If you're one of those insufferable food snobs (like moi) who judges a book by its cover, you may lower your eyes and deign to sneak a peak inside Habits Gastropub, decide it's not up to snuff, and then move on.
Granted, the circa 1993 banquet hall chairs would send shivers even down Debbie Travis' spine; and I wouldn't be surprised if the Ossington BIA took action lest the decor affect the 'hoods cool quotient. Heck, even the beer-logo-emblazoned sandwich board will have you with
thinking that Habits is just another local dive with half-price wings on Tuesdays.
But would you be terribly, horribly, absolutely wrong.
In fact, the food is so astonishing, you'll be tempted to write a generous cheque to co-owners Michelle Genttner and Luis Martins to help them re-renovate. But for now, if you can get past the dowdy dÃ©cor, the talent of chef Ron Stratton (ex of Centro, Auberge du Pommier) will suffice; finally, a chef who truly understands and appreciates the concept of the "gastropub." Taking it to heart, he elevates typical bar grub like burgers, fish and chips, and even pasta to a level of finesse that hipper haunts haven't come close to achieving. His creativity, presentation and execution makes even a room this unappealing easy to endure.
Take his Caesar. Ingredients for this salad are simple and straightforward, yet so many screw it up, mistakenly making mayonnaise the main component of the dressing. Not only are we impressed by Stratton's deconstructed version ($9), but for the price we can't believe the time and energy investment on display here. Baby greens are lightly coated in a garlic, red wine vinegar and Dijon dressing before being ringed by a delicate padano tuille and topped with double-smoked bacon. But the addition of marinated anchovies and a beautifully breaded soft-poached egg makes this a salad truly fit for an Roman emperor (yes , I know it's not named after that Caesar - so sue me.)
And what makes the duck poutine ($12) so special? You mean aside from a top notch Brome Lake duck confit, marinated curds and a stunning veal jus? Actually, it's the dish's foundation of wide russet frites that practically demand you use your knife and fork. This is the only poutine in recent memory that manages to elevate the typically trendy side dish to a fully respectable entrÃ©e. Even a salmon belly tartar ($11), that at first comes off a tad timid, sports a delightfully refreshing lemon zing, a nice counterbalance to the fish's natural fatty richness. But chef must have turned to a higher power to execute a sardine fish and chips ($11) that's both crispy and creamy, far surpassing its greasier and heavier whitefish counterparts. It may be too delicate to serve wrapped in a newspaper, but we're just fine settling for its atypical matchstick fries.
The only disappointment, if you want to call it that, is in a pillowy-soft squash and yukon gnocchi (half order $11/full $19). The dish is exactly what you'd expect, with perfectly roasted cippolini onions strewn about. But the problem is with an otherwise vibrant smoked tomato jus with shitake mushrooms that just bullies this perfect pasta and its delicate seasonal root veggies into submission. After that minor misfire, the long array of crowd pleasers continues with a jumbo poached shrimp ($12). Four ridiculously large shrimp hang off the side of the glass with a beautifully smoked tomato cocktail sauce that will have you licking your fingers greedily.
If there was ever a dish that would never in your wildest dreams be considered fine dining, I would venture to say that fried chicken ($18) would be on the top of that list. At Habits, you wouldn't dare pick it up with your hands. Crispy pieces, plated on a stave from a wine barrel, alongside cheesy creamed collards, a smoked cheddar biscuit and a sauce of garlic and chili honey earns the respect of a knife and fork. Wow.
A house-made banana bread pudding ($8) with white chocolate, made with croissants of all things, is just the cherry on top of a near-perfect meal. Add to that the flawless attention (not from waiters since they probably can't afford to pay any) from our hosts/co-owners and Habits is a rare night out indeed. With food this superior, I implore you to turn a blind eye to your sense of style and run to Habits Gastropub. If a place this good doesn't succeed, it would be a travesty and proof of the universe's cruelty.