived in a matter of minutes. The little baked goodies were flavorful and the side of vanilla butter was a unique touch. At the same time we could not feel, but could see, the jalapenos. Next, our salmon scramble came very nicely presented. A bit of a heavy dish with a much needed green salad on the side. The salmon was very flavorful and fresh, there was quite a lot of biscuit though. Cream cheese and the house pickled onion also added a lot. The egg crumble itself was not forming a major part of the dish - more of a supporting role. To be honest, we ran out of steam when it came to our flapjacks, which was unfortunate. They came stacked up high with blueberries, QC maple syrup and brown sugar butter and a side of whipped cream - looking mighty delicious. We, of course, plowed through, but should have left more space to fully appreciate them.

School is definitely a place to visit if ever in Liberty Village. The are not open too late pretty much imitating school hours and shutting doors at 15:00 to 16:00 depending on the day. The unique interior is not too busy and does not distract from the delicious meals. At the same time, some interesting touches are present, if your eyes are also hungry in the morning.

School Restaurant on Urbanspoon