Fisherman’s Friends: Chris Nuttall-Smith reviews Maléna and The Atlantic

Fisherman’s Friends: Chris Nuttall-Smith reviews Maléna and The Atlantic

The season’s most anticipated openings are two seafood-centric spots

Maléna at Av and Dav (Image: Ryan Szulc)

Toronto is a raw bar town. We’re over-served by excellent oyster houses, and we probably consume more sushi per capita than any city east of Vancouver. But cooked fish is a problem here; we’ve never had a standout seafood spot. This spring, Nathan Isberg, of Czehoski and Coca fame, opened what early adopters described as a nose-to-tail disciple’s take on the life aquatic on Dundas West. And in Yorkville, a neighbourhood that’s desperate for a few more decent places to eat, front-of-house kings David Minicucci and Sam Kalogiros launched Maléna, a flashy fish spot. It looked like Toronto might finally turn into a seafood town.

Kalogiros and Minicucci, who also run L’Unità, the casual Italian place near Av and Dav, are masters of engineering atmospheres that are loud, exclusive and democratic all at once, with service staff who are expert at navigating it all. Maléna is done up in high-homely style, with barnboards, glossy-framed mirrors and Hellenic-themed dinner plates on the walls. The two-storey space is jammed most nights with a mix of middle-aged glitter girls, criminal lawyers (Clayton Ruby and Brian Greenspan one night, dining separately) and boldface names both minor (Senator Pamela Wallin, designer Sarah Richardson) and major (Jessica Alba, who, one blaspheming regular noted, looks a lot like an ugly version of Jessica Alba in person). It has quickly become one of the toughest reservations in town.

Kalogiros learned the trade in New York, where he was captain at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen. Minicucci, mean­while, managed Xacutti and Annona at the Park Hyatt. And no one is better than Zinta Steprans, Maléna’s young, disarmingly down-to-earth sommelier, who patrols the room in a cotton boyfriend blazer, working from an oddball-fabulous list that’s strong on fish-friendly Greek and Southern Italian wines (I loved the northern Greek sparkler made in the French style from moscophilero grapes) and making a point of stopping at every table.

The kitchen gets a lot of things right. The menu is Greek, mostly, by way of Sicily and Puglia, so the tzatziki is seasoned southern Italian style with only a little garlic, and the sheep’s milk feta salad gets fennel and white balsamic vinegar. Chef Doug Neigel marinates fat sardine fillets in lemon and good vinegar so they’re bright, balanced and nicely punchy, and then stacks chopped romaine on top as a smart, if trashy, refresher. Soft-shell crabs—not Greek, exactly, but no one’s complaining—get the tempura treatment, sizzling from the fryer; only Nota Bene’s David Lee, who was eating at Maléna one recent Friday, does them better.

Neigel sources fish so fresh you’d think you were in a seaside town. Though the cooking is inspired by the shores of the Ionian Sea, he forgoes the usual farmed and dubiously sourced southern European seafood for an Ocean Wise–approved list that few other east-of-the-Rockies restaurants could match. Neigel buys live spot prawns, firm-fleshed wild salmon and line-caught ling cod direct from Organic Ocean, a B.C. fishermen’s co‑operative, plus impeccable soft-shell crabs from the East Coast, and mackerel that tastes mild and delicate instead of the usual funky and badly in need of a shower. Plenty of other restaurants feature one or two great seasonal West Coast fish selections these days. Neigel seems to have them all. And then, as if to apologize for his good fortune, he does what just about every otherwise competent chef in Toronto does with seafood—he cooks the bejesus out of it.

This city’s kitchens can’t seem to abide fish that’s still moist, quivering and just the tiniest bit translucent in the middle. For the longest time, I thought it was simple pragmatism: we’re more or less landlocked (Lake Ontario doesn’t count, although it does produce some excellent pickerel), fish takes longer to get here, we incinerate it just in case. The fish that Toronto chefs have typically served, like sardines and Chilean sea bass (may it rest in peace), are fatty enough to hold up to a little overcooking (see also: black cod, miso marinated) or so hideous in its natural state (farmed Atlantic salmon) that not overdoing it would be a crime. But in the past few years, our supply has become nearly as good as what you can find on the West Coast. Much of the European stuff comes live in tanks, as fresh as it is in Lisbon or Majorca, and thanks to such B.C. suppliers as Organic Ocean and Mikuni Wild Harvest, jet-set Pacific seafood now arrives here a few times a week. These fish require precision cooking. Unlike meat, which you time in minutes, good fish can turn from perfect to hopeless in seconds.

At Maléna one night, my whole mackerel, reposed on an oversized plate with its head and tail lolling off both sides, looked so good it almost didn’t seem real. People at other tables watched with their mouths open as the waiter set it in front of me. My dinner mate, who has caught mackerel off the coast of Capri, said he’d never seen one so fresh here. It hardly mattered—inside, the fish was dry and inert. The cod was slightly better, a little moist and fragrant, but sad considering what might have been. Only the ahi tuna was done right: seared on the outside, rare in the middle. But then ahi is universally recognized as a sushi fish.

Both times I ate at Maléna, I just grinned and plowed through: even mistreated, fish this well sourced is more pleasure than pain to eat. But a man sitting next to me one night didn’t seem to think so. He sent his back, complaining it was overcooked. This was progress, I think.

On the other side of town and at the other end of the culinary spectrum, Nathan Isberg’s Atlantic Restaurant is nominally a seafood place, albeit one where the menu hearkens from “a little lower down on the food chain,” as the young chef has put it. Isberg is studying food security at U of T—essentially how to provide universal access to safe, culturally appropriate, environ­mentally sound and socially just nourishment. It shows. Both times I dropped in, there was no meat (he later added pigeon) and precious little of what most diners would readily call “fish” available, although there were nicely spiced grilled frogs’ legs, fried crickets (they tasted sort of like beer nuts, but with antennae), rubbery spiral-shelled sea snails simmered in red wine, and roly poly, which is commonly known as salmon head. Fair enough—it’s about time that Western chefs discovered that there is more to seafood than just lobster and tuna. But eating here felt a lot like a dry run for the post-apocalypse.

Isberg’s last two restaurants were buzzy, self-consciously stylish places (Czehoski’s $37 Second Most Expensive Burger in Town was adorned with gold leaf). He boasts that his initial renovation budget at Atlantic was $600. Given the Grapes-of-Wrath-meets-Beachcombers aesthetic, this is plausible. There’s little indication that he has invested in kitchen staff, either: one night, I saw just one other person working beside him in the partly open kitchen; another evening, it looked like he was cooking alone. This could explain the 30-minute waits between some of his small plates, even when the room was less than half full.

Some of the cooking was decent: simple grilled sardines, a perfectly blanched fiddlehead on an otherwise lacklustre risotto, an anemic but tasty fillet of poached Ontario lake trout. But so much else was poor or just plain awful, like that salmon head, which left a persistent film of tepid fish flab in my mouth.

Isberg is smart and admirably high-minded, and his early days on Queen West proved him a highly capable chef. Maybe he is just too far ahead of the curve. But until the oceans collapse, I’m happy to forget how that particular future tastes. The city, in the meantime, hasn’t quite yet become a seafood town.

Mains $24–$34. 120 Avenue Rd., 416-964-0606

Small plates $5–$13. 1597 Dundas St. W., 416-219-3819

Mains $12–$25