Toronto has many Italian restaurants, and many that showcase Greek cuisine. But there’s only one restaurant in the city that brings the flavours of Greece together with the cooking of the nearby southern Italian region. Malena, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, focuses on the food of the Ionian sea that both these places border. That means a menu heavy on fish and seafood, as well as classic Mediterranean ingredients such as good olive oil, tomatoes, herbs and citrus.
I was invited to a media dinner celebrating both the restaurant’s first birthday and the introduction of its spring 2011 menu. The food writers and bloggers around the table were given the opportunity to taste a selection of appetizers and desserts prepared by Malena chef Doug Neigel and his team, and we each chose a main from a selection that included gnudi with braised rabbit, a Berkshire pork chop on celery root mash, whole grilled sea bream served with gigantes beans in tomato with tzatziki, and my selection, seared branzino filets with fennel, rapini and anchovy lemon vinaigrette.
This was my first exposure to chef Neigel’s food, and I was impressed with his ability to combine flavours to create dishes that were neither Greek nor Italian, but were both. The branzino, also known as European sea bass, was a definite highlight of the meal. But the standouts for me were two of the appetizers we sampled.
The grilled octopus served with pancetta and root vegetable fregola (a southern Italian pasta similar to Israeli couscous) and orange agro dolce was amazing. Grilled octopus has a simple, fresh taste that is distinctly Mediterranean, and the fregola and orange agro dolce worked well with the charred notes from the octopus. While grilled octopus is fairly common in Greece and parts of Italy, it’s not something I’ve seen on many Toronto menus.
We were also served an uni crostini that blew my mind. I’d actually had my first exposure to uni (sea urchin) just a couple weeks earlier, in the form of sushi. Sea urchin is a crustacean that looks similar to an oyster, but with a softer texture and a taste that is mildly sweet and briny. Chef Neigel paired the uni with mashed avocado, a great complement that mimicked the sea urchin’s texture while being mild enough to let its flavours shine through.
We were also treated to a selection of desserts, of which the simplest – cannoli – stood out for me. It’s easy to find cannoli in Toronto, but not so easy to find great cannoli. Pastry chef Leigha Dimitroff’s cannoli falls into the ‘great’ category, with a shell that is perfectly crisp and not too sweet, and a rich filling that changes with the seasons.
Through the meal, the chef repeatedly highlighted his emphasis on using the best ingredients regardless of geographic boundaries, but at the same time ensuring as many of his products as possible come from sustainable sources. While some of the fish and seafood comes from Europe, Neigel emphasized that both the branzino and sea bream are raised sustainably in Greece. The uni in his crostini come from a sustainable source in B.C., and the rabbit and pork are farm-raised in Ontario.
Neigel told me that while his focus is on serving great food, he understands and appreciates the increasing demand from diners for ethically-sourced ingredients.
“My first job is to provide the quality and variety in ingredients that our guests are looking for. I try whenever possible to have those ingredients be sustainable and local. I think it’s truly up to the diners to push us towards more local and sustainable products. I will give them the options and the more they ask for it the more I can provide it,” he says.
Neigel says that growing up in Ontario’s Muskoka region helped him gain an appreciation for the link between nature and food, and he has a particular love for Italian and Greek cuisines because of their focus on letting the ingredients shine through.
“I grew up on the water, so we fished a lot. The strongest influence that gave me was simple preparation and the freshest ingredients. I fell in love with Italian food because of the simplicity of the cuisine. It really makes you focus on the quality of the product you use. At Malena, I cook much lighter, using little butter and cream. I also have great inspiration from the tradition and ingredients in Greek cuisine.”