This Canadian Comfort Food Tasting Menu is Toronto’s Best-Kept Food Secret

By Ross Vernon Dias

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Our wind-down recommendations are a great way to forget about a grueling work day. This week, a Canadian tasting menu like you’ve never seen before.

When: On now until end of June

What it is: Maple Leaf Tavern’s first menu in its Kitchen Counter Series is a unique take on and an ode to Canadian comfort food.

Where it’s located: 955 Gerrard St E, Toronto, ON M4M 1Z4

Why visit: You haven’t experienced Canadian food like this before. Ever. It may just be Toronto’s best-kept food secret this summer.

How it came to be

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Chef Jesse Vallins is not interested in re-defining what Canadian comfort food is. When he conceived this project, Vallins did not set out to challenge notions of what comprises the comfort food beloved by Canadians from coast to coast. The ingredients Vallins uses are — for the most part — unchanged. And, rightly so.

Walking through menu from a pea soup to a Halifax donair and poutine, it’s hard to imagine any of these dishes served any other way. When talking about the east coast donair — for example — the rich, garlic-y donair sauce that it is traditionally served with is an uncompromisable element of stopping by the neighbourhood shop for one.

At the Tavern, Vallins has elevated this experience. While the flavours can be indistinguishable, it is the experience that brings about a deeper appreciation for the everyday flavours. If guests were to close their eyes, this critic would argue that it would be challenging for the uninitiated to differentiate the flavour profiles. Yes, there’s some truffle and the texture combinations on the palate are otherworldly but comfort food is all about the flavours that bring back memories of home — and that’s what the menu accomplishes.

The experience is available Tuesday to Thursdays through to the end of the month by reservation. After this time, a new menu will be created for the Kitchen Counter series. And, at $70 a plate with an additional $40 for paired beverage, the innovative series will hardly break the bank.

What to expect

Located on previously sleepy but newly invigorated Gerrard Street East, Maple Leaf Tavern has been through many lives, starting its most recent in 2016 to reinvent the tavern space for a 21st century Toronto audience. With exposed brick walls overlayed with wood accents, white table cloths and, mid-century wall sconces for lighting, the Tavern is a dark, slightly mysterious space upon entry. It is impossible to really tell what century best fits the decor, which is perhaps why the Tavern recently added a slew of fruity cobblers — a pre-prohibition favourite — to their cocktail menu.

While the booths are cozy, the counter itself is an inviting blue tile window into the kitchen action. Towards the back, a beautiful piece of meat is being sliced into strips of bacon and up ahead, the cooks plate and serve up dishes to an overhead heat lamp while they wait to make their way to the tables.

Seated atop the counter, guests follow their meal being prepared and plated, connecting the dots between the kitchen and the table. On the menu, every item is written within double quotes a la Virgil Abloh, insinuating that every course will be not what you would expect but exactly what you should expect at the same time. After an amuse bouche, the first course is a deconstructed “caesar.”

The Planter’s Punch cocktail.

The “Habitant pea soup” arrives with a consomme meant to be drenched over the split peas, carrots and parsley mix, creating a soup. Gravy, cheese and potato are encrusted in a fried potato casing for the “poutine.” And, the “montreal bagel and smoked meat” ingenuity is in the cooking process: the ingredients are baked together like a pie.

Regardless of what is tasted and how it is presented or created, guests will leave the experience with an appetite to relive the flavours of comfort food they thought they knew. The next time I order a traditional sloppy poutine doused in gravy, I will not forget the self-contained variety, a brick of fried potato, that hit the spot nonetheless.

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