The rise of east end eateries

Two new restaurants boost culinary cred in Riverdale and Leslieville



The perpetually sketchy corner of Gerrard and Carlaw holds a special place in my heart. It was there, years ago, that I indulged in a $1.99 breakfast at Gee’s Bar and Restaurant each and every Saturday, back when I thought McCain Tasti Taters were humanity’s greatest invention. Then, one day, Gee’s upped the price of its greasy breakfast to $2.49. I never went back.

The east end has since changed a lot. In the past couple of years, renowned chef Lynn Crawford set up Ruby Watchco at Queen and Broadview, then gourmet grocery store Ruby Eats just down the street. Other high-quality food shops, such as Hooked, Sausage Partners and Olive and Olives, opened their doors east of the Don Valley along with new restaurants Le Canard Mort and Hammersmith’s. Even the masterminds behind Pizzeria Libretto looked east to expand their empire. 

These days, the east end is hot.

This fall, two new places joined the fray: Goods & Provisions, near Queen and Jones, and the Playpen, in the space that previously housed my once-beloved Gee’s.

The latter of the two is the latest project by veteran restaurateur Johnny K, along with his wife, Laura Prentice. Their previous restaurant, Tomi-Kro, shuttered its doors right around the time that the Playpen opened. 

Playpen chef Laura Prentice

Setting up shop on this particular corner took moxie. Gerrard and Carlaw will never be a hip area of town. There’s a looming nofrills grocery store — the antithesis of hip — just north, and an overpass just south, where there’s no room for anything new to open. 

The Playpen feels like one big, weird experiment: what would happen if one were to take the diveyest of dive bars, where loyal customers balk at a $0.50 increase in the price of breakfast, and convert it into a colourful, gaudy, upscale, yet undeniably wacky restaurant and lounge, where the ’70s have come back to life, where garish blue walls and Rothko-inspired panels mingle with gold light fixtures that could easily double as alien mother ships? What if the menu was literally all over the map from Italy and Japan to India? 

This is, without a doubt, K’s playpen, not ours.

The result is almost equally as offensive as it is intriguing. 

At one point, I wonder: should a cocktail ever be named “the Fluffer,” even as a joke? Other times, I’m convinced that I’m hanging out on Venus, which is at least interesting. 

When I see that duck prosciutto is on the menu ($9) and find out that it’s done in-house (as nearly everything here is), I’m intrigued. When it arrives, I’m offended. The prosciutto is wet — it leaves juice on the plate — and the taste reminds me of Schneiders cold cuts. It’s candy-sweet, which isn’t helped by the accompanying cherries. The hero of the dish is a perfectly seasoned arugula salad, complete with green apple and a chunk of goat cheese tempura.

Then comes a Parmesan risotto ($23) topped with two scallops: one is beautifully seared (intriguing) and the other is not (offensive). They are both creamy-good, but the risotto is too salty and cooked a tad past al dente. The Parmesan, lobster and double-smoked bacon in the risotto fight for attention. 

Tangy steak tartare ($10) is a winner. It comes with a delectably thick and gooey tempura egg yolk, along with chips made from fried, thinly sliced taro root. 

Image of tangy steak tartare from Playpen

Veal breast ($21, otherwise known as veal brisket) is a less common item in this city, so it’s nice to see it on the menu. It’s a fatty cut, like pork belly, braised here until tender, to a generally pleasurable effect.

Is it worth making the trek to this dingy area? That all depends on how much you liked Tomi-Kro, since the menu, along with the professional service, is quite similar. It also depends on how much you like ’70s kitsch with a distinct sci-fi bent.

A moderately short walk south, Goods & Provisions — from the team behind the Comrade, Leslieville’s drop-dead stylish watering hole — silently opened in October. The concept is hardly original: the name sounds like a blatant rip-off of Parts & Labour, and the menu reads like it’s a lite edition of the Black Hoof’s. Still, this place has heart, and lots of it.

The chef, who previously hailed from Gio Rana’s Really Really Nice Restaurant, gets whole animals from a variety of local purveyors — many of them from the Kawarthas, where he grew up — and butchers them in-house. I visited Goods & Provisions twice, and both times, I watched the chef personally deliver every dish he made. He keenly answered my questions — loved them — and didn’t miss a beat once. It’s a great feeling to have that kind of interaction with your chef.

Like the Comrade, Goods & Provisions is gorgeous. It has a very masculine edge, with burly, bearded servers, and the ambience of a derelict brasserie. The stunning bar top of Portuguese marble cuts nicely against the restaurant’s pervasive woody warmth.

The food is meaty, simple and good. An order of bone marrow ($10) comes plated almost identically to the Hoof’s: with a pile of Maldon salt and a parsley salad. It is decidedly more cooked than the Hoof’s, which serves the best bone marrow I’ve ever had, but spreading some of this meat butter onto bread by J. P. Challet will never be a bad thing. 

Another great starter is the terrine plate ($17), which features a buttery foie gras, along with puckery house-made pickles, a devilled egg and bread.

Whole fried sardines ($17) come from Hooked — probably the best new seafood purveyor in the city. With fish this fresh, not a lot of seasoning is needed, and Goods & Provisions knows it. The sardines are deep-fried as is, in duck fat, until they’re crispy on the outside but moist on the inside. They taste like the sea, and really pack a punch with the accompanying house-made mayo and the slap-you-in-your-face Scotch bonnet hot sauce.

Flatiron steak is everywhere these days, but that’s because it’s good. Here ($23), it’s pan seared, roasted until medium-rare and coated with a peppery compound butter. It comes with a deep-fried oyster and ho-hum fries.

Goods & Provisions is exactly the type of place the east end needs: it’s raison d’être is to serve the neighbourhood, but those coming for a visit from further west would be hard pressed to find a better jumping-off point to this  increasingly hip area of town.

The Playpen, 842 Gerrard St. E., 416-907-9761; Goods & Provisions, 1124 Queen St. E., 647-340-1738