How Anthony Rose became Toronto’s comfort-food king

How Anthony Rose became Toronto’s comfort-food king

Anthony Rose's restaurant empire has expanded to include Swan by Rose and Sons, his new Queen West diner

Anthony Rose in the doorway of Swan by Rose and Sons (Image: Dave Gillespie) Anthony Rose in the doorway of Swan by Rose and Sons (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Swan by Rose and Sons ★★½
892 Queen St. W., 647-348-7926
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Last spring, Anthony Rose was on vacation in Mexico, practising yoga on a beach, when he read online that Swan restaurant, a handsome vintage diner run as a low-key bistro on Queen West since the mid-’90s, had closed and the space was up for sale. The owners were tired of operating at a loss. When I read the news, I figured it was only a matter of time before the wood-framed booths with built-in coat stands and the Arborite lunch counter would be gutted to make way for another bourbon cocktail bar. Thankfully, Rose, who specializes in new-wave diners, cut his trip short and pounced.

Rose has become the Judd Apatow of ­Toronto’s restaurant scene, always with multiple projects on the go, his empire built on a fine-tuned sense of what we want to consume at this very moment. He’s the favourite chef of millennials in Chuck Taylors who are too trendy to show that they care about trends. What they find so appealing is his shaggy likability; he’s often prowling around his restaurants, wearing to-the-navel V-necks and ­Buddhist prayer beads wrapped around his wrists, delivering dirty jokes and pitchers of industrial-strength cocktails to the regulars. He’s the anti-Susur and the anti–Mark McEwan. You’ll never hear him talking about anything as pretentious as a “vision” for his restaurants.

(Image: Dave Gillespie) Rose and Sons (plus its backyard party patio, Big Crow) (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Like a number of trendy Toronto chefs of his generation, Rose got his start at the Drake Hotel, where he earned attention for pulled pork and artery-busting burgers. In 2012, he left his exec chef post and opened Rose and Sons, an artisanally inclined diner that replaced the 1960s lunch counter People’s Foods on Dupont. It became instantly, ridiculously popular, with lineups snaking out the door for one of the coveted 28 seats at the pew-like communal booths. Rose and Sons gave comfort food a hedonistic edge—everything seemed to be breaded, fried, coated in cheddar from a boutique farm and garnished with Dr. Pepper–flavoured bacon. The restaurant marked the beginning of his colonization of Dupont, previously a food wasteland.

Next came Big Crow, a year-round restaurant with an ad-hoc, pop-up feel: Rose serves smoked ribs and Frito pie in parquet bowls straight out of the ’70s on a sheltered heated patio full of picnic tables. The kitchen, which includes a wood-fired grill for their smoky whole rainbow trout and brined quarter chickens, is built into a shipping container.

(Image: Dave Gillespie) Fat Pasha (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Then, tapping into the Middle Eastern craze of 2014, he unveiled Fat Pasha, where the draw is spectacular hummus, kebabs and saffron couscous. The star dish that everyone photographs is a whole roasted cauliflower, hidden under a coating of tahini and pomegranate seeds. It’s ­delicious, but a distraction from even better plates of house-made pickles and just-greasy-enough latkes. Because he had also leased some extra space around the corner, Rose opened Schmaltz ­Appetizing, a deli where I have a standing order for a Chub Chub (a plush New York–style Kiva’s bagel loaded with horseradish cream cheese, dill pickles, gravlax and smoked whitefish) and a chilled can of Cott’s black cherry soda. As at all of Rose’s places, there’s a baller-bait option—a $45 bagel loaded with slices of boiled egg and 50 grams of sturgeon caviar. This month, he’s promising to open another Dupont spot just east of Spadina, Bar Begonia. He told me it’ll be his version of a Parisian cocktail lounge by way of Brooklyn, which I took to mean he’ll hire bearded bar­tenders with a thing for Pernod.

(Image: Dave Gillespie) Schmaltz Appetizing (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Swan by Rose and Sons opened over the summer after a renovation that was as much a restoration. Rose had the booths reupholstered, the Arborite tabletops scrubbed and the original scalloped-edged bar shelving stacked with an array of hipster-approved tequilas and mezcals. An old diner menu over the bar—winking at Swan’s past—lists mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers and other items you can’t actually order. Swan by Rose and Sons is open from breakfast until last call, seven days a week, but that’s where the resemblance to a diner ends. The real menu, affixed to clipboards and evolving every week, is what people call Californian, referring to the philosophy of cooking that verges on non-cooking, in which the chef interferes as little as possible with what’s fresh from the farm. To spell out the theme, Rose placed cacti in the window, positioned a surfboard in a corner and hung the rusted hood of a ’78 Pontiac Firebird on one wall. The servers (one in an on-the-nose ensemble of headband, flip-flops and a tank) double as DJs, and play Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross on a turntable at the kitchen pass.

