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Simply sensational

Some of the best dishes in the city are served at little, easily overlooked spots

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Not all the great foods are found in grand establishments. Many delicious dishes are overlooked because they are served in simpler or smaller spaces, and the following list is a reminder of some of the outstanding ones of the past year.

The most typical pub meal I had was J.FOX'S fabulously flavourful cottage pie, which comes in a heat-conserving ceramic crock -- juicy, perfectly seasoned ground beef layered with mashed potatoes and glazed with cheddar.

There's also Irish stew with Guinness-spiked gravy, great salmon cakes to start with and a Guinness-spiked chocolate cake to finish with (sounds odd but it's delicious). 414 Academy Rd., 487-3035.

The choices at THE GROVE PUB are less typically pubby, but equally delicious. Pork belly is popping up everywhere but I've yet to find a version that equals these near-caramelized slices, perched on a bed of pureed sweet potatoes and served with house-made pickles. They also make one of the town's better burgers -- super thick and oozing beefy juices, a great prime rib sandwich, and oh lord yes, a glorious sticky toffee pudding. 164 Stafford St., 415-3262.

PRAIRIE INK's three-tiered tray offers any three appetizers of your choice. In my case, chicken livers with wild mushrooms in a dark, winey sauce on creamy polenta; gingery and truly crabby crab cakes with lime aioli, and three massive samosas. Alternately you could dine a la carte on the pickerel tower with portobellos entrée, or snack on a superb crumbly scone. 1120 Grant Ave., 975-2659

There's no decor at BARAKA PITA but whether they come to eat in or take out, the devotees of its savoury Lebanese specialties pack the place. Big, billowy house-made pitas are stuffed with chicken shwarma doused in garlic sauce or with ground lamb kabob and tahini. There's a great selection of appetizers, notable among them the roasted red pepper hummus, and a selection of exquisite little middle eastern pastries. 1783 Main St., 334-2004.

We have only one Persian restaurant, and we have to drive out of town to get to it. At present DARAKEH offers only a few specialties (possibly more, eventually) but among them are minty mashed eggplant, as well as chunks of marinated chicken and ground beef kabobs enlivened by sumac, and glorious, buttery rice. 445 Main St., St. Adolphe, 883-2807.

Under its new owners, VIENTIANE still dishes up a marvellous tom kao peak noodle-chicken soup, fragrant with lime juice, roasted garlic and chilis. Also worth trying are the steamed calamari salad, a matsuman chicken curry and two fish dishes -- basa stir-fried with veggies in a subtle sweet-and-sour sauce, and a coconut-creamy red curry of cobbler fish. 208 Marion Street, 235-1576.

My best pizza of the year? The one at A LITTLE PIZZA HEAVEN, on a crust of perfect medium thickness, with a fine spongy texture and a glaze of garlic butter -- so good you'll eat the unadorned edges. The toppings are generous and good, and the calzone -- a one pound monster with your choice of fillings -- is a stunner. 120 Osborne Street, 777-5255.

Some of EUROPEAN MEATS' cured products are Hungarian, some are generically East European, most are garlicky and all are good. One great delight for me was the corned beef -- not the dry, commercially packaged round of beef that turns up in deli sandwiches everywhere, but the genuine old-fashioned kind, from a fat-streaked brisket with all the juice and flavour of that noble cut of beef. 533 Burrows Ave., 586-2728.

Add two superb new ones to our city's many fine bakeries. LAKOMKA is as much deli as bakery, offering such Russian delicacies as pelmeni dumplings, garlicky cholodetz aspic, pork-stuffed potato pancakes, and assorted blini.

The breads are wonderful -- garlic, olive, multigrains and baguettes among them -- and there are such sweets as cream-filled cakes, peach Danishes, a superb apple strudel and irresistible shortbread and pecan cookies. 5606 Roblin Blvd., 885-2253.

You can enjoy a pork schnitzel sandwich in the sunny little cafe, but the CRUSTY BUN's soul is in its eponymous crusty buns -- either the white or the multigrain strewn with sunflower seeds -- and in its sourdough German ryes, whole grain loaves and dense, dark pumpernickels. Also in the luscious apple cake or bee-sting cake layered with pastry cream, and the fabulous jam-busters. And don't miss the pretzels twisted with ham and cheese. 1026 St. Mary's Rd., 257-7311.

You have to be really sociable to eat at one of BOON BURGER's two long communal tables but everything is available for take-out. You also have to like vegan food, since vegan burgers are all they serve, tucked into thick, whole-grain buns. The Buddha Burger -- a curried chickpea patty with peach chutney -- was my favourite but I also liked the tapenade-tangy Greek burger and the maple-glazed yam and cranberry sauce "turkey" patty. 79 Sherbrook St., 415-1391.

Love coffee? In which case, have you ever tried Ethiopian coffee? It's been good wherever I've had it, but the best ever was at HARMAN'S -- an improbably named Ethiopian restaurant (honouring the fabled drugstore food counter where the owner worked for years). The aroma of the roasting-to-order beans fills the restaurant, and the fabulously rich, velvety brew is served in tiny cups. The Ethiopian food is delicious too. 570 Sargent Ave., 774-6997.


Updated on Friday, January 7, 2011 at 12:34 PM CST: Updated version.

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