Thursday, September 18, 2014

Homage to Toronto's Yorkville Landmarks the Coffee Mill and Le Trou Normand

Homage to Toronto's Yorkville Landmarks the Coffee Mill 


Le Trou Normand

Up until just a few months ago, Le Trou Normand remained the oldest operating fine dining restaurant in Yorkville. Coincidentally, The Coffee Mill a venerated European-style cafe which recently celebrated 51 years in business closed earlier this month.

Martha von Heczey’s Coffee Mill opened in May, 1963, in the now-demolished Lothian Mews, on Bloor Street. In 1973, von Herczey  moved two blocks north to a mini-mall with Yorkville Avenue on one side, Cumberland Street on the other. There was a secluded terrace with an expandable awning in the event of rain. The Coffee Mill was practically right across the street from Le Trou Normand and it was one of my Yorkville haunts for over 30 years.

Ms. von Heczey’s late husband Laci, a well-known wrestling champion, liked to wander around Yorkville with a tame cheetah on a leash.
Interestingly, in 1984, von Herczey even managed to regain the UNICEF fountain — the centrepiece at Lothian Mews, which had been placed in storage and relocated it to her new location. 

Among those luminaries whose autographed photographs hung on the restaurant walls like they do at Sardi’s in New York were: Al Waxman, Barbara Amiel, Gordon Pinsent, Tom Kneebone, Edward Greenspan, Anne Mirvish, Dusty Cohl (who co-founded TIFF), Pierre Berton and Anna Porter The cafe was frequented by such Canadians luminaries as Norman Jewison, Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, who loved the cafe's secluded patio and plates of Hungarian goulash, liverwurst and schnitzel.

Original Location of the Coffee Mill in the Lothian Mews

Coffee Mill Terrace August 2014 

Both businesses were tucked away from the beaten path, anomalies with retro-charm but relics of a former era. In their heyday, Yorkville was a bustling place to be. It has been years since the restaurants lost their cachet but both businesses have long been celebrated as a throwback to gentler times when the world was a simpler, kinder place. 

In recent years, the 41-year-old Le Trou Normand attracted prospective diners – and tourists – with a weather battered sign hanging on the right side of the street entrance and a framed menu box listing the specialties of the house. You had to climb a few short steps under a decorative wrought iron archway decorated with the restaurant’s name and coat of arms and follow a cobblestone terrace to the front door. In recent years, the entrance to my mind was like a portal in time leading to a style of restaurant that is all but obsolete in Toronto. The restaurant also attracted its fair share of celebrities in its day. 

 The restaurant which had been operating since 1973, had always reminded me of the rustic French country bistros or the small working class restaurants situated on the Left Bank and Latin Quarter of Paris when I was in my twenties. The name Le Trou Normand referred to the traditional Norman palate cleansing shot of Calvados between courses which is supposed to restore the appetite.
Le Trou Normand is the restaurant where I first became acquainted with a young Susur Lee in 1984, who has gone on to inhabit the top echelon of world chefs. My path crossed Susur’s again at Lela restaurant, where he began to pioneer his ground-breaking fusion of traditional French and Asian cuisine.

On my last visit to Le Trou Normand a few months before it closed the dining rooms with their stuccoed walls, washed-out upholstery, antique porcelain in farmhouse hutches, and worn Persian rugs over the tiled floors had all but faded into to obscurity.

 Le Trou Normand Terrace

A Memory of Le Trou Normand

There was always a look of disbelief in the eyes of new waiters after working their first shift at Le Trou Normand. As quick as Babette (not the real name of my esteemed former colleague) hired them, Chef would fire them. Sometimes waiters would go out to sweep the terrace and never return. Babette, who for all intents and purposes ran the front of the house, realized it was foolhardy to form attachments with the staff.  When she hired someone capable and compatible with Chef, she held on to them for dear life, knowing they could soon tire of the histrionics. Or worse, she might spend weeks training someone, and Chef might fire them for some minor infraction or simply because the weather was bad. It was a revolving door of staff. And that’s pretty much what happened over a period of many years that I was acquainted with the restaurant.

On my first day of work at Le Trou Normand, there were two other waiters besides myself starting that day. Both were affable and experienced and had been culled from a cattle call of prospective employees. At the end of a very busy lunch shift, Chef came out of the kitchen and into the dining room to survey his kingdom. With fists on hips, Chef gave a cursory glance at the dessert table and his benevolent countenance melted into a spitting-mad fit when his eye landed on the tarte aux pommes.The names he called us were nothing I hadn't heard in restaurant kitchens before, but Chef leveled an allegation and demanded an immediate explanation; the accusation being that there was a slice of apple tart unaccounted for and therefore must have been eaten or not recorded on a guest check by one of the three “bimbos” standing before him. When a confession was not immediately forthcoming and the litany of malevolence had run its course, he shouted, “The three of you are all fired!” Bewildered and outraged by the unfairness of the Chef, I was at the same time miserable. I had been depending on the job, having just returned from a summer in France. Knowing myself to be a conscientious employee, I guess I had expected Babette to speak up and come to my defense. During the job interview Babette had warned me, “Chef is difficult, tightly-wound, a master and true scholar of the French kitchen.”

My mistake was that I assumed that because I had impeccable references and had developed a good rapport with her, that I was above suspicion. I was stunned when she seemed to ignore the situation altogether. Putting my jacket on, I started to head for the subway in a huff. No sooner had my shoes hit the pavement when I heard my name being called. I turned my head and saw Babette running down the cobblestone terrace after me. She asked me to return to the restaurant at 5 o’clock for the dinner shift. It was a gentle but practiced request she had learned to pose as a statement. She did not make any apologies for Chef’s behaviour, nor did she acknowledge it.

For the remainder of the afternoon, my pragmatism and principles collided. I found myself stewing and vacillating about returning to the restaurant. Chef greeted me with smug indifference when I returned to the restaurant that evening. After a couple of weeks Chef’s outbursts became old hat, as I learned to take them in stride. Chef soon began to acknowledge me. The gratuities were excellent. We all fell into a routine. Babette who was a force to be reckoned with in her own right never confessed to giving the apple tart to one of the restaurant’s regulars.

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