Why Buca Yorkville’s branzino crudo is one of Toronto’s most essential dishes
Toronto’s a city of many neighbourhoods and many nationalities, so finding that one oh-so-Toronto dish is an impossible task. We're asking some of the city’s top food folks about their favourite T.O. meals
Julie Marteleira, the executive chef of Leña, is crazy about seafood. “I think I say that I love seafood, in every interview I do,” she says. The Lisbon-raised chef grew up eating only the freshest Atlantic fish, caught in the morning and bought just a few hours later at the market. “You just can’t get fish that fresh in Toronto,” says Marteleira.
Whenever she visits her family in Portugal, Marteleira eats a primarily pescatarian diet, and she prefers eating plates that show off the fish, rather than hiding it with heavy sauces or deep fryer dunks. That means she gravitates to crudos and really good sushi—though she hates the current aburi sushi fad, where the fish is flame-torched. “It just tastes like butane,” she says.
When she’s in Toronto, Marteleira tries to hit up one nice restaurant a week. Often, she’s trying to catch up on eating her way through the city’s ever-growing list just-opened buzzy restaurants. But, her go-to spot for a nice meal is Buca Yorkville. “I really respect what they do with seafood. Whenever anyone asks for a recommendation of where to eat in Toronto, that’s where I send them,” she says.
Buca Yorkville’s branzino crudo
53 Scollard St., 416-962-2822, buca.ca/yorkville
Marteleira’s favourite dish to order at Buca Yorkville is the branzino crudo. “It’s a show, for one, and the flavours are fresh, simple and clean—everything is perfectly balanced,” she says. Usually, a server will bring the cleaned Cyprian branzino around on a cart and begin to debone the fish tableside. On this particular day, we get Buca’s top chef, Rob Gentile, to do the honours. “I hope I don’t mess this up,” he jokes. Soon the fish is nothing more than head, skin and bones, and the plate is covered in a fan of pale pink petals.
“Many dishes are finished tableside, but this is one of the few that’s made entirely at the table,” says Gentile, who first tried a dish similar to this in Venice. He was so enamoured with the pageantry of the preparation, he brought the idea back to Toronto, where he sells about 25 orders of the branzino crudo a night. It’s become the signature Buca Yorkville plate, and it’s one of Gentile’s favourite items on the menu, too.
The thin slices of branzino are lashed with unfiltered Sicilian olive oil. The oil is grassy, not sharp, so it doesn’t overpower the delicate fish. Then, a semi-dry prosecco is poured on top, followed by a squeeze of lemon, and some freshly grated sea salt.
While Marteleira and Gentile know each other tangentially from working events together, they’re not pals. Upon sitting down to eat, the two realize they both staged at Canoe. Marteleira landed her first fancy job after proving herself to Anthony Walsh. Gentile, however, got the brush off when he was just 15 years old. “I tell Anthony all the time that they didn’t hire me,” says Gentile, who acknowledges that they probably didn’t because he had spiky hair and looked like one of the Backstreet Boys. There are no hard feelings, though. After all, Gentile was just a keen green teen, hoping to get into a high-end kitchen.
The conversation then shifts to fish suppliers. Hooked, who supplied the day’s branzino, is a favourite of both Gentile and Marteleira. And Newport, a Portuguese supplier on Geary Avenue that’s open to the public, is another great seafood wholesaler that the two agree on.
“I love that Rob stays true to each of his restaurants’ concepts—you know what you’re going to get,” says Marteleria. “Seeing it from a typical guest’s point of view, the food is simple, clean and straight to the point, but as a chef, I can see the amount of work, finesse and amazing ingredients that go into it.”