These restaurants are Cheap Eats picks, where you can dine well for less than $30, before alcohol, tax and tip
Dundas Park Kitchen: Serving Canadiana cuisine at 2066 Dundas Street West (at Howard Park Avenue); 647-351-4793; dundasparkkitchen.ca
The Pie Commission: Serving pies at 935 The Queensway (at Canmotor Avenue; nb: the shop is tucked behind The Queensway, with access off Queen Elizabeth Boulevard); 416-848-7424; piecommission.com
I've found plenty of reasons in the past 10 months for why I shouldn't write about Dundas Park Kitchen.
After I ate chef Alex Tso's roast chicken for the first time last spring, I reminded myself that the little shop is not an actual restaurant. This chicken was real roast chicken, not grocery store roast chicken, properly crisp-skinned and juicy and plump instead of wizened, and salt flecked but not salty, and $25 for a whole bird or $15 for a half, with two terrific sides and barbecue sauce.
Dundas Park Kitchen has just three tiny tables (they're actually tree stumps) though, and no table service. It's a takeout counter that happens to have a liquor license; they serve $3.50 short-pours of Beau's to waiting customers. Forget it, I thought.
When I tried the Cobb salad and the tomato soup, I told myself that in any event this non-restaurant is closed on weekends. That soup and that salad were smartly made, deftly seasoned. The croutons with the soup were cheddar scone croutons, if you can imagine it. But no one outside Dundas Park Kitchen's little neighbourhood – it's set on a quiet strip near the top of Roncesvalles Avenue – would have any reason to care, I thought.
The sandwiches were just sandwiches, weren't they, even if there was a roasted elk melt with mushrooms and stewed peppers, and a fever dream of a breakfast sandwich made with pork sausage, corn relish and chimichurri on an English muffin.
The flaky, buttery scones, made by Melanie Harris, who is Mr. Tso's wife and business partner, were only scones, surely, though I'm wearing a good four pounds of them around my waist of late. Her fruit galettes, dusted with crunchy coarse sugar and topped with the likes of tart sour cherries and wild Canadian blueberries … oh bloody hell.
The main reason I haven't written about Dundas Park Kitchen is that it's near my house and I like it too much and they know me (but not by name) because I'm there so often and I don't want the place to change, not ever. So please don't go there. It's awful and you'll hate it. Stay away.
Mr. Tso, who is 38, apprenticed with Jamie Kennedy for five years before working restaurant stages around Spain and California. (I've got a lot of time for anybody who apprentices anywhere for five years.) He helped to open the kitchen at the Drake 10 years ago and then became sous chef at Chez Victor, in the Hotel Le Germain downtown, and later a sous at the Oliver & Bonacini Café Grill on Bayview Avenue, where they sometimes made 1,000 meals in a day.
He catered for The Stop: To this day he runs a stand at the Wychwood Barns farm market every Saturday, from where he sells those breakfast sandwiches and Ms. Harris's glorious galettes. He's a real chef. His dues are fully paid.
Ms. Harris grew up in Vevey, a wine-making town near Geneva. She is the daughter of a pastry chef. She studied hospitality management in Lausanne but has no formal kitchen training. That doesn't seem to have hurt her pastry skills.
Three years ago, the couple bought the building on Dundas Street West and moved in upstairs. They thought the ground-level kitchen and retail space would take a month of minor renovations. They had a child. The renovation was the usual nightmare. Dundas Park Kitchen finally opened last May.
What's inspiring is how thoroughly the pair have sidestepped most of the pitfalls and delusions of so many first-time restaurateurs. They've aimed small instead of big, expected slow growth instead of sudden (they were prescient on that front), built their market by repeat business and word-of-mouth instead of hollow PR drives.
I've never once been by the place without finding both of them working. (They live upstairs, which is handy.) By every appearance, they pour all of their working hours into just one thing: the craft of cooking and selling good food.
If you must go, try that roast chicken and a salad, or the tomato soup, which is thick with the flavour of super-ripe tomatoes, or the chicken rice soup, or a sandwich melt, or a pot pie and a scone and definitely one of those galettes, which cost $5 each, or just slightly more than the ridiculousness that people don't even blink about buying with their burnt-tasting coffees at the Starbucks one block west.
What Dundas Park Kitchen's offerings all have in common is that they don't taste or look like restaurant cooking. They're made by hand with real, mostly local ingredients, and seasoned moderately, instead of aggressively, which is nice if, like some people I know, you sometimes eat Dundas Park Kitchen's cooking two or three times a week.
It's top-end home cooking, effectively, executed by a pair of uncommonly competent kitchen pros.
Like I said, the place is awful. Now you know.
The genius of Pie
Much like Dundas Park Kitchen, Etobicoke's The Pie Commission is a takeout spot with a knack for pastry. It is also a testament to the power of small thinking. The Pie Commission's mission is simple: to rescue the single-serving savoury pie – beef pies, lobster pies, jerk chicken pies, butter chicken pies, "Veg-ilicious" pies and the like – from the industrialized, freezer-aisle ignominy that's overtaken the form, and to sell them for a price that's competitive with fast food.
The company has accomplished that far more handily than I would have thought possible. Those fillings are made with real ingredients and taste like it. The braised beef rib pie is rich with mushrooms, veal stock and reduced red wine, while the beef and beer, goosed with lager from Great Lakes Brewery around the corner, tastes juicy and succulent and satisfying – everything a beef pie should be but so rarely is.
The special lobster and shrimp pot pie last week was jammed with hunks of excellent seafood, vegetables and a buttery sauce as maritime and mineral-kissed as a very good bisque. I am shocked to report that the Veg-ilicious, stuffed with kale, millet, broccoli, tomato and goat cheese, was so stupidly delicious that I struggled to put it down. The Pie Commission sells them hot and fresh, and also frozen in four-packs, for around $7 a piece. You can eat them from your hand if you have to. Maybe they had me at hand pie.
The Pie Commission's greatest trick is its butter pastry short crust. It is as golden and flaky and many-layered and tasty, almost, as a great croissant, but structurally sound enough to contain all those varied fillings. (The trick: the dough is folded on a sheeter, like croissant dough. This is genius.) The Pie Commission manages to do this consistently, in considerable volumes, and all with only butter, salt, flour, a bit of sugar and water in the dough.
A friend of mine who is wise about food told me last week that pie's the one thing she won't eat unless a family member made it; pie is generally best when it's made with love, from scratch, in tiny batches, at home, she said.
Until recently, I generally would have agreed.