The Annex is known for its cheap, multicultural food fare, everything from Hungarian and Japanese to Middle Eastern, Korean and Indian, all within a few blocks to help nourish all those ravenous UofT students with the munchies. Now adding to the mosaic of menus to choose from is Hrvati (meaning Croats or Croatians). But if you think you are going to be serenaded by accordion players or have food brought to you in embroidered folk dress at this joint, you'd be seriously wrong.
The team behind th
is project is an impressive one with a menu created by Rodney Bowers (Rosebud, Hey Meatball) and a cramped but charming room by style guru Brenda Bent (wife of Susur Lee) whose design vision, replete with faded family portraits, barrels and one 14-foot-long communal table, is as rustic as it gets. It's a wonder there aren?t chamber pots in the restrooms.
What do any of us really know about Croatian food anyway? (Crickets chirping). Not very much it seems, but truth be told it is a cuisine of regions, borrowing liberally from places like Hungary, Vienna and Turkey to even Greece and Italy. So it's quite a surprise to find the menu has only five dishes listed (six if you include fries with the mains), three sides and one dessert, including something as typically North American as a hamburger. So what makes a hamburger ($13) Croatian you might ask? Apparently, it's the bun: a lepinje made by a Croatian bakery in Mississauga. Ooooo, how exotic. Similar in chewiness to an English muffin, it practically dwarfs the two flimsy patties stuck together with a smidge of smoked mozzarella and topped with caramelized onions. Fresh ground daily and hormone-free it may be, yay, but not any more impressive in flavour than a Fran's Banquet Burger. Our server "guarantees" it will be in our top five. And he's right, top five worst, though a side of roughly hewn coleslaw, lightly dressed in oil and vinegar, is pretty phenomenal on its own.
Schnitzel ($16)Â may be the perfect comfort food,Â but if you dare to serve it up in the Annex, an area that for eons was known for its huge Transylvania Platter portions, not to mention a 'hood that largely caters to those aforementioned students, it had better be good value. Instead, the finely-breaded nicely tenderized pork, sprinkled with capers, is about a quarter of the normal size you'd find at those Hungarian restaurants with about half the flavour. Especially disappointing considering the menu deems it "giant-sized." Again, sides seem to be the main attraction as a not-too-creamy rustic potato salad astounds as does theÂ pickled red cabbage spiced with cinnamon that gives up a nicely unusual tang.
With two sausage dishes to choose from we again look to our server to point us in the right direction. But theÂ sausage platter ($11), although delicious, is anything but sausage as we know it to be. Instead, the cigar-shaped meatballs should just be called what they are, cevapcici, the national dish of Croatia or better still Serbian sausage. Also kudos for the attempt at house-made cream cheese and roasted-red pepper dip if not for the limp and barely warm fries. And where exactly are the pickled onions?
With really only one more dish to sample, why not. A spicy pork sausage ($12) is exactly the kind of dish we expect from someone like Bowers. A beautiful blend of spices and herbs sets an example of the kind of food that could make Hrvarti a definitive neighbourhood pub. Bravo. Not exactly the word I'd use to describe the crepes ($6). Slathered with either store-bought jam or Nutella, they are underdone, limp and chewy.
With most of the European restaurants in the Annex having been replaced by sushi joints, Hrvarti is a perfect fit for a brewpub in the quaint village-like Annex. But with such proven kitchen talent behind the scenes, it is more than a bit puzzling that the food doesn't impress as much as the room does.