Cora builds her menu with whimsical charm

Years ago a market-leading soft drink ran a television commercial that poked fun at the ubiquitous personification of brand mascots. In the commercial a bright yellow sun with eyes and a smile leaps off the label of an orange juice container, sprouting arms and legs, and begins talking.

In that era of advertising, cartoon/reality crossover was all the rage. In this hilarious example, however, the mother and her children at the table where the orange juice sits scream in utter terror at the incarnate sun, and their instinct is to run away. As the happy sun chases them all down the hall reciting the juice’s various slogans and taglines, the mother trips, falls, and screams to her children to save themselves. I found the advert both incisive and unreasonably funny at the time but have not thought about it much since.

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On a recent Monday morning I visited the newly opened North Shore location of Cora Breakfast and Lunch and found myself surrounded by the stylized smiling, possibly sleeping, sun that is the iconic graphic of the hugely successful Quebec-based Cora chain. The sun appeared on the various menus presented to me, on my placemat, on my napkin, as well as on the wall by the host stand in the form of a clock. In addition to giving me a serious case of barely containable giggles (which are never good when one is dining solo) the thought of one of these sun graphics suddenly springing to life made me think about the standardized, easily replicable nature of franchise chain restaurants.

The Cora brand has a compelling backstory involving a single mother working long hours in restaurants, learning the trade and eventually opening a smart, meticulously run breakfast spot of her own in Montreal in 1987. The swift and unstoppable success of the original restaurant, Chez Cora Dejeuner, spawned several others in rapid succession.

Today, the restaurant empire (known as Coramark Inc.) comprises some 50 restaurants in its native province of Quebec and 130 restaurants across the rest of Canada. Eponymous founder Cora Tsouflidou has been widely recognized through countless awards and honours for her remarkable journey and entrepreneurial excellence. Her son, Nicholas Tsouflidis, serves as president of the organization.

Cora is undeniably a Canadian success story. My question, as I sat reading over a massive and ambitious menu with laminated panels filled with colourful images of almost every dish, was whether or not that great story is preserved in any way in the cookie cutter franchises that have sprung up nationwide in the three decades since Mme. Tsouflidou’s bold new concept opened in a small space in Montreal’s St-Laurent borough.

Despite the forgettable, drably inoffensive interior design with its blue upholstery, standard light wooden tabletops, grey tile floor, and lack of any discernible character (snoozing suns notwithstanding), I think the answer remains yes, the franchise experience still preserves some of the values of the original Chez Cora.

You see it in the friendly, fast and professional service, which is exactly what is required of a morning venue that hosts bleary-eyed patrons who have yet to ingest their first sip of mood-altering caffeine. It is also found on the menu, which, while ambitious, is reliable and features a mix of colourful, fresh, seasonal fruit that has become the signature of Cora’s plating. In fact, you would have to go out of your way to avoid fresh fruit here, as some combination of melon, pineapple, grapes, kiwi, and strawberries accompany every dish, from morning standards like bacon, eggs, and toast to eyebrow-raising creations like Morning Hot Dogs featuring frankfurters with cheese and bacon wrapped in crepes.

Another consistent thread from the original St-Laurent Cora concept is the inclusion of off-the-cuff creations that were the result of various requests and suggestions made by either Mme. Tsouflidou’s children or regular diners. There is a certain whimsical, community-minded charm to the sub-section of the menu featuring dishes that bear the names of various patrons. The Mr. Paskevich, for example, is an unlikely combination of two croque monsieur-style sandwiches with ham, bacon, fried eggs and Swiss cheese, all topped with a mountain of fresh fruit, while the Jeremy is a breakfast burger served on white toast topped with an omelet, bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and Hollandaise.

I went for a comparatively straightforward dish – an omelet burger – partly because it included all food groups and partly because it appeared on both the breakfast and lunch menus. A brioche burger bun arrived stuffed with a weighty omelet called the 10 Star (also available in standard omelet format without the bun). The omelet included bacon, ham, sausages, frankfurters (which made me take pause when I first bit into one, but to which I warmed up a few bites in), bologna, spinach, green onions, mushrooms, and cheddar cheese. A side of deep-fried but seemingly light in texture, seasoned potato wedges accompanied the breakfast burger, along with the aforementioned fruit mixture, mine including cantaloupe, strawberries, and pineapple. The dish was $13.25. A cup of coffee was $3.25.

Other breakfast menu sections at Cora include pancakes, skillets, eggs Benedict, crepes both sweet and savoury, traditional western breakfasts (eggs your way, bacon, ham, sausage, toast, fruit), and sandwiches. The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. Monday to Saturday, and 7 a.m. on Sunday. It closes at 4 p.m. every day. An ill-fated late morning weekend visit attempt with family resulted in me feeling instantly queasy at the prospect of the quoted near hour-long wait. Rather than attempt to while away the wait time at the non-descript Marine Drive plaza that houses the restaurant, I elected to return on my own early on a weekday before work, which worked out seamlessly.

I think I will revisit Cora, with family in tow, to try out a couple of the sweet crepe dishes and possibly a Benedict, once the hype surrounding the opening has subsided a bit. There is room on the North Shore for more breakfast options (as lineups nearly everywhere on weekends would suggest), but I do encourage everyone to remember amidst their enthusiasm to visit the new kid on the block that existing independent players like nearby Daisy Sandwiches and Such, Lift Breakfast Bakery, Table 153, BLVD Bistro, Jagerhof (Sundays only), Buddhafull, Meat at O’Neill’s, and Cindy’s offer some of the best breakfast and brunch options you will find anywhere.

Cora, 801 Marine Drive, North Vancouver. Chezcora.com. 604-990-0051.

 

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