"Naturally we would prefer seven epiphanies a day and an earth not so apparently devoid of angels."
- Jim Harrison
Much like discount airline travel, brunch is a nice idea, but to be avoided at all costs. It's a vessel of low expectations if you're a serious eater. Where the throngs go to chow down on eggs benny and omelettes, excellence in food is neither expected nor granted. Similarly, no chef has ever staked his or her reputation on this anomaly in the food schedule. Brunch is there, it exists, restaurants cater to it–end of story. Mostly.
However it’s Saturday, and my strapping, sarcastic friend is famished, and nothing’s open yet, especially the cheap and cheerful falafel we usually turn to in such situations. My friend's Italian heritage and diabetic blood spikes mean I'm dealing with a very sensitive empty stomach, and some food toy needs to be rattled in the face of this big baby before a meltdown ensues. So when I eye a parking spot directly in front of Cafe Fiorentina’s new digs, I pounce.
I’ve been waiting to tease out the promises of this place since it moved, and much like getting into Joel Robuchon’s Atelier at lunch because that’s all that’s available, brunch at Fiorentina will have to do. Low expectations kick in immediately after the coins go in the parking meter. At least we'll get fed.
I had been in the old Fiorentina many times. It had never failed to delight. Inexpensive, unpretentious and consistent in every direction and in every category. Sophisticated smells would wash upon you when you stepped inside that only talent and hard work can produce. A Mexican corn soup, for example, with a splash of chilis would dazzle as equally as a pulled pork sandwich with deep spicy relish. Everything they turned out was worth the money and beyond. Many of us in the hood would silently mutter to ourselves after a visit to the cafe: “please don’t die, please survive." High rents and low density means peril for food innovation on The Danforth.
Today we walk into the full reward of the old place’s success. The new room is slick yet comforting, dark and softly lit. It’s a great place to have a meal. Still, low expectations persist. The hostess tells us we need a reservation. I moan a bit, but throw a megawatt smile in desparation. She returns a moment later to make room for us. Whew.
We brush aside the pleasantries and order quickly. Chefs Tina Leckie and Alex Chong let their food do the talking. In all the times I ate at their old location, I don't think I ever spoke to them more than a hello or goodbye, such is their hard working, officious nature. In a culture awash in marketing and nonsense, there is a quiet austerity to their approach. They make delicious food, without varnish or pretence.
I order the Croque Monsieur, more as a lark than anything else. Having had a few in Paris over decades, I'm well aware it's a dish of utter cliché to the French, something to consume greedily as worker fare rather than being anything haute. Most serious food clichés such as this one get handily discarded off the menu or cheekily re-worked by modern chefs.
Forget all that: What arrives on my plate, with the ubiquitous mixed green salad plate filler, is indeed something haut, an operatic, puffed-up aggrandizement of cheese and ham and fat, all layered and ready for deep slumber in the stomach. One bite and it’s just blackout delicious, easily and without any pause the best Croque Monsieur I have ever eaten. I tell myself that any mid-winter depression can be effortlessly nixed, poof! by diving into one of these. It’s just epic, in crunch and crackle, in mouth feel and texture. Le petit mort, as the French say. A tiny death.
My friend orders the omelette. He asks me if I want a bite. Precisely because I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to an omelette in my life, I take a bite, silently challenging the food trust of Fiorentina to seduce me. And they do. It doesn’t even matter what was in the omelette, as if it ever does or did. What shot me backwards was how it felt in the mouth, soft and sensuous, with a perfect amount of liquid and grease. I struggle to figure out how an omelette can taste this way, smooth and slick but not greasy or runny. The waitress says something about basting the omelette repeatedly as it cooks. Never mind, it’s a delightful piece of cooking applied to the most mundane of dishes. This is what one eats out for: the pure elevation of craft.
We order a side of sour dough, which is rustic and delicious, all deep ochre crusts, thick and inviting, that gives way to butter breaks in the rough main of the bread. It’s ciabatta-like, and we tear it and chew it down to nothing with zest.
Meanwhile, at the table next to us, a couple is quietly revering a small piece of food sculpture. It appears to be some sort of glazed cruller-looking-thing that I normally steer clear of. Curious, we order one, and cut it in two. Its doughy, striated innards are breadlike, fresh as can be, with a outer glaze that has just the softest hint of sugar. In a world where sugar is lazily applied to every dessert in the absence of texture or depth, this one restrains and by turns delights by making a song out of just three notes, refined and repeated. Pure yummy.
The bill comes to less than $50 for two. It’s hard to imagine any place in this big city delivering as much sensual delight, refinement of craft, and plain artistry for under $50. The fact they are doing it sans any pretentiousness or guile is even more thrilling.
Viva Fiorentina. Welcome back.