Monday, 5 May 2014

Case No. 6- Relish et. al. v Smith

Smith- 553 Church Street, Church-Wellesley Village

Let me tell you a secret… and that secret is not that I love brunch. I mean, who doesn’t? You’d have to be somewhat dead inside not to enjoy the company of friends, family and lovers, casually sharing plates of eggs benny, runny with creamy hollandaise, crisp bacon or house-made sausage, and pancakes light as air, topped with more fruits than an evening at Buddies. In Toronto, brunch is an institution, one we (may) even wait in line for in Arctic weather. The question I’m asked most is about my favourite brunch spot. There are so many, too many, and it would be a Sophie’s Choice to pick one. But I’ll do it anyway. This is my favourite, most perfect spot. I almost dare not to tell it, lest you all run out and force me to be turned away for a table. No, I am resolved, it is a secret no longer…

Tucked into a row of Victorian brownstones just north of Church and Wellesley, the heart of the Gay Village, is a spot known simply as Smith. The name is ordinary on the face of it, but somehow modern and simple, like a chic new club. Little about this place is ordinary, so don’t let the name fool you. I believe before it was Smith it used to be a club called Straight. The only thing I can remember about Straight is that nothing straight ever went on at Straight. Upon entering, you are faced with your choice of dining rooms- the top two floors, more dimly lit with private bars, perfect for those nursing hangovers but in need of a Caesar or three to take the edge off, or downstairs which, as you peer through the doorway, is brighter and more interestingly decorated. Opt for the ground floor if you can. Here you are greeted by a charming hostess in hipster-chic clothes (what hostesses aren’t wearing hipster-chic these days?) or occasionally a more frazzled but friendly older woman, and they’ll ask you if you have a reservation.

That’s right- a reservation.

(Good) brunch spots that take reservations are harder to find than words Kim Kardashian can spell. They are to be encouraged, loudly, because, frankly, the line-up is okay once in a while at certain small, gems of spots, but when I’m forced to begin lining up constantly, persistently, for an hour and a half with every other stroller mom in the Annex (cough Fanny Chadwick’s cough), I object.  So when a brunch spot comes along that not only offers incredible food, good service, and they let you call ahead, you hold onto that spot and don’t let go. It can quickly become your old standby.

Like any reliable standby, you feel comfortable inside him, I mean, inside the restaurant. Smith has all the elements, and I’ve been here many times with many dear friends, but this time, our episode will feature the returning Vera Meringue (in town for a breezy weekend) and the new to the blog Biff Bourgogne.

It’s also worth noting that Smith is the hipster sib of Wish, which is very nearby. I do love Wish, with its all-white Hamptons beach house aesthetic, but its vibe isn’t casual enough to be a regular haunt, for me at least. The food is divine, though, and that carries over to Smith’s kitchen. Also in the family, operated by restaurateur Renda Abdo, is 7 West Café, also in the neighbourhood, which offers delicious comfort food 24 hours a day. Anywhere I can get a pulled pork sandwich at 4 in the morning is okay by me.

Now back to Smith: the space is filled with an array of objets, and the vibe is a mix of the modern and the twee. It’s as if your grandmother decided to start filling her cozy country cottage with industrial sculptures. I love the clash, and it works so well. Old wooden tables set with mismatched cutlery and linen napkins. Something resembling winding steel girders on the north wall, painted white and bedecked in bird’s nests. A kilim rug lining the centre aisle. Clean white banquettes and high, aged mirrors. This place could easily take on a cozy bistro feel, but it bucks the trend and opts instead for a mix of France and England. The British countryside, the Parisian café, the Pompidou Centre and the Tate Modern.

And there’s a magnet board where you can spell out dirty words!

Worth noting, perhaps, is the bathroom upstairs. As is the trend these days, it’s unisex, and it’s a reclamation of what appears to be quite an old Victorian style bathroom, with that classic small white tiled floor, wooden doors to the stalls, and a communal sink with odd bits and bobs. A word about this sink- it has taken me a few tries before I’ve figured it out. There are pedals on the floor that operate it. I have spent many a time trying to use the faucets, and instead tend to wash slowly as water drip drip drips from one of the faucets not totally turned off. I finally observed someone using the foot pedal, and I was an idiot no more.

As I wash my hands in the communal watering trough and look around the room… ah yes, now I remember Straight. I can’t believe I eat here now…

Fitting into their eccentric-eclectic dining room is an eccentric-eclectic crowd. The older clientele are certainly cool, men and women alike in pastel sweaters, white pants and elegant grey hair. The young, skinny twinks in last night’s t-shirt (too early in the day for tank tops), well-coiffed, laughing with reckless abandon and sipping from mismatched coffee cups. Girls in paisley scarves and nose rings, high heeled leather boots and expensively ripped jeans. A crowd of older gay friends hashing out last night’s exploits- “oh you did not take him home, you bad man.” Bookish girls drinking tea discussing readings for Lit 101. Lesbian mothers and their friends. Well-dressed boyfriends canoodling with their girlfriends. The “bro” quotient is decidedly low, and the stroller moms haven’t discovered it yet. The perfect atmosphere for me to let it all out and break out the ever so perfect brunch outfit, a hot pink cable-knit cricket sweater, white collared shirt and my Soviet fur hat.

