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Hype vs. Reality

Maple Leaf Tavern

Because Toronto is a foodie city, there’s considerable hype when a popular chef opens a new restaurant. With the Maple Leaf Tavern there were so many talking points you almost didn’t know what to focus on: Chef Jesse Vallins of The Saint helming the complete (and expensive) renovation of one of the city’s oldest, and notoriously run-down watering holes into a modern upscale restaurant featuring all-night menus and cocktails on tap. And the early reviews were all overwhelmingly positive. So my expectations were high. Millions were reportedly spent on the renovations. And when you walk into the tavern, it reads as an homage to the past. It’s a dark set of rooms, centered by the imposingly beautiful horseshoe shaped bar, with an open kitchen behind it. There are lots of banquets, booths and big tables - best described as a “guy’s place”.

And the drinks did meet our expectations. I had to try one of the cocktails on tap, specifically the Rye and Ginger Highball ($11). A simple drink of Gooderham & Worts + Naughty Nick’s Ginger Beer and lime dramatically served with a wedge of ice and candied ginger. Naomi tried the Jasmine ($13) Gin, Campari, Cointreau and pressed lemon - refreshing on a warm summer evening. I stuck with the highball as the others moved on to a very well priced Super Tuscan red wine.

The menu of snacks, starters, mains and sides focuses on recognizable North American favourites with subtle twists, featuring many dishes from a wood burning grill. Everything we had was good, and aside from an inexplicably long wait in between courses (which was rectified by management offering a free side and free desserts before we voiced concern) I have no complaints.

The snacks of grilled bacon ($6) and grilled shrimp cocktail ($3.50 a piece) were simply seasoned and well cooked. We skipped the starters, which included a Crudo plate, Caesar Salad, Burrata and jumped to the mains. I had the Lasagna ($24) composed of veal shank, bone marrow and porcini mushrooms, served sideways in a pool of very light tomato sauce, with a side chopped salad. It was dramatically beautiful on the plate, but less so in taste. Naomi’s Fennel crusted Halibut over ricotta gnocchi ($30) was well cooked but also a little bland. One friend tried the Sauteed Trout ($28) with crispy potatoes, peas and carrots. The other tried the well-touted burger with housemade cheese, dill relish, mayo and fries ($20). Sadly, the very well executed hamburger was undermined by a chewy bun. We ordered the Cauliflower with Cheddar cheese emulsion smartly served on the side (so as not to make the florets soggy) and devoured the “sorry-for-the-wait-here’s-some-free” honey and cumin glazed carrots. The conceptually interesting desserts -  warm and cold peanut butter and chocolate mousse, crispy rice pudding with apple preserve and caramelized white chocolate and pineapple carpaccio with coconut sorbet all were tasty and well balanced but had slightly odd textures. Perhaps it’s unfair, but in a city of great restaurants, a hyped new place should have a showstopper dish that makes you want to come back again and again, and that was what was unfortunately missing at the Maple Leaf Tavern.

955 Gerrard St. E.  www.mapleleaftavern.ca