Where chef Jesse Vallins gets stewed oxtail, katsu sandos and cheese fondue in the east end
Last June, Maple Leaf Tavern’s sister restaurant in Pickering, Port, accrued significant smoke damage. Chef Jesse Vallins used it as an opportunity to gut the interior, rebrand, and relaunch the restaurant. “For the last few months I’ve been pinballing between both spots,” says Vallins. Everything is running smoothly now, and the revamped space can now seat 300 guests and has a brand-new wood-burning pizza oven. “At Maple Leaf Tavern, diners get to taste North American-style fare, and at Port, we explore Mediterranean cuisine. But just like at the Tavern, it’s all about good food.”
On the topic of good food, Vallins says that Riverdale and Leslieville are dining goldmines. “I lived in this area from 2005 to 2018 before relocating back to Scarborough, where I grew up. But I still spend a lot of time here because the Tavern is smack in the middle of the two neighbourhoods.” Vallins loves the east-end area for its eclectic vibe, it’s character and grit. “I remember first moving to Queen and Broadview when it was pretty sketchy—which made me love it more. It was real, flaws and all. Now, it’s got loads more potential with great restaurants, hotels and bars popping up all over the place.”
Gerrard Square Shopping Centre, 1000 Gerrard St. E., 416-461-5030, @tropicaljoesresturant
This food-court favourite in Gerrard Square was named after co-owner Chris Boodhoo’s father. “I’ve been in the industry since I was 13, helping my parents out. We started out in the ’90s with an eatery inside a flea market on Weston Road. Then it really took off.” Boodhoo says that they were initially selling classic favourites of the West Indies, but now they sell fusion dishes, too, which appeal to a more diverse crowd. His regulars are mostly service workers. “It’s high praise when you see cops, hydro workers, and firefighters lining up for your food, because they always know where the good stuff is at.”
Vallins says his nose drew him to Tropical Joe’s. “I stumbled on it back in 2016 when we were getting the Tavern’s kitchen up and running. It was the smell that led me here. It’s incredible, not only because of the aroma of spices that perfume the food court, but that it trumps the neighbouring spots, like Subway with its fake-bread smell.”
Go-to item 1: Stuffed patty with jerk chicken.
Tasting notes: For this frankenpatty, creator Boodhoo slices open a Michidean Bakery beef patty, stuffs it with house jerk chicken, pickled onions, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, hot sauce and two kinds of gravy (oxtail, jerk), then shoves all that into some coco bread. “I’ve always found patties to have meager fillings, so I wanted to beef things up, quite literally,” says Boodhoo. “This takes patties to the next level,” says Vallins. For the longest time, I was eating their classic ones until one of my cooks brought this beast to the restaurant one day. Bluntly speaking, it’s just really damn tasty. It’s thoughtfully layered with different temperatures and textures; I particularly love the acid from the tangy pickles. You can tell that there was thought put into this and they’re not just shoving random ingredients in.”
Go-to item 2: Stewed oxtail.
Tasting notes: “This is cooked with love and care,” says Vallins. “I go to town on it sans utensils—you gotta use your hands for this. Honestly, there’s just something about that unctuousness and gelatinous texture. It’s these comforting and homestyle flavours that remind me of the food I grew up eating. I had Jamaican neighbours on either side of our home; we were a tight knit group and would often have barbecues and potluck parties.”
Go-to item 3: Curry chicken with potatoes.
Tasting notes: This is another dish that’s been perfected over time, the original recipe being Boodhoo’s dad’s. “Even though they use scotch bonnet peppers in this, it’s one of the few dishes that isn’t spicy.” He quickly corrects this by covering everything in hot sauce.
Go-to item 4: Jerk chicken poutine.
Tasting notes: Boodhoo says he’s had Montrealers and poutine purists make pilgrimages to Tropical Joe’s to try this dish, a Canadian-Caribbean take on poutine where fries are topped with mozzarella cheese, oxtail gravy, jerk gravy and hot sauce. While it’s different, it doesn’t break Vallins’s one cardinal rule about the correct potatoes to use: “Never sweet potato fries—they are the devil,” he says. “Thankfully they use russet potatoes.”
