Eye Weekley- Alan A. Vernon

Alan A. Vernon & Sean Kelly Keenan
June 23, 2010

EDITORIAL RATING: 4 STARS ****
Address: 120 Avenue Road
Phone: 416-964-0606
Dinner for two: $150 including taxes and tip
Reservations: Recommened
Wheelchair access: No
When restaurateurs Sam Kalogiros and David Minicucci opened L’Unita a few years ago, we were gobsmacked, flabbergasted and flummoxed: how could two guys with little to no food-biz experience do it all so well? Stunning atmo, fantastic food, exemplary service; all with the finesse of seasoned pros.

So when their second haunt, Maléna, opened a few months ago, just a couple of doors south from where it all began, expectations ran pretty darn high. And we are happy to report that the wunderkinds don’t disappoint. Maléna, inspired by the award-winning Giuseppe Tornatore film, Malèna, (even if the accent slopes the other way) shows the maturation of both Kalogiros, Minicucci and chef Doug Neigel.

Where L’Unita has an electrically charged rustic charm, Maléna is more about refined elegance laced with just the right splash of sparkle. Luxurious seating and eclectic lighting right out of a Restoration Hardware catalogue set a perfect atmosphere, one sullied only by incongruous music that might sound a tad better at Jet Fuel.

A couple of unspectacular starters give pause. A trio of stuffed BC spot prawns ($13), one of the specials, has us concerned about the price point. Served in half, with heads on, the breaded concoction totally overpowers the miniscule amounts of seafood we barely manage to slurp out of the shell. A fritto misto ($16 small/$30 large) also suffers from Microscopic Portion Syndrome). A quartet of those tiny spot prawns, whole anchovies and tender calamari rings, all in a jacket of crisp, greaseless cornflower batter is wickedly good doused in fresh lemon. But they should dispense with the pedestrian pot of hot pepper sauce and try adding a few more pieces of squid. (FYI, Café Diplomatico is still tops when it comes to value with this dish.)
Thankfully, the smoked halibut cheek cakes ($13) are filler-free and fabulous. Served with a small pile of horta (a chiffonier of bitter greens with some sea salt and olive oil), pickled shallot rings and creamy lemon dressing, the only sass this cheek dishes out, yet again, is its dollhouse size. We’re not size queens, but really, with barely two bites on the plate, you won’t be sharing this — nor will you want to share the quartet of date-infused lamb polpettes ($13), tiny perfect meatballs with lemon and pimento pesto.

With little tummy-filling satisfaction so far, we worry we might have to make a pit stop at Vesta Lunch down the block for an après-dinner dinner. But with the mains, chef flexes with heavier portions. A pair of superbly spice-rubbed quail ($26) might be mistaken for Rock hens. Each plump bite is accompanied by whole spring carrots, oozing with pancetta fat. A plate of buttery orecchiette ($26) delivers a symphony of flavours with fat-infused capretto (baby-goat meat), matched perfectly with wilted arugula and juicy golden raisins adding just the right sweet note. And while a side of young eggplant ($7), simply roasted and served with balsamic vinegar on the plate, isn’t particularly inspired, considering the price, it passes.

Maléna does dessert a bit differently — the saganaki ($8) isn’t flambéed tableside (the show is the only reason to order this artery clogger in the first place), and it falls flat with a shredded mess of ouzo-infused orange rind on top. A wedge of attiki honey–drizzled, truffle-infused Moliterno ($8) with warmed walnut bread pudding, however, is flat-out fantastic. And pastry chef Leigha Dimitroff’s lemon phyllo tart ($8) is simply extraordinary, with an ultra-crisp, impossibly thin crust, tangy yet creamy curd and a sweet and sticky meringue topper.

Probably the youngest restaurateur team in the city, Kalogiros and Minicucci have proved they have what it takes to cater to the tastes of the well-heeled. They have contributed considerably to this strip at Ave. and Dav., making it not just a destination to pick up the cheapest fresh-cut flowers in town.

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