Sourcing all beer, wine and the majority of ingredients from local growers or producers (there’s a chocolate dessert, but no stewed greens until they come back in season locally), the pair are offering up a pretty decent assortment of southern dishes, done really well.
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.
Some people say Disney is the happiest place on earth. I’d say those people are wrong. I have proof that the happiest place on earth is on Queen Street East, just past the Don River, where Mary Macleod and her small team of bakers make the very best shortbread ever.
Don’t believe me? Take James’ Beard’s word for it – on a visit to Toronto in the early 80s, the acclaimed chef declared Macleod’s shortbread the best he’s ever tasted.
Mcleod emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1955 when she got married. She shares a story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time; her reputation for being a great cook had preceded her, and her mother-in-law had asked that she bake an apple pie. Not used to the differences in North American flour compared to the softer, more delicate products used in Europe, Macleod’s pastry was a disaster, and she set about researching the different flours and how she could add other natural ingredients to manipulate the dough to work more like the European products she was used to.
Remember how in high school, there was always one guy whose house you’d all flock to? The kid with the cool basement rec room, and the Mom who always made everyone snacks, and who didn’t mind if you were there until three in the morning listening to Floyd, or The Sex Pistols, or Nirvana (depending on your particular era). It maybe wasn’t the slickest place, maybe the furniture didn’t match, or the walls were covered in peeling rock posters, but it was so comfortable, and so welcoming, that it’s where you naturally gravitated every day.
Fabio Bondi and Michael Sangregorio are (collectively) those guys, and their new restaurant, Local Kitchen and Wine Bar, is the hip grown-up equivalent to the basement rec room. It might be the collection of old news articles and photos of the neighbourhood on the walls, the handmade bar, or the mismatched chairs. It might also be that Sangregorio, who runs the front of house, is the modern equivalent of your friend’s Mom, proffering samples from the restaurant’s piattini (small plates) menu, and encouraging regulars to flip through the boxes of vinyl records by the kitchen door to spin on the restaurant’s turntable-based sound system. This is the only restaurant in town where you could actually hear someone ask, “Mike, man, let’s hear some Zeppelin…” and actually have it happen.
When we last talked to Chef Andrea Nicholson back in late November, she was at the helm of a sinking ship. Despite her best efforts at creating an accessible, locally-sourced menu of classic Canadiana with a fine dining twist, 35 Elm Street, the restaurant where she worked as the executive chef, was failing. In fact, only days after we ran a profile on Nicholson and her work at 35 Elm, the place was abruptly shuttered.
“We were told while we were prepping for dinner service,” the chef remembers. “It was such a slap in the face. It breaks my heart.”
The entrance way to Trevor Kitchen and Bar reminds me of a Goth club. There’s a shiny red motorcycle situated just inside the door and dark stairs lead down into a candlelit room. Seriously, I’m expecting to hear some Bauhaus as I descend into what food critics referred to as a “subterranean grotto” when the space first opened in late 2006.
Despite the white walls, both the long bar area and the adjacent dining room are dim, with candles and ceiling pot lights creating ambient shadows across the 150-year-old stone walls. It’s a potentially intimidating space, but prospective diners shouldn’t be scared of the dark, because the team in the kitchen have prepared a seasonal bistro menu that is akin to your Mom wrapping you in a big hug and then serving you Sunday dinner. If your Mom was fancy and cooked foie gras.
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.
A Taste of Quebec
55 Mill Street, Building 36, 1st floor
In the federal political upheaval of the past weeks, the Tory government has made references to the separatist Bloc Quebecois that made it sound as if they believe everyone who ever defended Quebec’s unique heritage had cooties. And while the rest of Canada may not yet be progressive enough to believe in the idea of Quebec as a distinct culture, in terms of cuisine, Quebec is well ahead of any other Canadian region when it comes to developing and promoting local items: drawing on its unique history to promote its food culture; protecting its products such as ice cider and lamb with appellation controls; and embracing contemporary, globalized ingredients to create new products that still reflect the soul of the province.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in a visit to the newly-opened A Taste of Quebec in the distillery district, a shop dedicated to the wondrous array of foodstuffs from La Belle Province.
Moving house can be a stressful time, but ultimately one of renewal. It can be hard to leave a place where so many great memories were made, but it’s also invigorating and inspiring to start with a clean slate in a new space.
Such is the case for Donna Dooher and Kevin Gallagher with their new restaurant Mildred’s Temple Kitchen. So etched in Toronto’s culinary history was the couple’s previous restaurant Mildred Pierce that visitors to the newly opened Mildred’s Temple Kitchen seemed to be expecting the new space to be exactly the same. But after 17 years running Mildred Pierce, as well as a catering business and a cooking school, it’s understandable that something different would be desirable for the couple and their dedicated team.
While the old restaurant was romantic, with wall murals and swaths of gauzy fabric suspended from the ceiling, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen is an ode to 60s modern design and feels like something out of a Jacques Tati film.
The space is big and bright with the entire north wall comprised of floor to ceiling windows that look out onto the train tracks that cut through this west end neighbourhood. Diners seated along the plush upholstered bench with their backs to the window can sense the change of energy in the room as the trains soundlessly whisk past and their companions look up. It’s a surreal moment that ends with the window-facing diners staring across the train tracks at the old Mildred Pierce location.
