A great restaurant meal is equal parts cuisine and dining environment. Three leading Toronto restaurateurs share insider intel on the planning that goes into a successful restaurant concept and design. By Ivy Knight. Photographs by Jennifer Roberts.
Corporate Executive Chef, Leña
Anthony Walsh, corporate executive chef for the Oliver & Bonacini group of restaurants, has created a light-filled, marble-panelled ode to his mother-in-law in the most incongruous of places: a three-story corner nook of Saks Fifth Avenue that incorporates the historic retail palace’s iconic former front doors.
In the early stages, this space was possibly going to be named after one of the founders of Saks. Yet here we are sitting in an Argentinian restaurant inspired by your mother-in-law. What happened?
A: There was always a natural tie-in to Saks Fifth Avenue, as the space is connected and the art deco elements were inspiration for a Californian concept. At the zero hour, I said, you know what, I’m not feeling passionate about the concept.
So they said OK, what do you want to do? I sat down with the marketing team and the South American thing came up. I kept talking about my mother-in-law, Elena. Her nickname is Lala, which is the name of the downstairs bar within Leña. Leña means firewood embers, smouldering. Which suits the restaurant, because this food is cooked using lots of fire and smoke.
Tell us about your working relationship with the interior designer.
A: Matt Davis and I worked very closely together. He’s totally into food and I love design. He brought in swatches and one of them was the same wallpaper I have at home, a very rare Hermès print that we ended up using. It was an eerie mind meld.
Was it a challenge to bring this type of restaurant to this neighbourhood? Were they ready for it?
A: We were lucky to stick with a concept that came from a real place. It wasn’t manufactured — that’s important. And it shows, because the customers welcomed the difference; they were totally ready for something like this. They want a restaurant where they can bring people to and say this is the coolest place. I wanted the concept to be different from what is currently ordered in the area — a place that would have life and buzz — and fortunately the beautiful space has helped to create this.
Can you tell us about the executive chef, Julie Marteleira, who is running Leña day to day?
A: Julie and I always were talking about doing this sort of food, and there was nobody else whom I wanted to work with on this project. I respect her so much as a great chef, as a creative person. She understands that this style of South American cooking, with its Spanish and Italian influences, is rooted in home cooking, so the presentation is more organic, not “tweezery” or too particular. Empanadas, smoked jamón croquettes, house-cured olives — this is the kind of food that your mom or your grandmother would make to warm you up and make you feel good.
GM and Partner, Lake Inez
Nostalgic and cozy, Lake Inez is a pan-Asian gastropub located in Little India. Its menu puts a seasonal, locavore twist on Filipino, Japanese and Chinese street food dishes.
Neither you nor your partners have design backgrounds. How did the design concept for Lake Inez come together?
A: Dennis [Kimeda], Patrick [Ciappara], and I were calling it old world B&B with 10 years of decay. We didn’t make any modern choices, no industrial chic. We wanted warmth and hominess and a cottage vibe.
We’re just scrappy people trying to make something nice out of what we had. The decor is a little bit campy, a little bit tacky, but in a way that’s familiar. And then, with some of the glass touches and the arches, we wanted to play with religious iconography, but do it in a whimsical way. I think there’s a nostalgic element that fits with [chef] Robbie Hojilla’s menu, because it’s street and comfort food.
Tell us a bit about chef Robbie Hojilla’s menu and how it works with this design.
A: We wanted a menu that challenges the palate a little bit, but in a way that’s still accessible. And we found that in Robbie’s food. This is his first opportunity to explore different Asian flavours with every dish, uncensored and unfettered, like Korean kalbi short rib lettuce wraps — he loves the build-your-own-taco format, which is what this dish is all about: a modernist technique applied to a dish that is a pillar of Korean cuisine. And “Spam” Oshizushi, a Filipino-style breakfast dish of garlic fried rice, egg yolk and furikake.
He gets what we’re doing here, he has a term for it – “sneaky good”. That’s where you realize, after the fact, that you had a really good dining experience. So I guess we’re scrappy people attempting to be sneaky good!
Who created the stained-glass mosaic on the back wall?
A: I work with stained glass and the mural is my two high priestesses: Virginia Woolf and Kate Bush, in the Hounds of Love era. It took two brutal months and I gave my body and spirit to it.
Tell us about this neighbourhood, and how your restaurant fits into it.
A: Little India is a rare gem. The buildings are all painted very boldly, with the textiles and patterns and the smell of curry wafting through the air. There’s a romance here that we feel a part of. Dennis and I both live in Little India and there are a lot of young families here, because it’s one of the last places in the city where you can buy a house at a somewhat reasonable price point. Honestly, at the end of the day, we were just like: “Little India or bust.”
Nikki Leigh McKean
Co-Owner and Creative Director, Piano Piano
Piano Piano stands out on the Harbord Street strip with its distinctive pink walls and bright flower mural. The exuberant fun continues inside, with an Italian menu that puts a playful spin on traditional Italian.
You took one of the city’s most venerated fine dining establishments, Splendido, where your husband, Victor Barry, built his rep as a top calibre chef, and turned it into a pizza joint with one of the most talked about designs in the city. How did that change come about?
A: I love Splendido, but it was dark and heavy, and I always imagined changing the space. Vic was very sentimental. It was like trying to change your grandmother’s house: why change it when it’s perfect?
I got diagnosed with cancer and I said to him, here’s our chance. We always say cancer was the best gift, because it forced us to change things and make a restaurant around business decisions and not our own personal passion project. We needed a restaurant that’s kickass, that we love, and that’s also going to make money if we’re not there. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
How did you find your designer?
A: I knew we had to hire Tiffany Pratt because I had worked with her on a couple of projects as a photographer and just love her. I think a lot of times we want to do things, like paint a pink wall with flowers, but we’re so busy with what other people might think, and her thing is who cares? Just do it.
Why did you decide to open up the kitchen for Piano Piano?
A: I wanted to make it fun, make it interactive. And people want to see him: it’s sort of a dinner show. The Victor you see in that kitchen cooking gritty, delicious, tasty food is the Vic I know at home.
Did social media influence your design at all?
A: Social media was a huge thing for me, especially as a photographer. It’s a platform that everyone’s using. And people take tons of pictures of that pink wall.
What dish fully embodies what you’re doing at Piano Piano?
A: The veal parm is bone-in, looks pretty on a plate – and it’s delicious. The canestri alla vodka is beautiful, like eating soft fluffy clouds in the sky mixed with rainbows. And the carrot cake, we can’t take it off the menu. A big bowl of pasta, a big piece of cake – it’s food that fills your heart.