Over the last few years, Toronto has been obsessed with burgers, charcuterie boards and home style comfort food. ‘Mom and Pop’ joints are fun and holes in the wall have become dinner destinations. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing but after dining at Malena, 120 Avenue Road, I have to admit that a little fancy felt really nice.
This modern seafood estiatorio (Greek for restaurant) is the second child of Sam Kalogiros and David Minicucci. Malena is L’Unita’s little sister. Like any interracial relationship that decides to procreate, Sam and Dave’s Malena is the perfect blend of Italian and Greek cuisine.
The room is softly lit and intimate. It’s dressed with strong wood tables, shiny ceiling tile, copper pots, bar stools that are strangely covered in pony hair and silver studded leather chairs. The luggage tags that hug the napkins are uniquely cute.
The journey through the Mediterranean Sea begins with a glug of good Greek olive oil, some crusty country style bread, a small dish of warm, herbed, lemony olives ($6) and a glass of Greek sparkling wine.
This is what I like about Malena; it is an Ionian cuisine that is way more refined than the ubiquity of the Danforth.
The grilled octopus ($16) is sensibly charred; its’ flesh delicately rubbery. A stroke of rich Greek yogurt lines the dish while a super fun fregola, pancetta and root vegetable salad bank the octopus. The bacon and fregola is the boot in the dish. Fregola are little balls of semolina flour indigenous to the island of Sardinia that are similar to Israeli couscous only much larger.
A skinny slab of marinated sheep’s feta ($14) is sharp and creamy. The pretty shredded pear and radicchio salad adds the sweet and the bitter that balance the sharpness of the cheese. Sultana raisins dot the salad.
Executive Chef Doug Neigel makes the lamb sausage ($15) in house. It is plump, juicy and medium rare. Add a perfectly poached egg, some stewed gigantes (giant baked beans), a little tomato and a crostino. This is Greek wieners and beans.
The gnudi ($25) is made with sheep’s milk ricotta and tossed with braised rabbit and spinach. Crispy ribbons of parsnip garnish the dish. The gnudi themselves are incredibly weightless and delightfully cheesy. Unfortunately the accompaniments do nothing to elevate the dish. The parsnips are beautiful but I want to eat them as a snack. If you don’t get to them first, they become soft from the sauce. Braising meat should make it tender, juicy, almost stringy. This rabbit was a little too dry and had a little too much chunk. The gnudi would be better showcased with an ‘off the charts’ tomato sauce.
A Berkshire pork chop ($28) with celery root mash, Swiss chard and sweet apple caponata is greatness. Apple and pigs have been best friends for a long time and this dish proves that it is a relationship that is built to last. The chop is big, almost Flinstone(ish) but succulent and the delicateness of the mash brings it down in size. A potato would be too much.
L’Unita is known for their diversely flavoured cannoli ($8/3) and so it makes sense that Sam and Dave would bring the little buggers over to Malena. Tonight they are filled with a date mascarpone and sprinkled with crunchy, candied walnuts.
I know, I know, you’re probably wondering what’s with all the animal talk in a so called seafood restaurant? Well, Sam and David may call it seafood because sixty percent of the card says so but with such competence beyond fish, I just call it a good place for dinner.