Frisky Business: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica

Frisky Business: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica

Bling king Mark McEwan has abandoned his usual opulence with Fabbrica. It’s loud, lusty and the one thing elite chefs tend to forget: fun

(Image: Vanessa Heins) 

After four hit restaurants, two television shows, one catering company, one high-end grocery emporium and 26 years as a hospitality magnate (plus another 10 as a mere chef before that), Mark McEwan has his formula down. The chef mixes knowing, professional service with French-Italian food that’s expertly prepared, exorbitantly priced and touched with just enough exoticisms (chipotle-yuzu aïoli, “laughing bird” shrimp, “illokai,” which lesser places just call passion fruit) to keep it all safely au courant. McEwan’s not a businessman; he’s a business, man—a consistent, constantly expanding luxury brand in a time when luxury was supposed to have been given up for dead. The feel of his places is exclusive and timeless, but in that late-’90s way, where the design is spare, the market is always rising, and Thievery Corporation—those turn-of-the-century masters of inoffensive and vaguely international electro-pop—plays in the background to keep things light.

And yet with his new restaurant in Don Mills, a loud, populist and, dare I say, fun Italian spot called Fabbrica, he’s thrown much of the old formula overboard. The place isn’t perfect, but it’s his most welcoming new effort in years.

The lively, Italian cinema–inspired decor (the design is by Giannone Petricone Associates, the branding by Concrete) is the first indication that something’s completely different. There are fabulous details everywhere: reclaimed wood strips and random (but cool) wooden tire moulds on the walls, and an old Motiograph film projector installed, just because, on the long statuario marble bar. They’ve written “Bellissima” in white penny tiles above the unisex washroom basins (unisex handwashing isn’t for every- one, mind you; one Don Mills matron huffed “Are you serious?” as she tromped past); trimmed the leather banquettes in glossy, Pininfarina red paint; and sheathed the tall, blazing, wood-fired pizza oven in cold-rolled, riveted steel, which is stencilled with the words “Modello Mobile 140,” so that it looks a lot like a missile silo, as imagined, say, by Dolce and Gabbana.

The music is young (Röyksopp, Broken Bells). The service is casual. The wine list is both affordable and esoteric—there’s a great, smoky, mid-bodied aglianico for $40 and a fantastic refosco for $58. As for the food prices, yeah, they’re high; you can’t expect McEwan to abandon all his principles overnight.

The greatest surprise is on the plates. The king of culinary bling is betting on la cucina povera: kale, meatballs, goat and pickled vegetables. Amid the Vera Pizza Napoletana–style pies, the porterhouse for two with roasted garlic and lemon ($78) and the smoked quails with pear mostarda ($28), he’s got a wagonload of peasant-worthy offcuts and organ meats: veal brains, lambs’ necks, sweetbreads and pigtails served, somewhat disconcertingly, on the bone.

We start with hot, crisp, butterflied and lightly battered smelt that arrive with a caper-rich sauce, as well as a plate of satisfyingly puckery pickled vegetables (best to claim the cipolline for yourself, and fast). I liked the meatballs: basic veal and beef with pine nuts in a bright red and fresh-tasting tomato sauce (one of my dyspeptic young-socialite tablemates, however, said she could do as well with “a pound of beef and a can of Hunt’s tomatoes”). The polenta—served on a wide white platter with a just-warm egg yolk and four fried, strange and delicious lengths of that bone-in pigtail—was far too runny, though; we left half of it because we couldn’t scoop it up with our forks.

Executive chef Rob LeClair’s pizzas and pastas are the standouts here. The pies fall somewhere between Libretto’s soft-centred, blister-crusted rounds and Terroni’s more wafer-crackly crusts. Fabbrica’s margherita is just slightly scorched in spots, medium crisp and smoky like a wood fire but still chewy, with a slick of bright, balanced sauce and thin, runny slices of fresh mozzarella that are all decadent texture and countryside sweet. The pappardelle, tossed with fragile, coral-coloured crab meat, guanciale (face bacon), cream and herbs, is almost prodigally delicious, a harlot in a beehive hairdo and a bursting Pucci unitard, particularly when the soft-poached egg it’s freighted with begins to run. Just try to eat this dish without an ecstatic shudder. The veal brain ravioli could be moister, but they’re excellent anyway, in a profound three-day brodo and with rays of lemon rind for lift.

