Little ethnic gems are common enough in the North End; in River Heights, not so much. But there it is, on the corner of Corydon and Waterloo -- a pint-sized room at the edge of a wee strip mall, dishing up savoury Polish comfort foods and some fabulous pastries.
The name, Bend, seems to have no meaning, and Bistro is stretching the term since there is seating for a maximum of 12 at three tiny round tables. But in this case size doesn't matter, since most of the food is precooked, and appropriate for reheating, and clearly much of the business is intended for takeout. Most packages and containers will cost under $10, and whatever is in the coolers for takeout will also be served at one of those tables, most for $8.99, with daily specials at $9.99.
One day we might have had what looked like a chicken schnitzel, but opted instead for potato pancakes topped by pork goulash with a tangy-sweet cole slaw -- obviously the pancakes wouldn't stay crisp, but they did stay flavourful. We also had an unsmoked, delicate and delicious Polish white sausage, topped by grilled onions, with a side of buttery mashed potatoes, enriched by the flavours of garlic and fried onions.
Always available are perogies, plump with a variety of fillings -- cheddar and potato, of course, but also cottage cheese, beef, sauerkraut with or without mushrooms or (my favourite) all mushroom. The big fat cabbage rolls are terrific -- twice as thick as most, with more meat than usual in the rice filling. Hunter stew -- sauerkraut with bits of meat simmered to a wonderful mellowness -- might convert those who think they don't like sauerkraut.
Crepes (a.k.a. blintzes) are filled with mushrooms and sauerkraut, or, alternately, with creamy, barely sweetened cottage cheese (lovely with a dollop of jam). The borscht is rich and tangy, with a spicy undertone and although I don't find macaroni a good substitute for noodles, the chicken soup has a fine, full-bodied flavour. I'm not a fan of tripe soup, I confess, but those who are will find it here. The sandwiches are double deckers, packed so thick they might easily serve two -- best among them, the excellent ham from a Polish butcher.
The place is run by the owners of the one-time Hartford Bakery and those who miss their pastries will find some of them here. All I tried were wonderful; among them, an East European style cheesecake that is less rich than the hyper-calorific North American kind, and a dense poppyseed cake, on a kind of shortbread base. Superb Imperial cookies come in two sizes -- normal and gigantic, and the hamantashen offer a choice of fillings. They also make a marvellous no-name concoction of a shortbread base, topped by cognac-spiked chocolate mousse and glazed in chocolate.
Service is by two very pleasant and helpful women. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, to 5 p.m. Saturday, and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
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Just to clarify things, the Frenchway Restaurant on Academy Road is closed (the doors will reopen next month for an InFerno's spinoff). The Frenchway Café lingers on though, not in its former quarters on Academy but on Lilac, in Bread and Circuses' old home, where it now has at least 20 times the seating, and, in summer, the air conditioning it didn't have in the old location.
Little else has changed though. The café still offers a limited menu of lunch and brunch dishes, and there is still a large selection of excellent, crusty breads. I have a hard time choosing which loaf to take home, but usually end up with either a baguette, the multi-grain, the French country loaf or -- on Fridays -- the challah (most $6 to $6.50 for huge loaves).They also make brioches, which could be enriched with more eggs and butter for my taste, but the croissants are super flaky ($1.95).
If choosing a loaf of bread is difficult, deciding what to have for dessert makes me crazy. They all look gorgeous -- cookies, cinnamon buns, cakes, eclairs, bread pudding, you name it. There are three kinds of brownies -- plain, cream cheese, or (my downfall) with a layer of peanut butter -- and a variety of classic french tarts, with such luscious fillings as pears or (even better) blueberries. But if I had to pick one dessert only it would probably be the superb tart of assorted fruits on a bed of creme anglaise in a chocolate-coated, cookie-like crust ($4.05 to $4.35)
Sandwiches on multi-grain bread are generous and good. I particularly liked those filled with ham or fresh-cooked turkey, both fleshed out with tomato, lettuce and cheese ($9.95), and I loved the split baguette topped by slices of roast turkey, asparagus, cranberries and melted brie ($12.95). All come with delicious sautéed potatoes or, if requested, salad or soup.
They've brought along a few flaws though. Eggs benedict (served until 3 p.m.) are lovely, although they do scrimp on the hollandaise, which was one of my complaints at the original location, where there was none ($12.95). At that time the salade nicoise was disappointing and, unfortunately, is even more so now, with lapses that are incomprehensible in a French-owned cafe. The main ingredient is blandly dressed lettuce, but no potatoes and only a token amount of green beans, topped by watery shreds of tuna and thinly sliced, canned-tasting olives. And no anchovies at all ($10.95).
There is full table service by a staff that is friendly but inattentive when the house is full. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
To see the location of this restaurant and others reviewed in the Free Press, please see the map below or click here.