You’re so hot, the label tells me. No, you are, I think loudly, and then smirk to myself, Monday morning’s haze still thoroughly clouding my head, allowing me to run a bit too far with my flirtation with a bottle of hot sauce. I stop short at winking at it, though the sensual heat and heady spices of its contents have begun to warm my belly.
I am seated at the counter of the new all-day breakfast diner, Douce, on Pemberton Avenue at 15th Street. It is too early in the morning for a review meal, but I have been out of town for a week and my filing deadline leaves me with no choice but to hit the place up before my workday. The diner’s black and white floor tiling and wallpaper design, with swirls and checkerboard geometry, the retro swivel seats, milkshake blender, and Formica countertop, all conspire to make me think of a David Lynch film set as I drain the last drop of my first Americano of the morning, a damn good cup of coffee, it needs to be said.
Douce is the brainchild of chef-owner Dawn Doucette, a seasoned chef with a long list of accomplishments, from a successful consultancy that has helped shape familiar dishes at Earls, Saltlik and Town Hall, to TV appearances that include Top Chef Canada, on which Doucette was a contestant. She has cooked in California, Toronto, and Japan, and brings elements of her Acadian heritage to the menu, which reads like a mashup of classic American diner fare and contemporary, healthy West Coast cooking (Doucette has worked with Chef Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s Zuni Café and Chez Panisse, this latter arguably being the progenitor to what we know now as modern farm-to-table dining).
A pre-launch press release revealed that Douce is a family affair to the degree that the striking contemporary diner design was developed by Doucette’s sister Timi Fuller of Wandering Eye Design, while the buildout of the space was helmed by Doucette’s husband Nino Giangrande, whose professional focus is on passive home construction.
It is fitting that these complex elements are at play behind the scenes of the diner as Doucette’s menu of simple-sounding, accessible breakfast fare is anything but easy to execute. Anyone who has ever worked on or near a kitchen line during a breakfast rush knows that the coordination of disparate elements, from finicky, easy-to-split Hollandaise sauce to over-easy eggs the yolks of which can burst if you even look at them too severely, is an exercise in precision that could make a Swiss watchmaker sweat.
On the Monday of my visit, the pace was a little calmer than the weekend rushes Douce has experienced since its opening about a month ago. The respite is not used to relax, however, and I watch with feigned casual interest as Chef Doucette walks a new employee through the rigours of her kitchen. “I am all about cleaning,” she tell him. “Clean as you go along, the whole time, always cleaning.” I survey the room and remark to myself that indeed, this is a pristine space, every salt and pepper shaker, sugar jar, coffee cup, and milkshake vessel in its place.
The Douce space was formerly occupied by longtime breakfast joint The Corner Café, which had definitely seen better days by the end of its run. The design transformation of the space under Douce is dramatic; Douce is the polished steak knife to Corner Café’s greasy spoon.
Take, for example, the 2 Eggs Your Way menu option. You’ve seen this on breakfast menus the world over. At Douce, the morning standard is smartly reinterpreted, infused with new vitality and culinary savvy with the addition of French white beans made with ham hock and bright, punchy Romesco sauce to complement the familiar lineup of eggs, hashbrowns, toast, and your choice of bacon, sausage, or country ham.
It is these vibrant but grounded riffs on classics that set Douce apart: a Gruyere-based grilled cheese sandwich is topped with caramelized onions, making it a French Onion Sandwich, while Avocado Toast goes fully vegan by using vegan mayo and smoked vegan cheez (sic), along with little gem tomatoes and sprouts. The result of Doucette’s approach is a meal that capitalizes on the intrinsic comfort of the familiar without forfeiting novelty or excitement.
I opted for a rare Monday indulgence of Chicken and Waffles, a sizeable meal comprised of a fluffy, rectangular waffle (the kind with the deep troughs for syrup) topped with a weighty chicken breast, breaded and deep fried until golden, served with a side of rich, meaty sausage gravy, maple syrup and, at the insistence of Chef Doucette herself, the aforementioned ego-boosting hot sauce, which is made in house.
The chicken retained its succulence despite its well-browned crunchy exterior and married nicely with the hearty sausage gravy. Take a pause here to repeat those two words to yourself one more time: sausage gravy. Not gravy for sausages, which, while terribly specific, might still seem reasonable. No, we’re talking about gravy made from sausage, a specialty of the Southern U.S. where it is often accompanied by butter-laden biscuits. I went for broke and finished the entire gravy boat of the stuff over one half of the waffle and the entire chicken breast, then turned my attention to the maple syrup, applying it to the remaining half waffle.
I will have the Homemade Granola with seasonal fruit next time, I reasoned, a coffee and fried chicken sweat beginning to bead along my hairline, or the organic green House Salad with radishes and lemon vinaigrette. I really will. Probably.
My breakfast, with two Americanos, was $25 before gratuity.
Douce Diner, 1490 Pemberton Avenue. Doucediner.com. 604-980-2510.