Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Address: 99 Sudbury St.
Lunch: Mon. to Fri., noon - 2 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Dinner: Sun. to Thurs., 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.; Fri to Sat., 5:30 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Brunch: Sun., 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. (no reservations)
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $100
**** (out of five)
While most good restaurateurs can look back with pride at a career full of great meals and satisfied customers, a very small few can say that they’ve had a part in educating a generation of eaters. When Donna Dooher relocated her catering company from a tiny space in Queen Street West’s Great Hall to a cavernous warehouse space down Sudbury Street in the late ’80s, she had no intention of opening a restaurant, never mind becoming a culinary tutor for countless downtown types.
Today, Dooher’s restaurant Mildred Pierce, and its satellite cooking school, The Cookworks, is in the middle of a booming neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from The Drake and The Gladstone, and several condo sales offices standing ready to complete the real-estate makeover of what was once a stretch of light industry, dusty diners and low-rent bars. Back in the recession in the early ’90s, some friends of Dooher and her husband Kevin asked if they could decorate some of the unused space in her warehouse space for private functions. Not long afterward, she decided to open the space, with its arch, kitschy kewpie doll décor, up for breakfast and lunch.
“I think part of the charm, initially with Mildred Pierce,” Dooher recalls, “was that it was such a destination — this grubby old warehouse, people were always exasperated when they came through the door — we could tell that they’d been driving around for 45 minutes looking for the location. And then you step into this very theatrical room, and it’s quite a contrast.”
When dinner was added, then a blockbuster Sunday brunch that put her on the map, Dooher had the space redone into the first version of the operatic space it is today, an austere yet decadent room that recalls Peter Greenaway’s trendsetting movie The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover more than the Joan Crawford film that gave the place its name. Dooher’s brunch, however, was already drawing long lineups, and introducing cash-poor hipsters and urban colonizers to fresh ingredients and fine dining. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from the eggs and waffles that Dooher served to the culinary transformation of the restaurant strips on College Street and Leslieville.
Brunch at Mildred Pierce is still a destination, but lunch and dinner in the restaurant next to the train tracks have become showcases of Dooher’s fine, undogmatic cuisine, with signature dishes like a chicken biryani introduced by Segar Kulasegarampillai, a dishwasher that rose through the ranks to become her chef, and fish entrées that Dooher esteems for their freshness and delicate preparation.
The catering business that started it all was closed over 10 years ago, but The Cookworks opened in response to what Dooher saw as her customers’ need to get back into the kitchen after years of long hours and eating out.
“We opened The Cookworks because people were telling us they wanted to take cooking classes here,” Dooher says. “Or they wanted to sit in the kitchen and watch the chef cook, and we realized that people wanted that return to the kitchen.
“The restaurant is challenging, but the catering business is very demanding. My husband and I met in this business, and we’ve raised our children in this business — we love it. We love the restaurant business, and we found out that was where our passion was going. We try to keep it simple, seasonal, fresh, local when possible. I think if you do those things then you’re on the right page.”
Hole In One
3 tbsp. soft unsalted butter
Butter both sides of the bread slices. Using a 2” round cookie cutter, cut a hole in the centre of each slice, reserving the “hole.”
Melt some butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Lay the holes in the skillet and cook each side until golden brown. Remove and keep warm. Lay the bread slices in the skillet and crack an egg in the centre of each slice, being careful to keep the yolk intact. Season the eggs with salt and pepper.
Fry for 2 minutes, until the bread begins to toast on the bottom. Flip them over gently and fry for a further 2 minutes, until the whites are beginning to crisp but the yolk is still soft.
To eat, dip the fried holes into the runny yolks.