Close enough to rub elbows at Malena? That’s a good thing.
120 Avenue Rd., 416-694-060, malena120.ca
Hunker down for the winter in Toronto’s newest venue — the Snug. What is a Snug? It is not a confessional booth or a mini-condo, but the tiny private rooms in old pubs found in Ireland. Rooms just large enough for six people who want to drink their Guinness in peace and quiet.
The expanded definition of a Snug is a cozy neighbourhood restaurant, comfy and discreet, for discerning diners. To wit — Malena, the popular neighbourhood restaurant on Avenue Road, poised at the edge of the affluent Annex. A couple of years ago, Malena was launched as posh Med, promising creatures from the Ionian Sea. Very exotic, I thought, until I checked fish stocks in the tiny fishing port of Camporino and learned that the catch was overwhelmingly bream. Of course, Ionian was just the come-on. The fish came from anywhere, nicely cooked, but nothing sensational. Malena was a resto with the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. In other words, it had no clear voice.
But now there’s a new chef with a sparky character and a more appealing menu. Matthew Sullivan’s done a lot of resto-skipping in his short, speedy career, and his menu reflects the eclectic sweep of the Terroni chain, where he had his two latest gigs. I see on the menu Terroni’s signature ’Nduja fiery sausage, which comes with scallops and another dish, with Jerusalem artichokes. Good sign.
But first, the dining room. The elegant townhouse dining room has good bones and now has blossomed with maturity — the rather starchy clubhouse atmosphere taking on a much more relaxed vibe.
Service, too, has a friendlier tone. Tables are close; another Snug feature is communal dining. Diners are expected to rub elbows and enjoy it. Thus the customer base of the Snug is important. I’ve liked all the people I rubbed elbows with at such Snugs as RubyWatchco, Le Restaurant and Bistro, Black Skirt and Lafayette, where social interaction is unavoidable, and Malena is right up there.
Good menu tips, too. The party of four Millennials, who are to our left, have dropped in for a fritto misto ($16) and an excellent red before dashing out to a club. “You can rate a restaurant by its fritto misto and here, it’s good!” Awright. We agree as we crunch a rather large sardine crisply battered and deep fried and a tangle of assorted sea fragments ($16). Meanwhile we’re sipping a Greek bubbly, Brut Amelia, pleasantly dry ($13.50; glasses of wine are half price on Tuesdays). And what good soup this is, the daily special, a thick, roasted cauliflower with smoky pecorino cheese and house-cured bacon ($12) .
Main and pasta courses are brief and inviting. We go for the glamour item, squid ink tortelloni with lobster ($28). Little buds of black pasta wrapped around lobster pieces with mascarpone and a carrot and brown butter sauce. Close but no cigar. There are two problems with this dish to my way of eating. Black pasta is so deceptive: looks good enough to eat but it’s a bit of a bust in the flavour department, and the lobster mixture isn’t strong enough to buck it up. Presentation is so pretty but a line of nibbles lacks gravitas. I want to chow down on a lobster dish.
By this time, we’re rubbing elbows with a bottle of Tuscan red, Arceno Prima Voce 2000. We see our neighbour to the right swirling it around, sniffing and smiling. We can smell how good it tastes. “Would you like to try it?” Yup. It’s so rich and throaty. How much? Around $90. Oops. We return to our modest glasses of a Liscone from the slopes of Mount Vulture in Basilicata ($13) — the name itself is intoxicating — which flatters the roast chicken ($25). The bird has been squashed flat by a brick, compressed into cubes. One of the cubes is topped by a poached egg, surrounded by little darting tastes of house mustard and little soothing puffs of pureed potato.
Candied olives — fine finish to larky meal. The best desserts startle, and the olives and salted chocolate crumble exalt dark chocolate panna cotta. Becky’s lemon tart with candied lemon and pistachio brittle polishes the palate (both $9).
2½ stars Food, service and vibe. No wheelchair access. Dinner, food and tax: $112.
Stars awarded for food: 4 stars Perfection • 3 stars Exceptional • 2 stars Very good • 1 star OK