"Restaurants are an ecosystem that has to be revved up carefully. You can't just turn them on and off — the talent, the interaction of the staff, the complexity of the product, its freshness…"
Speaking from his cottage in Georgian Bay in March, Mark McEwan is dreaming of Toronto's restaurants.
The American chef is passionate about getting Ontario's hospitality industry moving again; his Twitter reads like a campaign, asking the government to lighten up and take their foot off the brake when it comes to easing lockdown restrictions.
His fervour is hardly surprising. With six restaurants (One, Bymark and Fabbrica among them) and a group of grocery stores around Ontario, McEwan has been deeply involved in Canada's food scene for years. He's a judge on Top Chef Canada (about to release its ninth season) and he's had his own TV show, The Heat.
Listening to him talk about everything from tasting menus to sandwiches knocked together using leftovers, McEwan is most definitely a man who loves to eat.
So who better to give us their inside track on where to eat, drink and get takeout in Toronto?
What's been your favourite takeout?
I had beautiful takeout from Patois [the Caribbean-meets-Asian restaurant on Dundas]. I'm also a big fan of Maker pizza and their salads — it's expensive pizza, but it's worth it.
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What about food on the run?
Lambo's Deli, if you want great sandwiches and that nature of things. But I also have retail stores and I genuinely grab food from my own place.
What's your favourite pizza topping?
I like very simple pizza. It all depends on my mood, but I love a mushroom crema. Or when you have a really good dry pepperoni that you can use to make a classic pizza. I don't like much on it — but I'm a big anchovy fan.
And what about sandwiches?
I eat almost anything and everything as long as it's done well and not over done. I look at a lot of the sandwiches on Instagram and these big gooey cheesy messes that everybody's eating and I think, 'how how could you eat that sandwich?' Makes no sense at all. You could never eat it with an audience.
I like leftovers in sandwiches. I did an artisan roasted chicken the night before last, so yesterday I grilled sourdough bread, made a mustard mayonnaise, pulled the meat off the bone and threw in some bibb lettuce and celery. It was beautiful.
The tasting menu at Patrick Kriss's Alo was probably the best I've ever had, and certainly the most memorable
What's the most memorable meal you've had in Toronto?
I'm going to give you two. I went to Patrick Kriss's Alo. It was just a terrific 12-course tasting menu. Usually tasting menus can really become laborious and overdone. And I thought the number of courses and the choices and the execution was probably the best I've ever had. Certainly the most memorable.
And then for a casual meal, I had such a great meal at Ardo on King Street. That was just spot on. Perfect. Perfect pasta, simple pasta, octopus, and then we shared a barbecued fish, and it was simple, glorious food. That's really the lane I like to eat in. I've seen all the trends go through. I love good, classic down-to-earth food done well and done thoughtfully. That's where 95 per cent of my interest lies.
Which Toronto food shops do you rely on most for your grocery shopping at the moment?
My own, to be perfectly honest. But right now I'm up at my cottage in Georgian Bay. I'm quarantining, so I'm using Goldsmith's, which is a local farmers market that has taken it to the next stage. We're able to go online and place our order, and they deliver it to the doorstep and then walk away.
Where will you eat out first?
I can't wait to eat out again. In the town of Thornbury — where we are in Georgian Bay — restaurants are open up here and I have a restaurant called Fabbrica. They're so old school Italian: wood burning oven, handmade pasta, lots of fish and the restaurant's booming.
In Toronto, I want to go to Joso's [a Yorkville restaurant inspired by Croatia's Dalmatian coast] and have some fish, seafood and fish. And I'd love to go to Rodney's and eat 24 oysters, and a great big crab and down a couple of beers. That would be a lot of fun.
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Where would you take someone for a date?
I haven't been on a date in 40 years! But people tell me that my restaurant One in Yorkville, the patio there is the greatest place to go for a first date. Because it's see and be seen and there's lots of action and lots of things to distract you if conversation doesn't go all that well.
What's your best late-night place?
If it's late at night I'll go to the Four Seasons bar [D bar]. I'll have a cocktail and I find that very civilized and a nice place to tuck away and have a drink, a manhattan or a martini. They always have very reliable food.
Daniel [Boulud] runs a great spot there and I'll just have a simple plate and meet up and have a conversation. I'm a bit older so I don't really do much carousing and staying up late. Late night for me is going home — my little French Bulldog, she misses me and I have to get home to her.
Mark McEwan's Bymark restaurant — in pictures:
If you could live in any building in Toronto, where would it be?
I love Rosedale. It's the most European-feeling neighbourhood in that it's not all lined up — it's a mishmash of streets with lots of character. There are lots of old heritage storefronts with original architecture that could be very, very interesting. You could buy it, you could make a retail format on the main floor, then have a great apartment above it. It could be your home, your office, your restaurant, your bar. It would certainly give it presence and value. And then you go from there, and then you make it whatever you want it to be. It just takes money, right?
Have you had any interesting conversations with an Uber driver?
The last Uber ride I had, the driver was very politically conservative. There he was, up in arms as to what's going on in the world. I listened to him rant all the way to the airport. I don't know why he was so forthcoming — maybe it was because I was actually listening to him. Personally, I'm a big believer in sweeping off your porch every day and washing your sidewalk and watering your flowers. If everybody did that, we'd have beautiful streetscapes everywhere. And all you have to worry about is your 24 feet or your 15 feet of sidewalk. And that's my kind of mentality.