Malena

One of the most perplexing questions you’re ever likely to hear is whether there is a decent Greek restaurant in Toronto. My old answer was no. My new answer is Maléna. I first met Sam Kalogiros six years ago, when he was a server at Luce, the Rubino brothers’ deliciously idiosyncratic foray into Italian cuisine. Kalogiros comes from Corfu, the Ionian island I know best, and he mentioned at the time that he had a long-term ambition to open an Ionian restaurant. He said the same thing a few years later when he and co-owner, co-manager, David Minicucci opened L’Unita at Avenue Road and Davenport. L’Unita’s food was Italian, convincingly interpreted by young Canadian chef Doug Neigel. Now the same team has opened Maléna, just a few doors south on Avenue Road, in the premises that used to house Pink Pearl. Already mighty popular, it has a casual, quirky charm that isn’t as obviously cool as L’Unita. And aside from Chiado, Starfish and the top sushi contenders, it’s Toronto’s most serious seafood restaurant.
But is it Greek? Canadians used to the opa!-Zorban-burnt-meat-‘n’-baklava enclaves of the Danforth might not think so. But sophisticated Athenians and Corfiots will give a shrewd smile and a nod of appreciation to Neigel. His menu (strongly favouring seafood over meat) is laden with Ionian references, not slavishly copied but judiciously appropriated and translated.
Sea urchin crostini is one example. I always associate sea urchins with the Ionian because of a particular morning when my friend in the village where we lived, Philip Parginos, taught me how to go snorkelling for octopus. At lunchtime we pulled ourselves out of the water and onto some flat, gently sloping rocks to dry off in the scorching sun. Philip had gathered some sea urchins and now he opened them with his knife, took out the lemon he had hidden in his diver’s pouch, squeezed some juice into each urchin and we ate them just like that. However many Japanese uni treats I’ve had since, that remains my seminal urchin experience. At Maléna, Neigel takes very crunchy toasts and spreads them with a little puréed avocado (these days, they do farm avocado in the Aegean islands). Then he lays the sea urchin on top, strews some red amaranth seedlings over them and finishes it all off with a sprinkling of black salt. The avocado is a great idea – echoing the texture of the urchin but too bland to impinge on the purity of its flavour – but it’s the salt that brings the dish to life (and reminds me so forcibly of that seaside lunch, I suspect).
Crab is another rare pleasure in the Ionian. In the market in Corfu town we once saw a big kavouromama, a female crab with her glistening eggs. Greedy gourmets were arguing about which of them had the right to buy it. At Maléna, they serve a single huge stone crab claw, still in its shell, and pair it with avgolemono sauce. Not your usual avgolemono – a liaison of egg yolk and lemon juice stirred into chicken broth – but a stiff version with the texture of an aïoli and mixed with masses of chopped dill. Scrumptious.
Then there’s the Ionian seafood soup. It contains cod (I’ve never heard of cod in the Ionian) as well as clams, mussels and spot prawns, all nicely undercooked to preserve their freshness and delicate textures. The broth is a thin tomato consommé flavoured with fresh oregano and basil leaves and lots of ground pepper. Slices of grilled ciabatta lie on top, which means they’re soggy by the time the dish comes to table.
I could go on – there are so many delicious things on the menu – especially whole fish of various kinds, simply and flawlessly grilled – and you can’t get more Ionian than that. They do the same thing around the corner at Joso’s, of course, though there it’s seen as Dalmatian. Same wind and water.
And in lieu of a cheese course, Maléna suggests a finger of saganaki – salty kephalograviera cheese fried and served hot with a curiously bitter orange and ouzo marmalade. It’s an unusual combination and I will have to taste it a couple more times to figure out whether or not it really works.
One last treasure Maléna presents is the talent of sommelier Zinta Steprens who gets to play with a really original little wine list that features a number of unusual white wines, all available by the glass. From Greece, a crisp, aromatically floral blend of moschofilero and rhoditis is made by Skouras. From Friuli come three stunning wines from Bastianich – a malvasia, a tocai and a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon and picolit. A glass of either would be the ideal partner to a light dinner sitting at the bar, conversing with half a dozen oysters (from P.E.I. not Corfu) or a crudo of Qualicum Bay scallops: true Canadian-Hellenic détente.
Maléna is at 120 Avenue Road (one block south of Davenport). 416 964 0606.

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