Crate was named as such to evoke images of rustic slatted wooden cases carrying fresh produce. This semi-subterranean space beside Queen Margherita Pizza in Leslieville that was formerly Rakia Bar (and the original Red Rocket Coffee before that) is now a cafe by day that morphs into a tapas bar by night.
Rob Banton - who was previously behind Nyood and Kanji Sushi - and Mark Leung, his business partner for this new venture, have given the place an industrial, warehouse-like look with Edison bulbs hanging from rope, a lit-up "Vanilla Bean" sign and plenty of wood and brick.
On the cafe front, Reunion Island's medium-roast Bullet Espresso beans are used to make huge lattes ($3.55) and other espresso-based drinks (espresso or Americano, $2.65; cappuccino, $3.55). Brewed coffee ($2), Reunion Island's Benchmark teas ($2) and hot chocolate ($2.65) round out the choices for caffeine fiends.
Pastries and baked goods like croissants ($2.95), cookies ($2.25) and muffins ($2.95) are from the nearby Brick Street , while lunch time eats include chicken, smoked turkey, beef or veg sandwiches ($6.50 each) along with about half of the evening's tapas menu offerings.
A happy hour between 4pm and 7pm helps Crate transition from cafe to bar each day, when the Mill Street Organic and Beau's Lug Tread on tap (more options are on the way), which usually cost $6.50 for an American 16oz pint and $7.50 for a real imperial 20oz pint, go for a very reasonable $4.
Then there are the cocktails, which are also priced pretty fairly. The French Rose ($8) is a play on the French 75 and contains gin, crème de cassis, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, tonic and orange zest in a champagne flute. It's sweet, fruity and goes down way too easily.
Appropriate for summer and for future drinking on the soon-to-be-licensed 40-person patio is the blueberry mojito ($8), with white rum, ginger-infused simple syrup, muddled raw sugar, fresh wild blueberries, mint and lime.
As for the tapas, the aim is to reflect Toronto's cultural diversity with clean and simple flavours that are really delicious and fresh.
Chef Ray Brown, who's worked at some top fine dining restaurants like Canoe and North 44 (he also staged at Toqué! in Montreal), has created a menu that's relatively easy on the wallet: everything is between $4 and $7 (except the charcuterie board, which is $9/person), with most dishes priced at $5 or $6.
Grilled figs with chevre ($6) is a classic combo of textures and tastes: soft, sweet figs on caramelized onions are topped with crispy kale, a sprinkling of salty goat cheese and streaks of a thick balsamic reduction.
Smoked gouda risotto balls ($5) come as a trio on artful smears of grainy dijon mustard, which are a nice complement to the crispy Italian rice balls garnished with basil leaves.
My personal fave is the Rustic Reuben ($6), containing sliced Bavarian sausage made of minced veal and pork from local butcher Olliffe just down the street, thinly sliced manchego cheese, sauerkraut (a weakness of mine) and smoked provolone and roasted garlic aioli between toasted rye bread from Brick Street - with dijon on the side.
This is the perfect snack to have with a beer.
Korean short ribs ($6), which are Miami-style beef short ribs marinated for seven hours with Worcestershire, ginger and soy sauce, arrive looking super glossy, classily presented with a line of pepper and a sprinkle of scallions. Flavour-wise, they're a bit too salty for me but I like that I can taste all the ingredients in the sauce.
With the kitchen open 'til 12:30am Sunday to Wednesday and to 2am on weekends, Crate is definitely a good joint to keep on your late night eats radar if you're in the area.
Photos by Jesse Milns