Freshwood Grill is the next big thing on Ron­ces­valles

NOW Magazine - Hot Summer Guide - - CONTENTS - By STEVEN DAVEY stevend@nowtoronto.com

FRESHWOOD GRILL (293 Ron­ces­valles, at West­min­ster, 416-537-1882) Com­plete din­ners for $25 per per­son ($17 at lunch), in­clud­ing all taxes, tip and a do­mes­tic beer. Av­er­age main $14/$10. Open daily 9 am to 11 pm. Li­censed. Ac­cess: ramp at door, wash­rooms in base­ment. Rat­ing: NNN

an early sum­mer breeze whis

pers through the trees, and the sun dap­ples the flag­stoned gar­den at Freshwood Grill.

On the se­cluded Ron­ces­valles ter­race, both young moms with stroller­bound tod­dlers and ur­ban hip­ster types with un­usual fa­cial pierc­ings sit on wicker chairs at small, round glasstopped café ta­bles, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally chow­ing down on the retro resto’s gen­er­ously por­tioned com­fort-food card.

The con­trast be­tween the Grill’s bu­colic backyard and its neon-lit in­te­rior couldn’t be more dra­matic: like day and night, one might say. Although a taxi­der­ma­tized mar­lin leaps from one wall, the ex-greasy spoon is dom­i­nated by an open kitchen just off the en­trance that uses a hard­wood-burning stove to cook most of its all-day lineup. Fresh wood grill – get it?

And while the smok­i­ness of the Grill’s, er, grill gives the house’s siz­able 6-ounce sir­loin burger topped with charred yel­low onion ($8) the au­then­tic­ity of real down-home ’cue, I imag­ine the over­pow­er­ing aroma of all that burning wood-cured flesh would be enough to make most veg­e­tar­i­ans gag on their mugs of caf­feine-free chamomile tea ($1.50). Even salad gets fried on the damned thing.

There was a time – oh, about 15 years ago – when you couldn’t swing a Jack Rus­sell ter­rier on Col­lege with­out run­ning into grilled radic­chio drenched in bal­samic, such was its ubiq­uity on the menu of vir­tu­ally ev­ery Cal-Ital trat on the strip. Freshwood re­vives the long­for­got­ten starter by not only quickly sear­ing the bit­ter greens, but adding crisply caramelized onion, toasted wal­nuts and barely melt­ing Gor­gonzola in a cit­rusy vinai­grette to the del­ish dish as well ($10).

Car­ry­ing on, the ta­ble or­ders a plen­ti­ful plate of chunky sweet potato fries with dev­il­ishly as­sertive roasted gar­lic mayo ($5). Take a pass on the chipo­tle ver­sion (there’s also three other types of mayo: plain, pesto and olive), since any trace of the smoky chili is un­de­tectable. Must be all that com­pet­ing smoke.

Very good regular skin-on potato fries and a non-fried radic­chio-strewn house salad come with the per­fectly grilled half-chicken, an­other enor­mous main ($12). But when I start saw­ing through its juicy meat with the some­what flimsy knife pro­vided, most of the spuds and greens, which have been cu­ri­ously plated un­der­neath the bird on an al­ready crowded plat­ter, end up on the floor. Big­ger dishes and stur­dier cut­lery, per­haps?

It’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to fault Freshwood’s shep­herd’s pie ($9). Made with the same qual­ity beef as its burger, it’s got more bot­tom than top­ping: Martha Ste­wart-cor­rect cubed car­rots, fresh gar­den peas and ground round lay­ered with old-school smashed spuds. Of course, to be truly 1950s-au­then­tic, Martha would use canned peas.

The Grill of­fers all-day break­fasts – three eggs, toast, home fries, baked black bean veg­gie chili, with ba­con or grilled tomato ($6) – but larger din­ner spe­cials start around 11 in the morn­ing and run till close. We’re par­tic­u­larly par­tial to the one we had the other evening: four meaty lamb chops cou­pled with roasted red beets and an in­tox­i­cat­ing puree of white navy beans lashed with more Gor­gonzola ($18). Recipe, please! But we’re quickly tir­ing of the one-note flavour im­bued by that wood-burning stove, as if ev­ery­thing has been doused with liq­uid smoke

In­stead of leav­ened dough, the Grill’s piz­zas – our favourite: beefy and, yes, smoky, por­to­bello mush­room, sweet onion, roasted gar­lic and chèvre ($9) – are built on house-made flat­bread, the same wraps that swad­dle its sen­sa­tion­ally tasty pulled pork sand­wich (both $9).

Be­cause of the set-up, ser­vice can be un­der­stand­ably har­ried dur­ing peak pe­ri­ods. Be­sides the bustling pa­tio out back, whether they’re com­ing or go­ing or just hang­ing around, cus­tomers tend to con­gre­gate by the front door next to the kitchen and cash reg­is­ter as staff armed with steam­ing plate­fuls of grub – “Watch your back!”– at­tempt to manouevre through the ob­sta­cle course. Things will shake down soon, no doubt.

Af­ter open­ing less than three months ago, lo­cal boy and first-time restau­ra­teur Dov Szava has a hit on his hands. Round th­ese parts, there’s no finer diner. Why, Freshwood Grill could be just about the big­gest thing to hit the av­enue since street­cars and pierogi.

Ju­lia Kennedy serves up cool drinks at the hot Fresh­wood Grill.

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