Thirty Five Elm Restaurant
35 Elm Street
The stretch of Yonge Street north of Dundas is an odd mix of family dining establishments, peppered with pizza and falafel joints. Turn the corner onto Elm Street and the restaurants are slightly more upscale, but predominantly Italian. And while Barbarian’s Steak House is a long-standing fixture on the block, most people wouldn’t know there’s a little gem of a space serving upscale seasonal and local cuisine just down the street.
Thirty-Five Elm fills the space on two floors of a 140-year-old Victorian mansion. The layout is mostly intact from the building’s original floor plan with a wide hall and massive staircase along with high-ceilinged rooms. The bar sits nestled in the front bay window with additional seating where a porch might have once existed. Through the dining room, guests can catch a glimpse of the pizza oven that was installed when the location was an Il Fornello franchise a few years back. Originally owned by Weir Ross of Barbarian’s fame, the restaurant is now run by his son, Chris, who wanted to turn it into something fun and cool.
That oven is both a blessing and a curse to Executive Chef Andrea Nicholson, who inherited not only the oven but a demand for Italian food from the restaurant’s clientèle, and who is trying to find a balance between the type of food that sells along this stretch and her fine dining background.
“How can I take pizza and do it really well,” is Nicholson’s challenge to herself. “We don’t claim to be a pizza restaurant – I’m using it a lot for other things. We’re doing Cornish hens on beer cans, and we’re using it to smoke meats in the summer,” she explains, also indicating that she’s taking her background of high-end food and using it to make creative pizzas with a local twist. “I was trying to take them and put a Canadian spin to them, because we’ve been classified as an Italian restaurant.” Indeed, Nicholson’s pizzas include ingredients such as Niagara prosciutto, homemade fennel seed sausage, porchini truffle cream, stewed sun-dried plums and artisanal cheeses from Ontario and Quebec.
But her true love is fine dining cuisine, and her resume includes such notable local restaurants as Via Allegro, Luce and The Fifth, as well as a stint on a 6-star cruise line where she worked in a kitchen turning out 950 covers a night and working with some of the best ingredients available.
The shift back to dry land and a restaurant catering mostly to the tourist trade can be tough to make. “Delta, the biggest hotel in Canada is right there,” she explains, gesturing across the street, “so we were getting a lot of tourists. It’s hard to get into the mentality of people who come to the city and eat – they want really mainstream food and so I guess this street was really comfortable for them, because it was Italian, Italian, Mediterranean, Portuguese, Italian, and then high-end steak, and we were kind of stuck in the middle.”
Nicholson worked with the original menu for a while but wasn’t happy with the final product or how it was being created. “The food here was horrendous,” she says with a shudder. “When I walked into the kitchen, it took me at least a month and a half to even put my name towards the food. It was mass-production, it was ‘put it into a pot of boiling water, and put into a frying pan’. I just said I’m going to do what I have to do and I composed my menus and I brought my team in.”
Her changes included creating a seasonal menu focused on local and Canadian ingredients. Dishes on the menu currently include Nicholson’s version of a ploughman’s plate that includes her house-cured duck prosciutto, chicken liver pate and Niagara prosciutto; a Newfoundland cod dish with braised oxtails; Norse Lake pickerel with creamed celery root; and braised short ribs with squash and caramelized cauliflower.
“It just hurts my feelings, it’s not cooking,” she says of the previous menu at Thirty-Five Elm. “It’s been a definite challenge for me because it’s going from really high end food to really toning it down. I really enjoy doing tasting menus, really small, really sexy food. So this has been a challenge.”
Even more challenging is getting customers and critics to understand the balance she is trying to achieve between the food she loves and keeping customers happy and satisfied. She mentions a devastating review from Gina Mallet of the National Post in which Mallet writes meanderingly of women chefs serving up comfort food because of their nurturing instinct with an almost incoherent recap of the food itself.
But Nicholson is slowly adding her fine dining touches to the menu, and is trying to turn the restaurant into a celebration of seasonal cuisine. “I’m a firm believer in cooking with the seasons,” she says with enthusiasm. “I think we have to support our local economy, I think we have to support what Canada has to offer, I think we have some of the best food in Toronto. The key suppliers right now are phenomenal,” she says, listing off local bison, Berkshire pork from Manitoba and Norse Lake pickerel as some of her current favourite ingredients.
The chef is also one of the few in the city to make her own charcuterie, butchering the animals herself and turning out pates, prosciuttos and sausages from the Thirty Five Elm kitchen. She is slowly bringing the customers around, and talks of the items she would love to add more of, such as rabbit, although she knows these changes have to come slowly.
Nicholson obviously faces challenges in terms of playing down her fine dining background to a more casual restaurant, but the dishes she is coming up with in the interim are stellar. By embracing local seasonal ingredients and haute cuisine techniques she and her staff are creating menu items that do, to be fair, have an aura of comfort food to them, but only because they epitomize and embrace Canadian cuisine from coast to coast.
The restaurant might be remembered for the big ol’ pizza oven, but once guests have tried Nicholson’s haute-Canadian cuisine, they’ll remember – and return to – Thirty-Five Elm for the outstanding food.