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The Paintbox Bistro, a fun-loving bistro-style restaurant that lurks colourfully beneath a new condo in the Regent Park area, has a painterly theme that carries throughout the in and out of the place. A sweet table setup features bright daisies and centrepieces of paintbrushes in little jars. There’s also a small stage to showcase local talent. As for the edibles, a daily vegan soup anchors the lunch menu, and then such crafty offerings as the naan Bistro burger, poutine, and pulled pork and veal tourtière pick it up from there. Dinner goes big with risotto, pork loin and a marinated hanger steak that arrives alongside delicate heirloom carrots, mashed potatoes and salsa verde.
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Review: Cuisine with a conscience

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on November 16, 2012
The rebirth of Regent Park is well underway - and while not without its problems, the ambitious revitalization project has filled an already vibrant inner city neighbourhood with renewed energy and promise.

Nestled in the middle of all the hubbub and...
The rebirth of Regent Park is well underway - and while not without its problems, the ambitious revitalization project has filled an already vibrant inner city neighbourhood with renewed energy and promise.

Nestled in the middle of all the hubbub and construction dust is Paintbox Bistro, probably the finest eatery to ever appear in this gastronomically underserved area. With their mantra "cook, serve, share," one can sense that the proprietor wears his heart on his sleeve. Make no mistake: Paintbox is a for-profit restaurant, but aside from serving some pretty impressive dishes, at its core it's cuisine with a conscience.

True, the bright and airy space feels a bit like an upscale hospital cafeteria, but its uplifting and cheerful spirit, replete with cutesy touches like paintbrushes in table flower arrangements, is also the backdrop for a food business incubator, and a professional development training ground, giving jobs to those from marginalized communities, including Regent Park. With the help of the Regent Park Employment Service, 12 trainees receive grants for four-month culinary training at George Brown College and the promise of a real career. That alone makes Paintbox more than just a restaurant. And it's a program that more restaurants should get in line with. In addition to supporting those with less means, it also supports its local food purveyors, sourcing out only sustainable fare with no dish priced higher than $19, unless, of course, you order a steak.

That's a heckuva lot of commitment for a first-time venture. But for Paintbox president Chris Klugman, a chef at some of the finest restaurants of their day (Winston's, Bistro 990, Oro, Rosewater), a certified sommelier and once a personal chef to Geena Davis, it now seems fitting that he conceived of an idea that would marry great food with even greater altruism. That means, everyone, from waiter to kitchen staff are trainees? So how they'd do? Well, let's just say that it's not just the menu that's mouth-watering.

A potato risotto ($8) composed of tiny diced potato tossed together with cheese is topped with slivery thin slices of fried elephant garlic. A unique and clever twist even if the spuds are a bit too toothsome. But the real draw of this dish are the assorted smoked mushrooms with fresh rosemary in a small Mason jar. Remove the lid and wafting through the room is the aroma of an open campfire, a kind of an aha moment. At seven smackers, a huge portion of tomato smoked pork soup with veggies and truffle aioli is amazing value, but the rustic dish, although perfectly serviceable, doesn't deliver on the promised smokiness. Seafood may have been a better option here, but just the same the fresh tomato broth with chunks of celery and carrot is still a hearty wonder on its own.

Tall, dark and handsome best describes a plate of beautifully braised short ribs ($19). Its pickled red cabbage is a nice accompaniment as is a house-made cauliflower piccalilli, vibrant in its curried coating. Alas, this too has a couple of missteps: Why two pickled sides? And why process the parsnip to the consistency of wallpaper paste? No biggie though, since Paintbox can boast about having one of the finest dishes in town: cornish hen ($17) done two ways is probably the best little chicken you've ever tasted (yes, chicken)! Forget that the breast is so moist and juicy that by the time you're done with it you'll be crunching its little bones, because it's the confit leg that's crispy, culinary perfection; you may never say yes to duck again. The addition of a few braised cipollini onions offers a lovely caramelized sweetness while creamy polenta and chard pitch in with nice juxtaposing textures. Never remove from this from the menu or I shall hunt you down and hurt you.

Even something as simple as wheatballs ($4 as a side), faux meatballs for area vegetarians, topped with a bright and zesty tomato sauce, underscores this kitchen's precision and cleverness. That's evident also in the asparagus ($8) done three ways: grilled, pickled, and tossed in a brilliant Bernaise. The fact that the sauce has slightly separated is immaterial; it's still a beautiful creamy egg concoction with the perfect amount of lemon zing.

Okay so not everything impresses, like a dessert plate of roasted pears and figs ($7) with toasted goat cheese. Roasted? Really! But more than that, the fresh fruits are smothered in a kind of sweet mud that looks far too unappetizing to even attempt. But back on track is a free-standing lemon curd ($7) whose perfect pucker partners nicely with fresh fruit, micro meringues and pine nut cookies. The only complaint here is that a curd this well executed deserves a prettier presentation than being plopped onto a wood board so it doesn't ooze out from beneath its delicate burnt sugar topping.

In spite of some very minor drawbacks, applause to chef de cuisine Randy Farthing for turning out some pretty spectacular fare. Having worked with Marc Thuet, Mark McEwen, and at Senses and Earth, Farthing is certainly very capable indeed. With more elevated amounts of finesse, Paintbox can be the most coveted jewel in the new Regent Park's crown.
Reviews are meant to describe a dining out experience at a given period in time and are the personal opinion of the writer.
All meals are paid for, including all taxes and gratuities. All reservations are made under assumed names. Menu items, prices and individuals mentioned in this review may not be up to date. Dine.TO encourages its users to share their feedback.

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