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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Small Plates of May

After a long winter of hibernating, a birthday and an anniversary within a few days of each other every May offer us the opportunity to do a little catching up in the dining-out department. There are always several new restaurants we're dying to try, and this year things were no different. Amazingly though, we flew through our short list at lightning speed as one place after another told us they were fully booked. Well, it's great to know that so many people are out there supporting our food service industry. (By the way, our policy has always been to only go out to fine dining establishments that take reservations. To us, a place that doesn't just isn't saying "We respect our customers" convincingly enough).
So, what were our ultimate selections? Marben on Wellington West and Origin at Church and King. These were by no means second string on our list of options- indeed Origin was ranked #1 best new restaurant of 2011 by Toronto Life Magazine. But as coincidence would have it, both are practitioners of the recent trend of serving small plates and encouraging sharing. 
This "sophisticated tapas" movement is an interesting one. It is certainly not for you if your preference is to be doted on by an all-knowing waiter, or if you require the structure of the traditional dining experience: appetizer to start, followed by main course, finally dessert. This is different. Although we were told at Origin that the pacing of the arrival of food at our table would be controlled by our server, Marben advised us that there would be a small rush of dishes arriving in short order, which was in fact true of how it went down at both establishments. This leads to a crowded table, and in our case both times, also to a crowded palate. Timing seems to be solely influenced by cooking time. Now that we are more familiar with the routine, we would probably select our simple (ie fast) dishes so that they are in better harmony with one and other.

Another oddity of the experience is that each time after about an hour we were feeling like our special evening out was about to draw to a close. So much food had come so quickly that we were imaging ourselves back home in front of the TV by the time one's main course would normally be arriving. And yet, we're not quite sure how it transpired, but in both cases we still ended up staying for at least a couple of hours.

One big advantage to the small plates approach is that you can control the amount of food you want to eat, and by extension, the cost of your evening. We started with an order of four dishes and went from there. At Marben we added another couple, at Origin we managed a fifth. Both the portion control and economy aspects seem to fit well with a young clientele, as both Marben and Origin demonstrated. Both places had loud and interesting soundtracks, groups of young ladies out on the town together, and in Marben's case, it magically morphed at the stroke of 11:00 from restaurant to hopping club.

So, how was the food you ask?

Marben is all about local and seasonal food. It bills itself as "A Little Farmhouse Revival on Wellington West". It strikes a rustic tone with decor of re-purposed goods and reclaimed lumber. It's flavours are simpler and more straight forward that those of Origin. And yet there is an inventiveness to it all that keeps the experience non-traditional. We opened with an "amuse" of house-made focaccia, caramelized onions, and lentil & wild mushroom purée with truffle oil. A wonderful surprise plate to start. We ordered 4 dishes and the highlights included fresh local asparagus with a quail egg, a salad of endive, beets & candied walnut, another of celery remoulade topped with toasts and a deep-fried panko-breaded perfectly runny poached egg(!), and a plate with yummy little "coins" of sausage accompanied with, among other things, a potent chimichurri- like dill purée. We added one further plate- the house's "famous" burger (photo 5) which is comprised of braised short rib meat stuffed into the center of a ground beef patty, which is then char-broiled and served with pickle and cheddar cheese, coleslaw, and fries and mayo. Somewhere along the way we also had a fantastic soft pecorino fresco, but we can't for the life of us remember what dish that was part of!
Marben has an interesting wine list and we were very surprised to see a Vino de Madrid, which we had actually not even seen much of in the city of Madrid itself. Naturally we snapped it up, and it was very good. A Martini was rather exorbitant, we thought, at almost $17!! When we rolled out at around 11:30, the place was wall to wall 20-somethings grooving to an excellent DJ and there was no more food to be seen.

Origin is a little more sophisticated in both its clientele and its offerings. The crowd is slightly older than that of Marben, and by the looks of it, more established in their careers. We think its safe to say that there were more baby sitters working for the Origin crowd than for the Marben folks! The food, too, is more nuanced. It is definitely reflective of chef Claudio Aprile's pedigree, including examples of his molecular gastronomic expertise. The Gin and Tonics were a steal at five bucks, and once again, the bar figured largely in the character of the place. (In fact, they speak of themselves as a "high energy global food bar") The sound system was pumping out vintage Rock & Roll (Stones, Guns & Roses, Pink Floyd) and we found ourselves migrating first from the dining room where we were offered seats at the bar looking into the open kitchen, to the lounge where we realized that the soft seating and low tables were going to present some problems with sharing the dishes we were contemplating, finally to the outside terrace, where we enjoyed one of the first great patio nights of the season. From out there the volume of the music emanating from indoors was just fine!
We started with delectable freshly made tostones with guacamole, smoked cod croquettes (photo 7) which we felt were a little too mushy and too subtle in their flavours, and a fabulous salad of raw tuna and Asian pear in spicy Ponzu dressing. We rounded out the first order with sensational miso-glazed black cod served on soba noodles in a ginger vinaigrette (photo 8). We still had a little room, so we added on an order of Chorizo with Manchego rice (an incredible Spanish style risotto that was more like cheese pudding, and whose lily was gilded with a poached egg on top) Sprinkled with a few crumbs of freeze-dried black olives, it was Nirvana! And we were stuffed!
So, looking back at our evenings out, we're stuck by a little irony. We ended up at both of these restaurants because they would take our reservations. And yet, really, both are the types of places that are probably most satisfying when you drop in on a whim, grab a quick bite, then move on with the rest of your evening. You come, have a few drinks, listen to some great music, and order a few plates to share with your friends.

Hmmm...maybe you can teach old dogs new tricks after all!
488 Wellington Street West, Ste 102
416 979- 1990

Marben on Urbanspoon
107-109 King Street East
416 603- 8009

Origin Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Photo Credits:
2.Toronto Update Blog
3.The Compendium Daily Blog
4.Toronto Life
9.Toronto Star


  1. I REALLY miss the San Francisco foodie scene. Comparable restaurants here are SO far out of my price range... it is depressing. A simple sushio lunch for two costs us nearly R$100.

    Thanks for the virtual yummy meal.

  2. You're welcome, Jim, and thanks for the comment!
    Yikes, R$100- what's that, about $60? Not a cheap lunch! These weren't exactly cheap dinners, either, but not over the top. A little splurge in honour of our special days.