Maple Leaf Tavern – Sophisticated comfort food in a laid-back atmosphere
|Restaurant||Maple Leaf Tavern|
|Location||955 Gerrard Street East|
|Dinner for two with a bottle of wine||$250|
Maple Leaf Tavern, like many old establishments in Toronto, has a chequered past and was known as the watering hole for brawlers. The building was originally erected in 1910, and recently went through a two-year, $1 million facelift thanks to owner Todd Morgan, (Port Restaurant) who saw promise in the space.
In 2017, Toronto Life named it as one of the best new Toronto restaurants, so I ventured to the outskirts of Chinatown east to get my fix of tavern food one Saturday evening during Winterlicious. Situated on a seedy stretch of Gerrard Street East, the bold black and white exterior is most certainly eye catching and added some life into a fatigued neighbourhood.
Like The Broadview Hotel, Maple Leaf Tavern preserved elements of its past—including the old-school cigarette vending machine at the entrance and the original front sign. The interior was the perfect balance of upscale and casual; past and present—with two dining areas separated by a U-shaped bar and a spacious open kitchen with some bar seats for a more voyeuristic dining experience. Executive chef and grill master Jesse Vallins didn’t seem to mind that he was on display in the kitchen, either. The space also had a large private dining area in the back.
My guest and I took our seats with a prime view of the kitchen, ordered a bottle of Cos Maldrafica Cabernet/Merlot from the tailored wine list, and opted out of the Winterlicious menu. The small gas lamp candles provided a soft glow at each table, giving the space a romantic and cozy feel. In terms of the dinner menu, Vallins did an excellent job marrying tavern classics, such as lasagna ($24), cheeseburger ($22) and striploin ($25), with more sophisticated elements, such as the whole oxtail brioche ($99, pre-order only). Prices were reasonable for the portion size. This was not your grandfather’s tavern—ambiance, execution and taste were kicked up a notch.
Take the whole Ontario burrata ($29), for example—a dish that was reason enough to visit. The generous portion of luscious cheese was made tableside with a drizzle of extra virgin canola oil, baco noir balsamic, Newfoundland sea salt and seasonal garnishes. Adornments of roasted turnips, delicate ribbons of raw butternut squash, zesty pesto and slivered almonds were aesthetically pleasing and also satisfied my tastebuds. High-quality burrata needs no adornment. One bite of the creamy cheese confirmed this.
Our server, who wasn’t overly friendly and seemed frazzled by Winterlicious shenanigans, suggested we pair the burrata with the homemade bread basket ($6). When it arrived, the crammed plate of potato focaccia, red fife soda bread and sourdough—all made in-house—would have easily fed a small family. Unfortunately, the bread had been sitting out for too long, as evidenced by its overly crusty texture. Midway through our meal, the server came by, and not saying a word, hastily removed the cover from the butter dish before flitting off to another table. My guest and I found it entertaining, but weren’t surprised given the already-mediocre service.
For our mains, we ordered the beef short rib ($29) and the Wagyu flat iron ($49) with a side of grilled broccoli ($9). The local beef short rib, which was also on the Winterlicious menu, looked like a showstopper and was perfectly plated with glazed vegetables, bone marrow mustard and a shallow pool of pan jus. While the flavour was there, the texture was overly dry and did not shred easily with ma fourchette. I also would have toned down the mustard because some bites cleared out my sinuses. The lusty seven-ounce portion of Wagyu, on the other hand, was served juicy and exactly as ordered, accompanied by a delicious disc of tarragon butter that melted into heavenly goodness. Quality meat speaks for itself, and the Wagyu did. My only suggestion would be serve it a bit sooner, as the centre was tepid.
After polishing off our bottle of Sicilian wine, we were ready to call an Uber and venture into the cold night. Despite the mediocre service (I’ll chalk it up to Winterlicious) and the rowdy table of 905ers beside us, I’d give the food another try, especially the burger and brunch. Un gros merci to Todd Morgan for seeing the potential in this piece of history, restoring an ugly duckling into a swan and sharing it with the rest of Toronto.
Mme M. xoxo
Le rubrique de Madame Marie
1 étoile – Run. Before you get the runs.
2 étoiles – Mediocre, but nothing you couldn’t make at home.
3 étoiles – C’est bon, with some standout qualities.
4 étoiles – Many memorable qualities and excellent execution. Compliments to the chef.
5 étoiles – Formidable! Michelin Star quality. Book a reservation immediately.