Globe & Mail – Joanne Kates

$180 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip

For about two days after a blue crab sheds its outgrown shell, the molting creature is a softshell crab – and delicious beyond belief. But there is only a brief window in which to indulge. In the case of blue crabs from relatively cold waters – such as the Chesapeake Bay area – the molting is seasonal and usually lasts from early May to July.

Since spring came early this year, I have been eating the best softshell crabs in years at Maléna, a new Mediterranean place in the Avenue and Davenport Roads area. Indeed, there are many “bests” to note at Maléna. Of the posse of hot new restos to open in Toronto this season (including Origin, Boehmer and Ruby Watchco), Maléna offers the best food hands down.

It’s the offspring of L’Unita, also at Av and Dav. The partners shifted chef Doug Neigel from L’Unita a few doors south to Maléna, promoting his sous to helm the stoves at L’Unita. Maléna’s concept is the food of the Ionian Sea – Greece and southern Italy – with an obvious focus on seafood. Anyone who has dined at Milos in Montreal will feel at home here – and equally pinched in the pocketbook. Good fresh fish doesn’t come cheap, so get ready to spend almost $100 a person at Maléna.

The price tag could explain the clientele – very upscale. The jewellery on some of the blondes could buy my car … and maybe yours too. Some Toronto restos distinguish between them and us, but Maléna’s people are equal-opportunity wait staff. They send over the sommelier within minutes of our arrival, they check back often to make sure we’re munching happily. Despite how crazy busy they’ve been since opening on March 25, servers are grace and hospitality incarnate.

And knowledgeable. Our waiter says the market fish is sustainably trapped black bass from the Atlantic, harpoon-caught swordfish from the Carolinas or ling cod from a B.C. fisherman’s co-op that chef consults to make sure its methods are also sustainable.

When he brings the softshell crab, we melt even more, for these are sweet, plump critters deep-fried in the most gossamer of batters. That fragile coating also covers the ungreasy fritto misto of fresh B.C. spot prawns, ultra-tender squid rings and tiny anchovies.

In southern Italy, a walk along the seaside in the afternoon after the fishing boats come home offers the sight of fishermen slapping big octopus on the concrete quays to tenderize them. Maléna’s B.C. octopus probably didn’t receive precisely that treatment, but it is tender and sweet, perfectly grilled and nicely partnered with minted couscous, piquant little Greek olives and rich creamy Greek yogurt.

The kitchen riffs on crab cakes by making a delicate patty of lightly smoked halibut. These delicate delights are good enough to stand alone but their salad of baby greens, lemon cream and lightly marinated shallots gild the lily quite nicely. My other favourite appetizer is simpler: thick slices of the best raw tuna with a light vinaigrette, quail’s eggs, olives and the big Greek dried beans they call gigantes. The only unsuccessful app is sea urchin crostini, which wants fresher urchin than they’re using – it’s a tad ammoniac.

Our other small kvetch is that the perfectly grilled black bass arrives whole – head, tail and bones all in the right places – but nobody offers to filet it for us, which by me they could do for $35 (it’s the most expensive main on the menu).

Obviously, chef loves sea creatures with a grand passion: His risotto, impeccable of texture, rises to great heights thanks to fresh B.C. spot prawns. His buttery fresh tomato sauce with chunks of lobster gives smoothness to squid ink pasta. For those few who are not aficionados of the aquatic world, there are grilled quails, quite like the charred pressed chicken chef did at L’Unita, all juicy flesh and almost erotically charred skin.

Certain other borrowings from L’Unita are hard to resist. How not to inhale the crisp cannoli (in spite of their being somewhat over-browned) freshly filled with chocolate espresso cream? Or crisp phyllo cups filled with delicate lemon curd, topped with meringue and a side of fab lemon ice. But Maléna’s dessert menu is so much more interesting than cannoli and lemon meringue. They garnish sheep cheese with walnut bread pudding, blood orange sorbet with fennel marshmallow. Even a Greek commonplace like loukoumades (fried balls of dough soaked in honey with cinnamon cream and pistachios) is better at Maléna, thanks to fresh-fried dough and better raw ingredients.

The background to all this fun eating suits the food perfectly. The place is warm and pretty without pretension, containing solid wood tables, a shiny pressed-tin-clad black iron staircase and a hammered-tin bar; there is also kind lighting and a tolerable noise level. In recognition of the almost non-existent parking at Av and Dav, they offer valet parking. But good luck getting a table.

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