The Harbord Room
89 Harbord Street
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and coffee: $43
Restaurateurs spend a lot of money making their places look elegant. Only sometimes is that comfortable elegance actually achieved; more often than not many restaurants feel stilted, contrived and downright inhospitable, which is generally not the original goal. The Harbord Room, despite the best efforts by someone to force elegance upon its customers, manages to be a really lovely spot.
During a recent brunch visit we’re ushered through the main dining room to the patio where umbrellas shade customers from the early autumn sun, and sweet wicker chairs offer comfortable seating for some while a built-in bench seat is hard on the backside of others. Someone’s decision to plant uber-trendy grasses in planters in the back of the bench didn’t account for the fact they do tend to grow, and diners unlucky enough to get bench seats also found themselves fighting off a jungle of fronds every time there was a slight breeze. Of course, the annoying grass was unnecessary, and couldn’t possibly compare to the genuine charm of a gorgeous pear tree whose branches hung overhead, covered in ripening Bartletts.
The same dichotomy of trying too hard to be trendy versus genuine sweetness and grace is also prevalent in the food here.
The breakfast poutine ($15) is one of those “why hasn’t someone thought of this sooner?” dishes that is simple, charming and honest. Roasted potatoes, double-smoked Berkshire bacon, fried eggs, applewood smoked cheddar and hollandaise combine for a fun and quirky take on a Quebec standard. We love this dish and the husband finished this off with a happy joy smile on his face.
The brunch card is actually a bit small, with Chefs Corey Vitello and Curt Martin choosing to offer a number of carefully thought-out dishes instead of a massive selection. We spy eggs benedict ($13) on another table – it too has that quirky twist prominent on the menu here – green tomato jam and rocket accompany the dish, and it’s offered with brie or panchetta instead of the typical ham.
When I order the crispy wild fish sandwich ($14), I’m expecting, for some reason, a pan-seared fish fillet on a wedge of French stick. Instead, what arrives is fish and chips. A battered and deep-fried fillet of halibut is indeed crispy, but is totally not what I’m expecting. Paired with fabulous house frites and topped with a celery root and fennel remoulade right on the bun, it’s a tasty meal, even if it’s too big to eat as a sandwich. When the husband expropriates half of my bread to sop up his poutine gravy, I deconstruct the dish and eat it with a knife and fork. The fish is flaky and sweet, the batter crisp, savoury and light. The remoulade kicks ass. But really, this is fish and chips. It’s great fish and chips, but not really what I want to be eating for breakfast.
Service throughout is professional and friendly. Our server brings us glasses of water right away, keeps our coffee topped up and cheerfully tells us fun stories about the pear tree we keep admiring, including one about how they come in each morning to find the patio covered with half-eaten pears from the resident squirrels.
Ultimately, despite the menu surprises and the pokey grass, the Harbord Room successfully achieves a high level of welcoming comfort. The patio makes us want to linger, the main dining room, although we only pass through it, is also pretty and elegant with exposed brick, leather benches and a massive bar that looks hand-hewn. Even the washrooms have that same sense of quirky fun, with a blackboard border around the wall and a dish of chalk so guests can leave their mark, and in the ladies room at least, a gorgeous bouquet of flowers.
The Harbord Room is charming and elegant – both in the space itself and what they serve up – it doesn’t need the sleek tricks and the trendy plants to be a place that I would want to go back to. Great-tasting food, comfy seating and servers with good squirrel stories do a better job of achieving that.