Cali cuisine is a little bit French and a little bit Italian, with a flavour grab from Mexico. Above all, it’s about being healthy without tasting like it. In Swan’s first few months, coinciding with the summer harvest, this meant nasturtium petals adorning crispy rösti and poached free-range eggs at breakfast, slices of deliciously chewy Thuet sourdough and a lot of salads. My favourite was comprised of musky watermelon, oozing mozzarella, mint leaves and house-cured bacon drizzled with hot sauce. One night, my entrée was a single, exceptional Niagara beefsteak tomato, its innards a juicy fretwork, roasted whole with garlic and presented like a prime cut on a bed of polenta mixed for extra creaminess with mascarpone.

Rose, once again, is on-trend. The entire city seems to be on a binge of ostentatiously healthy eating. Everyone is discovering intolerances—real or occasionally imagined if firmly held—to dairy, lupins, eggs, crustaceans, molluscs, nuts of all kinds and, of course, gluten. Menus highlight gluten-free dishes the same way they used to point out low-calorie options. (Does anyone count calories anymore?) I have one acquaintance who decided he’s okay with dairy but not blue cheese—­inconvenient when gorgonzola is making a comeback in pasta dishes. You can’t walk a block without being offered a sample by a new juice bar. Maybe our pendulum swing away from the excesses of 20-course tasting menus and foie gras poutine is a reaction to an election year. Even a few steak houses now list kale salad on their menus, which is like the Marquis de Sade inviting ­Mormons to a sleepover.

(Image: Dave Gillespie) Butternut squash fajitas at Swan by Rose and Sons (Image: Dave Gillespie)

Notwithstanding his predilection for gluttonous dining, Rose is deeply rooted in Cali cuisine. In the ’90s, he trained at the Californian Culinary Academy and worked in seasonal-centric San Francisco kitchens before eventually making his way back to Toronto. The mascarpone polenta on the Swan menu is a staple at the legendary Zuni in San Fran. And the terrific, flaky cod en papillote with fingerling potatoes and slivers of preserved lemon I had one night is something you might find on the menu at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. The purée of cranberry beans and garlic, meant to slather on that sourdough but good enough to eat with a spoon on its own, reminded me of the simple yet fantastically flavourful spreads I’ve had at Bar Tartine, yet another great San Francisco restaurant.

Some of the best dishes at the new Swan appear to have been thrown together on a whim, like a simple bowl of steamed snap peas, served cold to show off their crunch, dressed in a gingery vinaigrette with black sesame seeds and flakes of Maldon salt, or a salad of baby butter lettuce and pink grapefruit with a butter­milk dressing. But there’s labour-intensive duck confit, too, its skin a crackling mahogany, on a bed of cress. And, this being a Rose restaurant, there’s an excellent organic chuck burger on the menu all day long, stacked high with monterey jack, bacon and roasted peppers.

(Image: Dave Gillespie) Rose, outside of the revitalized Swan on Queen West (Image: Dave Gillespie)

The only letdowns on all of my visits were the cocktails, which are made with long lists of fancy tinctures and syrups but taste like overpriced Fruitopia, and the desserts, never a strong suit at Rose’s restaurants—proof that a no-fuss, thrown-together MO doesn’t always win. One night it was a plate of roasted stone fruit (the peaches and nectarines were mealy, the black cherries past their prime) with a blob of crème fraîche and bitter sections of walnut. Another night, I shared a forgettable bowl of pound cake soaked in a berry coulis. But that sensational mascarpone polenta, which luckily is available by the bowl as a side, went a long way to help me forgive a ho-hum dessert.

Simple, seasonal dishes are easy to execute during the harvest months. I don’t envy Rose’s challenge come winter, when vivid flavours will be tough to pull off (it’s plain why fresh-is-more restaurants took off in California first). He told me, and it’s no huge revelation, that the menu will shift focus to root veg, smoked fish and burgers. In other words, it’ll become more like his original diner up on Dupont. And the health nuts will have to settle for the juice bar down the block.