By eleven o’clock on a Friday night the place is jumping, a clubhouse for young and merry Welly-West condo types. In the hours prior to that, it’s a serious restaurant, good company for other local stalwarts Niagara Street Café and Le Sélect. It was already serious before the recent reno, when Craig Alley was chef and the room was as suave-verging-on-kitch as a Vegas lounge singer, black-on-black décor and backlit onyx here there and everywhere. The new look, apparently executed by the staff, is all about rustic wood, with a ceiling of undulating wooden strips like some tiny cartoon version of Koerner Hall, general-store shelves of preserves, panelled paintings in a naïve style and maps of Ontario chalked onto blackboards. The farm theme is frankly bizarre in deepest downtown Toronto but it reflects the importance of local provenance to the new chef, Carl Heinrich, a Stratford Chefs School alum who worked as a sous chef for Daniel Boulud in New York and Vancouver, and was briefly sous at Cowbell before coming here. Every item on his menu has a name attached – Giggie’s Speckled trout, John’s Burger, Ryan’s Charcuterie – names that mean nothing whatsoever to the uninitiated, of course, but friendly servers are quick to explain.
Ryan’s charcuterie, for example, is created by Ryan Donovan, house butcher and charcutier who learned his craft at the Healthy Butcher and Cowbell. Thirty bucks buys a good selection – enough for four people to share – including perhaps a fine-grained, subtle kielbasa held together by a delicate mouseline; “Besignano” salami that, interestingly, uses beet juice as a natural nitrate to help the pork along; a fabulous venison summer sausage, the lean meat mitigated by a little Berkshire pork fat and mustard seed; a house terrine of duck and pork with green peppercorns, soft and fibrous like rillettes standing at attention; and, the piece de resistance, pieces of “pig face” like pinkie-sized cuts of fatty bacon cooked sous-vide for a couple of days and served warm, the skin slightly crunchy. With a selection of tasty mustards and pickles, this is one of the best charcuterie iterations in town.
Brent’s baby beet salad (farmer Brent Preston from Creemore) tumbles mild, sweet pickled pink and red beets with tangy pickled cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, little triangles of fried bread, pickled shallots, toasted pine nuts and a surprisngly discreet ranch dressing. It’s a pretty good salad and we ate it in about twenty seconds.
Simon’s tortellini (named for owner Simon Benstead) are rather leathery tortellini containing barbeuced beef that tastes of a sweet, smoky barbecue sauce. They come with excellent black kale, hair-thin hickory stick potatoes for crunch, some mushrooms and a hen’s egg that sauces the pasta with its runny yolk.
Halfway down the menu, dishes drift unannounced from appetizers to mains, and prices (charcuterie aside) enter double digits. A crisp-skinned fillet of sea bream (Pauline’s) is placed over squash coulis and partnered with various vegetables cooked à la Greque in a tangy caper and lemon juice vinaigrette with intensely sweet raisins. The kitchen, true to its Cowbell influence, brings in sides of beef and breaks it down in-house, so the cut of Dennis’s roast beef ($18) changes from night to night. We got tenderloin, fabulously tender but with a good flavour, too, sliced over a brown butter hollandaise. Squash, celery and carrots made their shy contributions but the show was stolen by a most sophisticated pommes Kennedy – exceptionally delicate potato millefeuilles deep-fried in beef fat.
We have the waiter to thank for the hit of the evening – John’s burger. The ground meat was taken from the neck and shank but it enveloped richer, softer beef from marinated, roasted ribs. Garnished with aged cheddar and branston pickle in a house-made bun it made a good case to be considered the nonpareil in a city that has suddenly developed a taste for artisanal burgers.
Desserts were of the arty-take-on-a-humble-classic variety. A chocolate ice cream sandwich between chocolate cookies arrived with dark, sweet chocolate sauce and vanilla crème anglaise for dipping. Salted apple bread-and-butter pudding also had glam make-up in the guise of Baileys caramel sauce and dolce di mascarpone.
The small, rather pricey wine list has only two Canadian wines to offer – an inexplicable decision, completely at odds with the staunchly local provenance of the food.
488 Wellington Street West (at Portland). 416 979-1990. www.marbenrestaurant.com