Arthurs does breakfast, but better

Alex Cohen and Raegan Steinberg’s St-Henri diner is truly exceptional.

Arthurs is like a beautifully appointed diner conjured up in a good dream. It’s the kind of diner-meets-deli that serves the food you want to eat with the level of care and attention that other diners just don’t manage.

The restaurant from partners Alex Cohen and Raegan Steinberg is named in honour of Steinberg’s late father and pays homage to his legacy with a nod to the Jewish comfort foods of Eastern Europe that defined Steinberg’s childhood. Sitting at the marble-topped bar with the soft morning light peeking through elegantly draped minty-green curtains, I feel like I’m in some sort of lucid dream and I’m in no hurry to wake up. 

Chef Alex Cohen claims to take inspiration from Russ and Daughters, the world-renowned fish-forward deli in New York City. Certainly, in the decor, the inspiration comes across. The two restaurants share a salmon-hued typeface in the exterior signage and the use of the green from the Russ & Daughters sign permeates the entire restaurant. As for the food, Cohen’s shares three things in common with Russ & Daughters: Jewish fare, a penchant for smoked fish and good cooking. The luminous space glows with natural light and even at 9:30 on a Monday morning, the room is alive with energy. 

Like a true diner, Arthurs serves only filter coffee, which is fine by me. Before I know it there’s a steaming cup of black coffee in front of me served in a classic diner mug striped in the same green as the stripes on the awning outside. The menu is laminated and, again, in classic diner style, serves as both menu and placemat, which I very much like. It’s these little clin d’oeils that set Arthurs apart — the space is beautiful and elegant and elevates the restaurant above diner status, but it also incorporates the classic diner tropes in a way that reminds you not to take it too seriously. 

Arthurs is a daytime spot, serving breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. weekdays, and from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on the weekends. There is a mix of eggy breakfast dishes and lunchier items like a Matzah ball soup and chicken schnitzel, a selection of scoops (i.e. tuna salad, egg salad etc.) with toast in a sort of build-your-own-sandwich style, and a number of composed sandwiches. I arrive with breakfast in mind and hungry for something authentically Jewish. I order what’s called the Latke Smorgasbord, a plate with scrambled eggs, a latke, a cucumber and dill salad, some salmon gravlax and challah roll for good measure.

Sipping my coffee, I observe the room. It’s teeming with regulars and I seem to be the only first-timer in the whole place. Expectant mothers relax in a banquette and chat over avocado toast, friends meet for coffee and cookies, a fashionable man wearing a necklace brandishing a diamond-studded star of David orders Matzah ball soup to go. The neighbourhood converges on this diner in a genuine and heartwarming way. Suddenly my breakfast arrives.

In a plate matching my mug are five small and attractive piles of food, the components of my smorgasbord: a custardy dollop of scrambled eggs, a golden brown latke topped with a duo of puréed apple sauce and sour cream garnished with chives, ribbons of thinly sliced salmon gravlax piled voluminously and dressed with mullet caviar, a salad of small-diced cucumber and pickled onion and a warm sesame-dotted challah bun. It’s a beautifully compartmentalized breakfast that allows one to taste each component on its own and to mix in whatever combination they so choose. A bite of eggs on challah, some salmon followed by a refreshing bite of cucumber, a sweet and savoury morsel of latke and applesauce, something tasty to eat in every corner of the plate. The dish is perfect.

The scramble is especially good, velvety smooth aside from the very small curds of egg that add that pleasing texture to great scrambled eggs. The latke was crispy and golden brown, but more importantly it tasted of potato and onion and not of cooking oil. Really good. The salmon gravlax was expertly sliced and the seasoning from the cure was perhaps slightly delicate, but overall very good. I personally would have liked a bit more salt and a bit more acidity in the cucumber salad, but again, overall the salad was vibrant and added a beautiful freshness to counterbalance the fatty fish.

As my plate was being cleared and my coffee topped up, I was persuaded by my server to order the Syrniki: cottage cheese pancakes offered in a full stack (four pancakes) or half (two). I opted for the smaller portion. The pancakes are beautifully fried, nearly cartoonish in their appearance: half-inch thick fluffy cakes sitting in a glorious moat of maple syrup fried to a perfect golden-brown. I cut into the top cake, which tore away to reveal an incredibly moist interior with a beautifully bubbled crumb. I don’t particularly care about pancakes, and I ordered them mostly for a bit of diversity for the review, but these are truly exquisite. The exterior is crisp and withstands the syrup until the moment you cut into it and allow the moist and porous interior to drink up some the syrup; then you bite into it and the saltiness of the butter that the pancake was fried in meets with the syrup, and you get the sweet and salty experience. As I said, I don’t care about pancakes and here I am gushing about them. They’re very good.

It should come as no surprise that I liked Arthurs. Everyone likes Arthurs. But now I understand why. It’s food you think you understand, it’s food you’ve likely eaten countless times, but it’s better. You know when you see food in a photo and it looks delicious but the real thing is so disappointing? Arthurs is as good as the food in the photo looks.

I can’t say much about the lunch side of things, but the wine list is cheap and put together by Ryan Gray, and Rachel Ray loves the schnitzel. If lunch is anything like what I ate for breakfast, it’s also very good. Do yourself a favour and check out Arthurs for a nosh. ■

Arthurs Nosh Bar

4621 Notre-Dame W.

514-757-5190