Entrées come à la carte, which is great for the restaurant’s margins, not so much for diners (the cheapest main paired with the cheapest veg will cost you $33). There are fine cooked-to-medium sweetbreads and well-crusted sea bream, served skin up and simple with lime wedges (it could use three times as many), lots of olive oil, parsley and rapturously fatty croutons. Black kale with speck and soffrito, the most interesting of the sides, is stringy and chewy. The beets are good, dark-roasted, just this side of turning from hyper-sweet and caramelized to slightly charred.

You can get better renditions of much of the menu downtown—the meats at Buca, the olives and fritti at Osteria Ciceri e Tria, the simple starters at Enoteca Sociale, the pastas at Noce—but to dwell on this would entirely miss Fabbrica’s point. It’s one of the first truly competent, urban-feeling, slightly challenging (did I mention the pigtails?) non-Asian rooms in the city’s north—downtown glitz in an erstwhile restaurant desert. And coming from a chef whose a) business sense has always been prescient, and b) restaurants of late have felt a little paint-by-numbers bland, it’s a strong and welcome sign that maybe “fun” and “interesting” are about to become the new “safe.”

Now maybe somebody could send that memo to Peter Oliver and Michael Bonacini. The O&B chain, which runs Canoe, Biff’s, Jump and Auberge du Pommier, among other places, is the closest thing Mark McEwan has to direct competition. Both enterprises are quality focused and consistent, both are known for great service, and both appeal largely to an executive and high-end crowd. But where McEwan ditched his usual comfort zone with Fabbrica and will no doubt thrive there, O&B has chosen to play it safer than ever at Luma, its slick but stupefyingly boring new second-floor room in the TIFF Bell Lightbox—the building that’s the centrepiece of Toronto’s most important international festival.
The space, by KPMB, is large, cold and generic. It could be one of 1,000 hotel restaurants in any major city around the globe. There’s a glass wall overlooking King Street, stone and dark wood accents, the requisite cluster of bare Edison bulbs and a Debbie Travis–worthy tangle of mostly barren twigs in the centre of the room. The music? Thievery Corporation, of course.

Executive chef Jason Bangerter (who came down from Auberge, O&B’s uptown jewel) dishes your usual haute generica: ricotta gnocchi, tagliatelle with duck confit, steak frites, butter-poached lobster. In many cases, it’s not very good. The steak in steak frites is oversalted, its accompanying wad of braised spinach like sucking on a box of Sifto, the butternut squash in a tagliatelle dish too undercooked to contribute any taste. The seared lamb is decent, but served over a bowl of fenugreek-heavy, sticky, mushy lentil and lamb braise.

The good, mind you, can be pretty great. Bangerter’s caesar salad takes the cliché back to first principles and makes it all feel new again: the anchovy is fresh, house-cured; the sauce thick and just-whipped; there’s half a soft-boiled quail’s egg, smoky lardons and burly parmesan shavings, too. The scallop sashimi is pretty and entirely competent, and the free-range chicken is superb, a well-seasoned breast over pulled, braised chicken, sweet cipolline, vibrant red chard stalks and a creamy polenta that’s set off with a dark date jus. (But why the hell couldn’t they wipe all the greasy fingerprints off the dish?) The cocktails, for what it’s worth, are excellent, too. But in the end the place feels like it’s trying not to be fun or interesting—just another King West tourist trap, but disguised as a first-class airport lounge. The tourists would be better off cabbing it up to the suburbs instead.

49 Karl Fraser Rd., 416-391-0307
Mains $24–$32

330 King St. W., 647-288-4715
Mains $17–$40