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Burger Bar's vacated digs have been repurposed by this old-style bar serving craft brews and Japanese-styled apps.

Review: Down Market

By Alan A. Vernon, reviewed on June 27, 2013

Our empty modern lives, devoid of any real meaning, we're obsessed with celebrity chefs and the promise of glamour. Whether it's a David Chang or a Susur Lee or a Mark McEwan, we follow their every career move with cult-like devotion. Who cares about Michelin stars or Zagat scores – did they appear, even briefly, on the Food Network? Did they work in Oprah’s kitchen? Good enough for me.

So it's certainly refreshing to finally come across an unpretentious place like Templeton's, where the kitchen is not run by the next-one-to-watch but by a bunch of eminently capable cooks, none of whom seem to have any starry-eyed visions of grandeur. And in this dim, bordello-on-the-cheap setting with mismatched chairs and tables, and light fixtures right out of the set of Games of Thrones, one might quickly come to the conclusion that this Green Room-like establishment is more dive-y lounge than fashion-y restaurant.

And the menu further supports that conclusion with everything from pub faves like nachos ($6), onion rings ($5) and health-cognizant food like avocado and sundried tomato spring rolls ($5) and a chick pea sandwich ($7) to international delights such as Moroccan style paella ($10) with shrimp, clams, mussels, chicken and seasoned rice, chicken curry ($8) and cheese stuffed ravioli ($8), all at a price in accordance with what I assume is their target market: poor, hungry and undiscriminating students.

Nevertheless, delight and surprised I am by some of the ingenuity on display here: take a tofu and egg cake with dill sauce ($5) (not mine, though). It has the similar look and mouthfeel of a nicely seared crab fritter with just as much flavour. Considering such typically bland ingredients, that's a feat in itself. But once inside, take notice of how moist and tender it is, jam packed with herbs and artfully minced vegetables. Its dill sauce is equally scrummy.

Chicken wings ($6) are just as fabu. Deep fried to a nice golden brown, their crispy coating never breaks away while a creamy buffalo dip helps to neutralize the heat of a suicide sauce. Yet again, the kitchen shows off some madcap culinary skill with fried lotus root ($4). The novel take on homemade potato chips are served with a nicely spicy mayo. But the remarkable thing here is that the kitchen has managed to give the alien-looking lotus root, often mealy and timid in demeanor, a tasty crispy crunch with the consistency of kettle-cooked Miss Vickie’s.

Cooks, you get to move to the next round.

And as dreadfully '80s as an order of brie fritters with a raspberry coulis ($5) may sound, this dish is given an extra kick by finely dicing jalapeño peppers and integrating them into the cheese before being breaded and deep fried. But let’s be honest here, raspberry jam ain't no coulis! But I am agog at what these cooks do with a fried okra wrap ($7) with shredded lettuce, diced tomato and a queso fresco-like ranch dressing. Wrapped in a tortilla, thick slabs of perfectly battered okra shed their signature stringy sliminess and make this island favourite the new fish taco. Even something as small and simple and zen as a Japanese salad with dried onions, seaweed and lotus root ($4) (avocado is optional at no extra cost) excites, more so due to a very zippy dressing. Now if only they could dump that sad mesclun mix. But really, who am I to complain? It's only four freakin' bucks.

I didn't hear any whistle blow to announce a shift change in the kitchen. But the same people who prepared the apps can't possibly be the same team dishing out the mains. A hot kick burger ($7) has no kick to it whatsoever without the addition of fried kimchi ($1), and no discernible flavour unless topped with guacamole ($2). The supermarket bun may be nicely soft and squishy, but the spiceless patty looks like it came out of a hospital cafeteria; frozen burgers are better than this. And a spaghetti with hot sausage and ground beef ($9) is, upon request, substituted for a homemade fettuccine thanks to an amazingly competent and patient server. But it all has a reheated quality like it just came out of the microwave. Large slices of hot sausage are indeed spicy and despite being heated, are still moist, whereas teensy crumblings of ground beef are practically tasteless. With huge chunks of celery and peppers it almost looks like a cheap stir fry from a food court. Okay, it's edible, but very pedestrian.

Look, it seemed like a good idea to dine in Kensington Market for a change from the usual restaurant rows. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. But will Templeton's ever make it among Toronto's top dining destinations. No, but then it probably doesn't care to be. If the business model is to deliver a decent meal at bargain basement prices to attract starving artists in the area, then Templeton's business model is bang on. In sum, Templeton's may be short on wow factor, but it does manage to get it right more than 50 per cent of the time. Just be cognizant that you will have to navigate between the impressive and the ho hum and you’ll be fine.

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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