614 Gerrard St. E., 416-285-8482, goodcheese.ca
“I’ve been teaching the cheese program at George Brown College since 2012 and Adrian Zgeb, the owner of Good Cheese, was actually one of my former students.” The East Chinatown wine bar and fromagerie stocks up to 50 different types of the fabulous, sometimes funky stuff, and it’s one of Vallins’s favourite spots to grab a snack or pick up cheese to bring home. “Honestly, it’s a dream. It’s like someone went through my diary and then opened up this place. Since I’m very adventurous with cheese, what I usually do is ask Adrian what he’s most excited about at the moment. Otherwise, my go-tos are Reblochon and Colston Bassett stilton. It’s all addictive stuff.” Vallins is a certified sommelier and a cicerone, so the curated drinks list (20 to 25 wines, a dozen or so beers and cider) makes him pretty happy, too. “I’m a food-and-drink geek, so I love a good sparkling to pair with cheese, because the bubbles bring levity and balance to the palate, considering cheeses has so much fattiness to it.”
Go-to item 1: Snack plate (manchego, chorizo, marcona almonds, Sicilian olives) with a glass of Davvero Calata sparkling.
Tasting notes: “I dream in cheeseboards so for me, this is the perfect snack plate. And this is a nice, cheese-friendly wine. You get red berries, floral overtones and really good acid.”
Go-to item 2: Canned Spanish sardines.
Tasting notes: “These are not your grandfather’s sardines. These are way superior to your run-of-the-mill Unico variety. They’re just rich, buttery, mild and the perfect size to put on their sourdough crostini. Also, when I buy tins to bring home, I’ll sometimes use the leftover oil as dressing for a Caesar salad. It lends a wonderful umami note to the dish.”
Go-to item 3: Cheese fondue with baguette, turmeric cauliflower, dill beans and apple, with a glass of Domaine Baud Crémant du Jura Brut.
Tasting notes: The fondue is a melting pot of emmental and Woodstock-based Gunn’s Hill’s 5 Brothers cheese (which Vallins describes as a cross between gruyère and gouda). “I’m cherry-picking, but I love to skewer some chorizo with a piece of apple and dunk it. Or engage in some cheese-on-cheese action by dunking a slice of Manchego from the cheese plate. It reminds me of the first time I ever tried fondue in Grade 6 French class. Mme. Breslin-Carraire made this for us and honestly, it was life-changing stuff.”
Go-to item 4: The off-menu roast beef sandwich with raclette.
A squishy brioche bun sourced from La Bastille Bakery is topped with a mountain of shaved roast beef, arugula, fried onions, and some hot-off-the-grill raclette. “It’s over the top but so good. You just gotta squish it down and go for it. I love it because of the quality of ingredients and just how satisfying it is. Cheese makes life better.”
242 Coxwell Ave., 416-551-2282, godspeedbrewery.com
“I was introduced to owner Luc “Bim” Lafontaine by a beer-writer friend when I visited Montreal back in 2002. We stayed in touch, but then he moved to Japan to study the country’s food-and-drink culture.” Lafontaine eventually moved to Toronto and opened Godspeed, which features a unique selection of Japanese-inspired beers and a seasonal izakaya-style menu. “I love to come here with my wife, who happens to be half-Japanese, and my son.”
Go-to item 1: Pint of Světlý Ležák 12º.
Tasting notes: Godspeed staff explain that this brew is a deep labour of love and one of the most difficult styles to master. Back in 2018, Bim was selected to be a part of the Czech Republic Trade Mission and travel to Czechoslovakia. It was on this trip that he really had an opportunity for immersion and to study Czech brewing philosophy and culture alongside fellow brewmasters. “This is a perfect after-work beer. It’s a working man’s beer and I say this with high praise—it’s real, authentic and delicious. It’s kind of cracker-y tasting with a touch of bitterness at the end. It’s all-around food friendly and an enjoyable social sipping beer.”
Go-to item 3: Karaage.
Tasting notes: For his karaage, head chef Ryusuke Yamanaka use boneless chicken with the skin on, which he marinates in a sake-soy brine for a day. It’s dredged and deep-fried to-order. “We serve Hellmann’s mayo on the side as a dipping sauce instead of Kewpie mayo, in keeping with the east-west theme,” says Yamanaka. “It’s also what most North American palates are more into.”
Go-to item 3: Pickle plate.
Tasting notes: “They’re all tangy and sort of the perfect palate cleanser when snacking on fried foods and beer. I especially enjoy the Napa pickles, they’re light and buttery and reminiscent of a Japanese sauerkraut,” says Vallins.
Go-to item 5: Katsu sando.
Tasting notes: “I like anything pork, and this is like a Japanese schnitzel sandwich. It’s sandwiched between starchy-squishy-sweet Wonder Bread because they’re obsessed with the stuff in Japan, and again, it’s offering that familiar western element and taste to the dish.”