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Restaurant Reviews Eastside Social: Eating in Leslieville keeps getting better

Molasses bread, toasted with sautéed mushrooms, could be mistaken for beef.

Danielle Matar/The Globe and Mail

1.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Eastside Social
Location
1008 Queen Street East, Toronto, Ontario
Phone
416-461-5663
Website
eastsidesocial.ca
Price
Appetizers $3.50 to $14, larger shared plates and entrées, $12 to $21.
Cuisine
Canadiana
Vegetarian Friendly?
Yes
Accessible
true
Drinks
Decent cocktails, good punch, a few well-chosen beers and a short list of inexpensive wines.
Atmosphere
Ye olde captain’s quarters, remade by a top designer for Eastside bougies. Fun, friendly, occasionally RIDICULOUSLY LOUD.
Recommendations
Mushrooms on toast, pickles, fried squid, market salad (with the trout), flank steak, skate schnitzel, homemade Hamburger Helper, ginger cake.
Additional Info
No reservations – or as the answering machine puts it, “we do not require reservations” – for parties smaller than eight.

You still hear stories sometimes about the people who got into Leslieville early – about the young couples who barely scraped together $17,200 as a down-payment on a fleabag former rooming house on a lesser street in the early 1990s, on Mallon or Blong avenue, in the wilds, in that time before brunch lines and the yummy mummy mafia and blind, furious bidding wars oozed east across the Don.

Today, the area is done with emerging. Leslieville has arrived, and it smells like highly-leveraged money. The Weston bread plant at Eastern and Logan closed in the spring, to be replaced with another crop of townhouses. You see Bentleys outside Baby on the Hip now, amid the Mercedes hatchbacks and the Subarus; the streetscape is alive at dusk with prim young lawyers and middle managers pushing double-decker strollers, with media stars and directors of photography and minor heirs turned marketing geniuses, all dressed as if for a Banana Republic shoot.

Joey Skeir and Cherie Stinson have lived in the neighbourhood for 12 years now; in 2009, they partnered with the chef Lynn Crawford to open Ruby Watchco, the casual, $49 fixed-menu spot at Broadview and Queen. Mr. Skeir is a long-time bar and restaurant manager; Ms. Stinson is a designer who made her name at Yabu Pushelberg; she's perhaps better known as one of the experts on television's Restaurant Makeover. Early this summer, the couple left Ruby Watchco and opened their new spot just eight blocks east.

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Eastside Social feels perfectly tuned to the neighbourhood's pressed-khaki conservatism: It's young and fun but safe, too. No alarms and no surprises please. The maritime-themed venture – Mr. Skeir and Ms. Stinson are both from Halifax – occupies two rooms on the north side of Queen, at Carlaw. As you enter, there's a laid-back bar with the Jays on the screen and the kitchen at the rear. The main dining room, through an open doorway, is one of the most beautifully designed spaces I've been in this year.

Ms. Stinson has done it up with rich, black-blue walls, moss green leather banquettes and wicker-backed bistro chairs. She's made soft-glow chandeliers that look like lobster traps; another one is housed in a gleaming brass searchlight, salvaged from ocean travel's golden age.

There are nautical touches everywhere: a model schooner, a sun-faded ship's wheel, an artfully knotted ball of anchor line, a porthole repurposed as a menu display. And we haven't left Toronto entirely: the men's room is wallpapered with the pages from a 1964-vintage Perley's city map book. "I was reading," I told my friends after a good 10 minutes admiring them one night.

As at Ruby Watchco, the cooking is a mix of sturdy, grandma-style dishes – devilled eggs, mushrooms on toast, a blueberry grunt – and a few somewhat more up-to-the-moment notions. It is very good, a lot of it.

Those devilled eggs are of the church basement variety: they're halved eggs with whipped, creamy yolk in their centres and pickled banana peppers for a bit of kick, presented (of course) on fancy china.

Eastside Social's molasses bread is also church basement cooking – if the church basement is in a craggy fishing outpost in a forgotten cove on Cape Breton Island, and it's still the Diefenbaker years. It's superlative stuff: deep, chestnut brown with a thin, glossy crust, a bready-cakey crumb and rumbling, blackened-sugar complexity from Crosby's molasses.

You can order it as simple bread and butter (a good move), or as mushrooms on toast (an excellent one). The mushrooms are sautéed and poured with a brandy, butter and sage sauce over the bread, so that the bread soaks up that sauce and the mushroom juices until it's nearly as substantial as a rare piece of beef.

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Not all of the cooking is East Coast Canadian. The kitchen, run by the chefs Chris Mentier and Stefan Skeene, takes all the world's coasts for inspiration. The Portuguese-style salt cod balls are fine, although neither moist enough nor plentiful enough to justify their $12.50 price tag. The New England chowder – creamy, smartly judged and jammed with seafood hunks and double-smoked bacon – is one of the nicest I've had in town.

The surf and turf tacos I had one night were tacos for people who've never had good tacos. (Tacos in non-taco restaurants: always disappointing.) They were the sort of tacos you might find at the Elks Club midwinter potluck – old chain-smoking Barney brought them, after finding a recipe in the Food Network Magazine under the Hustlers at the barbershop.

The deep-fried calamari ("Squid Row") are excellent, if ordinary: tender, golden, smartly seasoned, with good fresh salsa. The "pickles and chips" are a plate of giardiniera-style pickled vegetables, crunchy, refreshing, with strangely excellent chips made from beets.

The Yorkshire Pudding poutine, meantime, is nowhere near as good as straight-up Yorkshire pudding. It is nowhere near as good as straight-up poutine.

The menu comes more into its own with its larger plates. The skate schnitzel: firm, flaky wing egged and breaded and fried in butter to crisp, nutty brown, with capers for acidity and a humble, delicious dilled potato salad on the plate. The flank steak was also superb, seared hard to medium rare (they don't ask how you want it, bless them), sliced across the grain with a fat pat of roast garlic butter spreading slowly across the meat. There were halved cherry tomatoes a nest of arugula salad with it – just my idea of late-summer luxe.

And I'm saddened to report that Eastside Social's "homemade Hamburger Helper," a cutesy conceit that brings to mind wheeling vultures, free-flowing blood and apocalyptic horsemen – we really have reached the end of civilization – tastes pretty dreamy. It's meaty from ground beef, starchy from soft macaroni noodles, cheesy and creamy and buttery-crunchy. It's a strictly regressive satisfaction, Proustian taste memory for the slack-jawed post-suburban wastrel set. But damned if I could put down my fork.

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For dessert, the blueberry grunt was good enough. The ginger cake had the texture of toasted brioche and came with peaches and rum sabayon. I wish I had a grandmother who made rum sabayon. At least Leslieville now sort of does.

It's a good restaurant, a neighbourhood one, a beautiful (and be forewarned, occasionally deafening) room with all-pro service, a friendly feeling about it and a culinary conservatism that's appropriate to place and time.

Does the cooking get my heart racing? Not even close to it. But if I lived in the area I'd probably be there twice a week.

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