Maple Leaf Tavern, in Toronto’s east end, has a storied history. It opened in 1910 and has operated as a tavern since the 1930’s, and in recent decades, gained a reputation as one of the city’s roughest bars. Several years ago, new owners took over, gutted the place and installed a modern-tavern décor, and hired Jesse Vallins (formerly of The Saint and Trevor Kitchen) as executive chef. Maple Leaf Tavern relaunched in May.
Outfitted in acres of dark wood, exposed brick and hardwood floors, the space is warm and upscale, one of the most welcoming tavern spaces in the city.
In Vallins’s hands, the food offers a modern, creative take on tavern fare, using local ingredients backed by rock-solid technique. Caesar salad, for instance, boasts a creamy vinaigrette punctuated by deep anchovy tang. On top: a thick slab of smoky grilled bacon. Served chilled, roasted veg salad brings a huge slice of sugar-sweet squash, grilled leeks, shaved pickled squash and tiny cubes of halloumi cheese, all unified by sophisticated dill hempseed pesto.
Mains show a kitchen firmly in control. Striploin, served in juicy, ruby red slices, has deep mineral tang. Cooked for 72 hours, a sizeable chunk of beef shoulder is fork-tender and cleverly complemented by sweet potato, charred onion and pickled watermelon. Lasagna layers veal shank, bone marrow and earthy porcini mushrooms in tomato-inflected sauce.
Also showing attention to detail are sides: Whisper-tender cumin-glazed carrots; cauliflower enriched with herbed breadcrumbs and cheddar emulsion; and hasselback potato made luxurious with shaved, chilled foie gras that melts into the accompanying truffle butter.
The kitchen scores again with desserts: A rectangular ‘patty’ of crispy rice pudding (kind of a sweet version of arancini) paried with apple preserves and vanilla cream; razor-thin slices of sweet pineapple garnished with basil sugar and superb coconut sorbet; and a sumptuous construction of cold peanut butter mousse, brownie chunks, chocolate crunch, vanilla ice cream and chocolate mousse.
Entire restaurant, which seats 115, is available for group buyout. Available beginning in November, a private room seats 16.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 25 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,200 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.