You sit down and are greeted by what looks like a somewhat aged copy of a newspaper one would hand you on the street, but it is in fact your menu. They have it conveniently folded to display the menu for whatever meal you’re having, so there’s no need to unfurl it. The options only vaguely resemble their normal cousins, which you could go and have at any chain anywhere. The Smith Benedict discards the hollandaise for a leek fondue, rich, with that oniony tang. The crepes are made fresh with mascarpone, and a generous helping of grapefruit and pistachios. The devil is in the details here. Rye croutons on the salad. Lobster with the egg on toast. Avocado with the shrimp croissant. Are we drooling yet?

Bucking my benedict habit, I opt for the croque monsieur, Biff the Benedict and Vera, the Huevos Rancheros. But we begin with the scones, and you must begin with the scones. These scones are to die for. Queen Liz herself would be proud. Every week a different kind. This week was a cherry and chocolate with a lemon curd and a whipped butter. “Ughhhguhhhguhhh” is the only word for how divine that scone is, and I normally loathe the cherry-chocolate combo. I once had a pumpkin spice scone there with earl grey crème fraiche that would make me sing Verdi from the rooftops. However, the menu has changed since I had been there previously, and now the plate comes with a mix of scones and coffee cake. The coffee cake, while delicious, is not as good as the scone, and those scones that remain are smaller now. Feel free to ask your server for an extra scone if your party is more than two, as we did. She happily obliged. It might help to whine about how good the scones are, like we did.

The food arrived in due course, and we were not disappointed. This croque monsieur was, hands down, the best I’ve ever had, counting the one I ate at Angelina’s in Versailles in total and complete bliss. The ham and swiss nestled between two thick slices of fried toast and a generous helping of mustard are supplemented by a cheese mixture that you might find on garlic bread at a restaurant of much lower calibre- and I mean that in a delicious way. Remember when one would go to a restaurant and order garlic bread at a place like that, and they’d ask if you wanted cheese, and generally you said no because you were being healthy or polite or trying not to overdo it, but really, secretly, you wanted that garlic bread smothered in that orange and white cheese mixture? Oh yes, that’s what this is, and I lurvvvve it. A nice helping of that leek fondue on top enrichens the entire dish, and as if you needed anything else, the fried egg is on top as well. Break the yolk, let that golden liquid spill over the entire dish, and oh man, you have the best croque monsieur this man has tasted.
I have had a number of dishes here, and never been disappointed. The benny, the huevos, the brisket (yes, brisket at brunch- judge away, skinny bitches), all are excellent, top notch dishes. I have very little to complain about. I have never eaten dinner here, though they do it, and perusing the menu, it looks quite fabulous. Vera, Biff and I are very satisfied.

I will nitpick the service at bit. I have been there on one occasion where my reservation had been ignored. When you call them at an off hour, they ask you to leave your name, number and booking information, and tell you that they will not call you back- they will only call you should your requested booking not be available. I got no call back, and arrived to find they hadn’t written down my booking. This is annoying. They accommodated me immediately, but I would prefer that they institute a policy to call to confirm bookings, as most places do. On a more recent visit, our server forgot our order of scones. It was a large group, and our ordering process was slightly confused, but a server worth their salt will remember everything that is ordered (and will hopefully write it down- you don’t get extra points for memorization). Service can at times be slow, but it’s brunch, so not only is it busy, but I never feel like being rushed out the door, so I don’t mind.

With the scones (which you must have- did I say that already?) a main, and a tea or coffee, your bill will come to about $25 with tax and tip. It’s not dirt cheap, and this is no greasy spoon, but the quality and atmosphere are worth it.

So, what’s the verdict?

I find Smith GUILTY of offering incredibly flavourful twists on old classic dishes, well thought out down to the details.

I also find Smith GUILTY of having imperfect service and an imperfect booking system (but at least they have one!)

I declare Smith NOT GUILTY of lacking quirky of-the-moment décor that has appeal for all types.

I also find Smith NOT GUILTY of pandering to the stroller mom quotient. This place is cool. Screaming babies = not cool. Can we keep it that way?

I declare this meal an 8.5/10.

Smith is located at 553 Church Street in the Church-Wellesley Village. Dinner is served from Tuesday to Saturday, brunch on the weekend. Closed on Monday. I’m going to invent a brunch spot that’s only open on Mondays. Pander to stay-at-home parents and retirees. I’d call it Blue Monday to appeal to a cool crowd that listened to British new wave in the 80s, but people probably won’t get it, and it will close in two weeks… oh right, and reservations are accepted and recommended.   
Smith on Urbanspoon

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