The Free Times Café
320 College Street
Brunch for two with all taxes, tip and beverages (includes coffee and juice): $52
It’s only logical that after last week’s post about blintzes, I had to find some. And since I haven’t been to the “Bella, Did You Eat?” Sunday brunch at Free Times Café in a couple of years, it seemed like an excellent time to revisit an old favourite. For some reason we had balked as the price rose to the current $19.95 per person, but having probably eaten more than that amount of blintzes, latkes and gefilte fish during our review visit, I can’t really remember why we ever thought it wasn’t a great deal.
Greeted at the door by owner Judy Perly, we’re immediately made to feel at home. Having run the Free Times since it opened almost 30 years ago, Perly remains gregarious and welcoming. Despite the fact that it’s busy, customers feel more like guests in someone’s home.
We’re seated near the sunny window of the front room, and I’m reminded of how much I love this space with its blue gingham tablecloths, exposed brick walls and gorgeous old rugs on the floors. Tchotchkes and plants and an eclectic assortment of artwork really do make it feel like Grandma’s house and I bet there are hundreds of regulars would protest if Perly ever changed a thing.
With coffee and juice included in the buffet price we place our drink order and head to the buffet located in the bar area. It’s all about pacing yourself, but with this much good grub, that’s hard. Being a kosher brunch, there’s plenty of fish and dairy, so the standards of scrambled eggs with lox and onions, bagels, and cream cheese are all on display, along with vast trays of melt in the mouth smoked salmon.
Also: French toast; my beloved blintzes (which are some of the best I’ve had); and latkes with applesauce (light on the inside and crisp on the outside and better than I remember them). Salmon balls are fried minced salmon, and they’re so good I can’t resist a few of these, along with gorgeous cool slices of gefilte fish (poached fish patties or balls) topped with vibrant beet and horseradish sauce.
What else, what else – there’s huge baskets of rye bread, platters of cheese, pickled herring, plus an array of salads that include couscous, awesomely sweet pickled beets, hummus and pita, stewed eggplant, olives, sliced cucumbers…
But wait, there’s more. Because after two (or three, who’s keeping track?) plates of savouries, there’s also the main part of the bar that is covered in desserts. Carrot cake, poppyseed cake, brownies, and cheesecake are all cut into little slices or 1-inch pieces so guests can try a little of everything without having to deal with a massive slice of any one cake. I’m a big fan of small dessert servings so I love that Free Times makes sampling a bit of everything easy. There’s also huge platters of fresh fruit that includes everything from blackberries to star fruit; dried fruit and nuts including figs and dates; and a platter containing a couple of types of halvah that Perly doles out personally when she’s not busy seating guests.
Service is efficient, with dirty plates removed promptly and fresh cutlery appearing on the table as we return from another pass of the buffet. While the front room has a few empty tables while we’re there, the back club room fills up fast with customers who are also there for the weekly Klezmer music performances. Reservations for brunch are recommended, especially for those wanting to hear the band, but for those who just want to talk, be sure to specify you want the front room otherwise ardent Klezmer music fans may shush you.
Perly is at the door to see us off, anxious to know that we’ve enjoyed our meal and encouraging us to come back soon. Honestly, I can’t come up with one complaint, and as I write this I am again craving blintzes, latkes and gefilte fish.
Writing a brunch column makes the prospect of returning to places to eat just for fun difficult to follow through on, but I plan on making a point of heading back to the Free Times sooner rather than later. One should always make time for great food and a warm welcome.