9 Church Street
It seems clichéd to start a piece about a new restaurant and roll out the “food = love” metaphors. But in the case of the Wine Bar, it seems apt, given that the principals involved are two couples who have saved what has become known as a landmark dining spot from what might have potentially been a corporate overhaul.
When word came out in the summer of ’09 that Jamie Kennedy was selling his Church Street Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar restaurant due to financial troubles, nobody knew for sure what might happen to the place. Kennedy offered the place to staff members first, and Chef Scott Vivian (who had run Kennedy’s Gardiner museum restaurant) along with his wife, pastry chef Rachelle Cadwell (who had been head of pastry for all of Kennedy’s operations) decided to take over the place and make it their own. Along with Vivian and Cadwell, Ted and Mary Koutsogiannopoulos (who had previously run Joy Bistro) came on board to remake the restaurant, now simply called the Wine Bar.
The abbreviated name was a logical choice to everyone involved. “All the regulars knew it as ‘the wine bar’,” explains Vivian, “so that made sense to us, and the fact that it’s much easier, when somebody comes to the front door and sees Wine Bar and they come in and we can explain [the changeover].” Vivian also points out that the restaurant is included in many guide books, and it will take a year or two for updates and reprinting, so a name that reflects the restaurant’s past as well as what it is now was appropriate.
Cadwell and Vivian also put regulars at ease by blending characteristics left behind by Kennedy with their own style and personalities. Kennedy’s famous wall of preserves by the open kitchen remains, but the walls have gotten a paint job, and Cadwell spent six hours re-papering the washrooms with pages from an old Canadian Women’s Cookbook.
In the kitchen, the original premise of small plates remains, in part because that’s how Vivian likes to eat. “I find myself getting bored sometimes when we go out to eat, and it might be a really delicious dish, but five or six bites into it, I’d like to try something else. I like to order a couple of things just to share it.”
The Wine Bar’s menu is tweaked daily, concentrating on what is seasonal, with an eye to a balance of dishes and a variety of meats. “We try to portray as wide a selection as possible,” the chef tells me, “because we’re highlighting ingredients that you can get in Canada, specific to Ontario.” One of the few things they’ve kept from the restaurant’s previous incarnation are the fries and the poutine, both incredibly popular dishes, but again Vivian puts his own spin on them, with a slightly different process and even a different variety of potato.
The couple admit that it’s sometimes a hard sell to convince customers to go out of their comfort zones and try dishes made with seasonal ingredients. Currently, because it’s winter, the only salad on the menu is a dish that features local beets paired with goat’s milk feta, hazelnuts and caper berries. When customers ask for a green salad, it becomes an opportunity to educate and maybe turn them onto something new.
“There is a line between customer service and making customers happy – I think it has a lot to do with discipline, you have to know and you have to be willing to politely let your customers know that these are our ideologies, this is what we believe in, and you’re more than welcome to order something else, but we don’t have [green salad]. The staff knows now, they’re really well educated, we do a staff meeting before each service, so they know exactly why I’m doing things and what are the reasons around not having a green salad on the menu in January. It’s that direct link, they can portray it to the customer. And the customers can appreciate it – they still want that green salad but they can kind of understand why.”
This would all be a grand challenge on its own, but the sale of the Wine Bar also included Hank’s, the small cafe next door that Kennedy had set up to serve light lunches, sandwiches and pastries. Vivian and Cadwell have expanded the daily menu for Hank’s slightly, adding more hot items such as soups, as well as a weekend brunch with table service featuring classics such as pancakes, bacon and eggs, and Cadwell’s breads, pastries and desserts.
Brunch had always been an option in the old JK Wine Bar, and here Vivian steps away from the restaurant’s custom of small plates to offer what he refers to as a Quebecois breakfast, offering dishes such as duck confit with pain perdu, toad in a hole, and a farmhouse burger with peameal bacon and fried egg on top. These brunches have informally taken on a rock and roll theme which started when someone put on a Led Zeppelin CD one Sunday and let it play all the way through.
But lest you think the couple already have their hands full, they’re getting set to open Hank’s in the evenings as well. Vivian spent a number of years in his youth cooking in Atlanta and wants to bring old fashioned Southern cooking to Toronto.
“I’ve wanted to bring a southern-kissed menu to Toronto for a long time. But I wanted to do it using only homegrown southern Ontario ingredients,” explains Vivian in a press release. “The key here is that Hanks will now serve homemade Southern-style a la carte dinners that showcase Ontario’s best meats and produce but at price points that are truly accessible to all Torontonians.”
Hank’s will open to the public for dinner in early February and Vivian mentions braised beef brisket, baby back ribs, lamb shanks and fried chicken, paired with side dishes of hush puppies, corn bread and a daily changing mac and cheese. When I bring up collard greens, he points out that there isn’t a good Ontario source of the ubiquitous southern staple, but that he plans to look at some other hardy green such as chard to work as a replacement. Cadwell will be whipping up red velvet cake and checking out sources for local nuts so she can make some version of a pecan pie.
Hank’s will also feature Ontario-only wines and craft beer, curated by Wine Bar sommelier Richard Healy, and Ontario music with a focus on blues and bluegrass, and possibly live bands.
With the exception of the dishes in the Wine Bar that Vivian finishes in the open kitchen at the front, everything will be prepared for both restaurants from the same large kitchen at the back.
Taking on one restaurant, never mind two, is already a gargantuan task, but the pair are extremely happy with their current staff; a blend of people who remain from JK days and who are dedicated to the ideology of what Cadwell and Vivian are doing, combined with new faces that Vivian refers to as a breath of fresh air for their enthusiasm and optimism.
And while Vivian is obviously the more extroverted of the pair and does most of the talking during our interview, he betrays his southern chivalry by making sure I know just how much Cadwell has taken on as well.
“It’s always ‘Scott Vivian and his wife Rachelle’. It’s never ‘Scott and Rachelle Vivian’. Rachelle does a lot of stuff that is not pastry; she’s responsible for all the little touches that get overlooked.” (As an aside, while we loved all of Vivian’s dishes that we tried at the Wine Bar recently, it was Cadwell’s sticky toffee pudding, floating in a bowl of butter sauce, that brought the ravest reviews. Seriously – best I’ve ever had. Don’t miss it, go now.)
Given that Cadwell and Vivian met and became a couple while working at the restaurant under Kennedy’s reign, it seems appropriate that they’re now running the place themselves, bringing it back from the precipice and renewing both the Wine Bar and Hank’s with their own touches. “It’s more of a preservation kind of thing,” Vivian admits, “it just needs love put back into it.”
Between the two of them, Vivian and Cadwell have a lot of love to give; to their restaurant, to their customers in the form of amazing seasonal and local dishes, and to each other as they face the challenges of running a business together. They’ve made the Wine Bar and Hank’s comfortable, welcoming places, suitable for any budget, and the love they’ve put into every aspect of it is obvious.