"I'm not going to find this restaurant," I think. I walk past Bondi—twice—before spotting the "Bondi" sign in the window. It's dark inside, with no other guests, and I ask the man at the bar if they are open. He assures me they are and I sit down to wait for a friend.
It's lunchtime on Thursday, a time when most downtown eateries are fairly busy, but Bondi is bare. It's not the decor, I think. While the design is minimal, it's far from stark or cold. Parson-style chairs and roomy tables make for comfortable seating. The red and black furniture brings warmth to the tile floors and richly coloured prints brighten the walls. I'm hoping that the lack of clients is not a sign of problems with the food.
The menu is small and printed on plain paper: Our server apologetically explains that it will be changing the next day. There are simple bistro-type dishes with European influences and we start with classics: a Caesar salad ($6) and the tomato and vegetable soup of the day ($5).
The salad is competently handled with fresh romaine, real bacon bits and plenty of croutons. It's lightly dressed and my only quibble is that a few shavings of Parmesan on top would be an improvement over the powdered stuff. The soup is great—no overcooked frozen veggies here. A natural-tasting broth and plenty of fresh ingredients could make this a meal in itself.
We move on to our main courses, a chicken stir-fry ($12) and gnocchi chicken divan ($13). The stir-fry is not a typical one in that there is no heavy sauce, just well seasoned thin slices of chicken and plenty of vegetables on a bed of fluffy rice—delish.
The gnocchi (potato pasta) is also extremely well done. It's a riff off the classic chicken divan, with broccoli, slivers of chicken and the pasta tossed in a rich cream sauce.
Our food is truly good comfort bistro fare and when the cook makes an appearance to speak to our host at the bar, we engage him in conversation.
I don't often get a chance to casually pick the chef's brain; I enjoy it because it helps form a picture of what's going on behind the scenes as far as talent and procedures go. This cook, Colin, is only too happy to tell us how he's made the sauce for the gnocchi (the correct way and from scratch). My friend, who is somewhat culinarily challenged, is impressed that he speaks neither down to us, nor over our heads: His love of food shines through.
Our host comes over to discuss the cappuccinos which, he claims, are "the best in Canada." He imports a high-end coffee from Italy and, after ordering a cup, I find it does indeed make the best cappuccino I've had.
The server is gracious, our food excellent and the cappuccino lives up to the claims. I can't quite figure out why Bondi is not busier, although it may have to do with the exterior facade that doesn't convey the warmth you feel once you get inside.
Live music is on tap some evenings and I'll definitely be back for another plate of the gnocchi and to sip a cappuccino while I listen.
Bondi1556 Argyle406-3230Hours:Lunch: 11am-2pm dailyDinner: 5pm-midnight daily
Liz Feltham never takes a break on the web. Find more reviews at http://foodcritic.ca