I’m delighted to see chef Rob Bragagnolo back in Toronto and ensconced at the latest iteration of Marben, owner Simon Benstead’s hot spot on Wellington West. I hadn’t tasted Bragagnolo’s food since he was at Lobby in 2006, one of two or three chefs in the city then offering a menu that showcased molecular cuisine. He had spent the previous five years working for English chef Marc Fosh at the one-Michelin-star Read’s hotel in Mallorca and had picked up the molecular vibe so prevalent in Spain at the time. Coming home to Toronto was a great idea but Lobby’s customers weren’t the avant-garde audience he needed. Before too long, he and his sous chef, Sergio Fiorino, had moved on to Fumetti on Brant Street but again it didn’t work out. Bragagnolo went back to Mallorca.
Now he’s back and Benstead threw a party to celebrate, inviting the media to dinner. It was a splendid meal – 17 fascinating, well-judged courses that showcased Bragagnolo’s mastery of many techniques, ancient and modern. The scale and sophistication of the meal took me back to the way Toronto used to dine pre-2009, when every chef worth his salt loved to put together a flamboyant and thought-provoking tasting menu. Wouldn’t it be great if Marben started a trend back towards that sort of entertaining artistry and away from the heavy-handed, self-righteous and dull domesticity of so much of Hogtown’s current hipster cooking?
Here are some highlights from Bragagnolo’s feast. He started us with a Szechuan button to numb the tongue and lips – like licking a 6-volt battery – and stimulate the palate, pairing it with a spoonful of citrus granité to further chill the cold heat of the tingling.
Then came a brown bubble in a spoon that looked and wobbled like a raw egg yolk but burst into olive purée in your mouth. A fine beetroot brunoise was the sweet, rooty counterpoint.
There was a Noma-style flower pot filled with layers of carrot purée, pistachio dukkah, preserved lemon cream, cumin and sesame seeds served with a fresh baby carrot to use as a scoop… So much was memorable! A thick sunchoke cream with sunchoke crisps strewn over it – so simple and delicious. Mini air chiabatta like crisp puffs or crunchy bread balloons, wrapped in gorgeous Serrano ham (chef acknowledged El Bulli circa 2003 for the idea).
How about razor clam chopped and returned to its shell with chorizo dimes and a parsley and clam gel? It shared the plate with a Raspberry point oyster topped with hazelnut crumble and trout roe, eliciting a wow.
My favourite dish of the evening was the first of three main courses, a “Canadian paella” of crab, lobster and mussels with crispy wild rice, tiny moments of red pepper, almond and snap pea with a dab of saffron-paprika aioli. Bragagnolo finsihed the dish by pouring on an exaggeratedly intense, dark lobster-crab bisque of thrilling and uncompromising flavour. It killed the accompanying wine – a merry little rosé – but blew me away.
“This is uppity food,” joked wine writer Konrad Ejbich who was sitting at our table. He is absolutely right and it’s high time for it. Bragagnolo plans a chef’s tasting menu as a regular feature at the new Marben. Hooray.
Marben is at 488 Wellington Street West. 416 979 1990. www.marbenrestaurant.com.