Where chef Mark McEwan eats grilled octopus, pumpkin hummus and chicken-fried steak in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood
When chef Mark McEwan isn’t busy helming his mini restaurant empire (which recently expanded north to Thornbury) or playing the part of judge on Food Network’s Wall of Chefs series, he’s overseeing his gourmet grocery stores, including his newest location at Yonge and Bloor, a 17,000-square-foot artisanal food emporium. It’s not a coincidence that McEwan opened this store one block away from where Eataly would end up. “I love a little friendly competition. It keeps you on your toes, gets you out of bed, and makes you work harder,” says McEwan. “I’d argue that our pizzas and pastas are better than Eataly’s. Our coffee, too.” At this point, he suggests a pizza and pasta throw down. The (dough) ball’s in your court, apparently, Eataly.
McEwan’s been part of Toronto’s food scene since before it really had one, and he can speak to the drastic evolution of the city’s dining scene. “The Financial District was a ghost town at night. When I opened Bymark—nearly two decades ago now—after 9 p.m., you could literally fire a cannon off in the streets. And back then, the area around St. Lawrence Market was nothing more than a tourist attraction. But now, it’s become a thriving and viable neighbourhood. The vibrancy and density of people on the sidewalks reminds me of New York City.” Here, a couple of his favourite restaurants near the market.
243 King St. E., 647-347-8930, ardorestaurant.com
This Italian trattoria has become one of McEwan’s go-tos. Since 2016, chef and owner Roberto Marotta has been highlighting Sicilian ingredients and cooking techniques for dishes like panelle (chickpea fritters), orecchiette with Sicilian sausage and provolone, and anchovies (of Sicilian provenance, of course) on crostini.
Go-to dish 1: Grilled octopus with vegetable caponata and celery leaf
Tasting notes: “The octopus is expertly cooked—the structure’s maintained but it’s also perfectly soft. And the caponata offers the right level of acidity to balance out the richness of the seafood,” says McEwan. Marotta submerges the octopus in aromatics and then boils it for up to 40 minutes. He also honours an old superstitious practice of keeping a wine cork in the pot to ensure the polpo turns out perfectly. According to the myth, the cork contains enzymes that leech into the water and tenderize the seafood. “I’m not sure about that,” Marotta says. “But we leave it in there anyhow, for good measure.”
Go-to dish 2: Fresh spaghetti with sea urchin
Tasting notes: “It’s delicious,” says McEwan. “The simplicity is beautiful. He’s emulsified sea urchin with chopped parsley, olive oil, salt and pepper, and transformed that mixture into a delicate raw sauce that cooks ever so slightly when it’s tossed with the hot pasta. Each bite is so creamy and nutty, and the pasta itself has body but it isn’t tacky. Most importantly, he respected each ingredient by not destroying it with stronger elements like shallots, cream, wine, or chilies.”
Go-to dish 3: Sicilian olive oil house-made sourdough
Tasting notes: Marotta imports olive oils from Sicily, rotating the restaurant’s selection seasonally. After trying all three, McEwan declares his favourite to be Mastri di San Basilio Due Sicilie, which is made from two olive species: Nocellara del Belice (grown in western Sicily) and Moresca (grown in eastern Sicily). They make the bread using flour in Molini del Ponte (which is in Sicily, of course).
Go-to dish 4: Cannoli
Tasting notes: “Wow, they’re good. They’re crispy yet tender. It’s the perfect way to finish a meal here,” says McEwan of the tubular pastry filled with fresh ricotta and finished with toasted pistachios, orange zest and chocolate. Marotta says the recipe for the cannoli has been in his family for generations. “The ricotta is locally sourced and we let it shine on its own, meaning we don’t add any cream or other ingredients. The toasted pistachios are from Sicily, and the chocolate is a brand called Bonajuto, which has been around since 1860.”
True True Diner
169 King St. E., 647-350-3228, truetruediner.com
Chef and owner Suzanne Barr says that her comfort-food kitchen on King East is a welcoming and inclusive space for all, and an homage to the historic importance of the diner itself. “It’s a symbolic site where many brave souls orchestrated civil rights sit-ins with the goal of breaking down the walls of segregation,” says Barr. It turns out McEwan is a huge fan of Barr’s. “I had the pleasure of meeting her around three years ago when I chatted with her for my Chef-to-Chef series. She is a remarkable, hard working individual.”
Go-to dish 1: True True Burger
Tasting notes: “We kind of brought this over from Saturday Dinette, as we were always known for our burgers and being playful with them,” says Barr. “We source the beef from a family-run farm called Enright. We cook it medium and top it with garlic aïoli August Farm, house pickles, onion rings, and house-made pimento cheese. It all goes on a bun from Drake Commissary.”
Go-to dish 2: Country-fried steak
Tasting notes: “Who doesn’t love deep fried food?” asks McEwan. “This is wonderfully balanced thanks to the acidity in the slaw. My favourite component is that phenomenal mustard—the heat and its grainy texture pop on your tongue. Then there’s the tender apple that’s perfect for resetting the palate.” For the dish, Barr pounds out the steak until it’s nice and thin, then dredges it in a flour-egg-panko mixture before dunking it in the fryer. It’s finished with cabbage, caraway seeds, True True’s house beer mustard and tender apple wedges that have been poached in chili cider. “This is my fun take on chicken-fried steak,” says Barr. “We don’t use white gravy here, and—considering the prep—you could say it’s kind of like a schnitzel.”
Go-to dish 3: Pumpkin hummus.
Tasting notes: “I just love hummus, and this is a beautiful colour,” says McEwan. “The buttercup squash provides a roasted, sweet foundation, and that’s overlaid with the turmeric and chili, which really come through. The crispy chickpeas on top for added texture are a real bonus.” The cumin flatbread served on the side for dipping is made in-house. “The flatbread has puffy edges, which makes each triangle the perfect edible vessel to mound hummus on,” says McEwan.