Back in the restaurant itself, the open kitchen is set three steps above the main dining area, and acts as its own form of entertainment. Chef de Cuisine Tyler Cunningham directs a team of six in a gleaming open kitchen while servers, bussers and other staff members enter the “stage” from doors to the right and left. This interactive design stems from a trend started at Mildred Pierce where regulars sat at the bar to be as close to the kitchen action as possible. At Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, Dooher and Gallagher have actually designed the open kitchen with that idea in mind and have provided a row of stools and a bar along one end of the kitchen which acts as a chef’s table for diners who enjoy watching the cooks at work.
The remainder of the space is made up of two- and four-top tables – comprised of light cream coloured chairs and a warm wood that is carried throughout the room on tables and cabinetry. As an homage to an especially popular table at Mildred Pierce, one round banquette called “Table 12” was placed at the back of the space, and two harvest tables sit up on the level of the kitchen to accommodate larger groups or to act as a communal table when the place is busy. Gallagher says he and Dooher were inspired by communal dining restaurants in Chicago, and hopes people will use both the harvest tables and the kitchen-side bar as well as the bar at the entrance to strike up conversations with fellow diners.
Dooher and Gallagher’s son, Rory, who worked with them at Mildred Pierce and spent the last few years working in various restaurants in the UK, explains that the raw space provided all sorts of inspiration, and combining the practical necessities of a restaurant and a little bit of whimsy, the team came up with a design that was not only fun but responsible. The delay in the renovations occurred as they searched out clean, efficient building methods and eco-friendly materials.
This philosophy translates to the food and drink as well. In place of bottled water, Temple offers reverse osmosis filtered water in either sparkling or still versions. One of the first such systems in Canada, the onsite filtration allows the restaurant to lower its eco-footprint while still accommodating customer demand for non-tap water.
The menu is also a clear dedication to local and seasonal, with a blend of old favourites and some new dishes as well. At brunch (it’s quite possible Mildred Pierce was solely responsible for making Toronto the brunch-loving town that it is), much-loved dishes such as black currant scones, huevos Monty, Mrs. Biederhof’s pancakes, and green eggs and ham have all found a spot on the new menu.
The lunch and dinner card are the same, and old favourites such as the chicken biryani and Mildred’s classic burger are sure to make regulars happy. This is a carefully thought-out collection of dishes, with a lentil stew and a BBQ eggplant and silken tofu in black bean sauce dish on offer for vegetarians and vegans respectively, with other local and seasonal dishes such as lamb pot pie, pan-seared Ontario trout or a Berkshire pork chop sure to please the more omnivorous guests.
Starters include Georgian Bay whitefish fritters with pickled spruce tips, Italian bread soup, and a divine roast vegetable puff pastry tart. Meanwhile, dessert sees the return of Mildred’s classic profiteroles, as well as solid – and tasty – classics such as a variety of tarts (apple with tamarind ice cream, lemon or chocolate praline).
We’ve yet to try the wine or cocktails; Dooher and Gallagher spent last Friday running around to various government offices encouraging inspectors and administrators to complete th
e long-promised permits that would allow them to finally obtain their liquor license. But son Rory explains that the drinks menu will be modest, classic and seasonal, designed to complement the dishes but also continue the overall theme of sleek and classic with a touch of fun.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the washrooms, because they continue the same theme, while managing to feel like a completely separate entity. An unmarked door near the entrance in the same warm wood found throughout the restaurant leads to a row of unisex stalls. A motion sensor triggers a recorded loop that includes the Price is Right theme song, a French-accented pilot advising patrons that they can unfasten their seat belts and then Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made For Walking”. It’s another jolt of 60s-inspired surrealism that again makes me think of French director Jacques Tati and his film Playtime (well, except for the disastrous restaurant opening scenes), but no one we spoke to has actually seen the movie.
While it’s taken a while to come to fruition, Mildred’s Temple Kitchen has managed to tick all the boxes and should offer something for everyone. There’s enough of the old Mildred’s to keep long-time fans happy, while acknowledging changing trends in both food and design to keep the restaurant current and forward-thinking. The food remains solid and well-presented and the room reflects Dooher and Gallagher’s love of dramatic spaces, but is fun and beguiling and not at all intimidating. Sleek, but also welcoming, the restaurant makes dinner more than just a meal, turning it into an event.
At their first official “open to the public” brunch yesterday, the energy in the room was busy but not chaotic. Old regulars returned, joy on their faces as they dug into long-missed stacks of pancakes. Just as if they were moving house for real, Dooher and Gallagher have managed to take everything people loved about their old restaurant and combine it with something fresh and new. And Toronto diners are set to offer them the best housewarming party they could ever have.
One of the great things about the blogosphere is that anyone with access to a computer can have their say on any topic they’re interested in. The downside to this is that opinions are often voiced without anything to back them up, and bloggers generally aren’t much interested in presenting both sides of the story. A couple of recent articles about the southern Italian restaurant Terronispawned a lot of opinions and comments (some good, most critical) about the policies that restaurant chain has in place to ensure the authenticity of the food it serves. The blogger, and readers posting comments, ranted about being refused everything from cheese to butter to water. Yet, oddly, it didn’t look as if anyone had approached the management at Terroni to find out why these policies were in place.
Since I’m always interested in the back of house intricacies of the restaurant business – the whys and wherefores of service – I sat down recently with Terroni owner Cosimo Mammoliti to find out what all the fuss was about.