My background is Italian, and Jenny is Jewish. In the five years we’ve been together, we’ve learned that our cultures share a lot of similarities—family is important, people tend to talk loudly and passionately, and food plays an important role in bringing families together to eat, talk loudly and share stories.
Another key similarity lies in the fact that both Italian and Jewish cuisines vary broadly depending on geography. In Italy, northerners will commonly cook with meat and dairy as central ingredients, whereas in the south, the availability of great seafood and the proximity of Greece, parts of Africa and the Middle East influence the flavours of many dishes. Jewish cuisine is even more diverse, influenced by both dietary laws and the food traditions of the various countries where Jews have settled over the centuries.
Last week I had the opportunity to sample the menu at Mideastro Yorkville, which opened last July following the success of the restaurant’s initial Thornhill location. Heading the Yorkville kitchen is chef Benny Cohen, who presents dishes that are Israeli-focused while also incorporating flavours from the many Mediterranean countries that have influenced Jewish cuisine.
“Both my parents are Moroccan Jews who raised me in Israel, where I was exposed to cuisines and flavours from all over the world by the travelling and migrating Jews,” Cohen told me when I asked about what has influenced his cooking style. He says his passion was sparked as a child while learning about Moroccan cooking in the kitchens of his grandmothers, and was furthered by studying at a branch of the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Israel and then working in restaurant kitchens in Spain, Greece, New York and Mexico before coming to Toronto.
The food at Mideastro draws upon all of these cultures. We started with a tomato-based Moroccan lamb soup, which, despite the Middle Eastern spice profile, reminded me of a much richer version of the classic Italian minestrone – a soup I’ve never particularly liked, while I’d gladly eat Mideastro’s lamb soup again.
The next plate offered two dishes from the restaurant’s appetizer list. Cohen described his Baladi eggplant as a sort of “bruschetta salad,” combining smoky grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes, Israeli feta, roasted garlic and herbed tahini. And Lahma Ba’ajin is a Damascus-style flatbread topped with ground lamb, chickpeas, tomatoes and sheep yogurt tahini. Cohen said the flatbread’s origins date back more than 500 years.
We also sampled Cohen’s take on carpaccio. He wraps 12-week-aged waygu beef tenderloin around arugula and thin slices of parmesan, slicing the rolls maki-style and drizzling balsamic and black truffle oil over top. He called this the “lazy” version, because it saves him from having to compose the dish on a plate. But I enjoyed being able to pick up everything in one bite. Also on the plate was a grilled calamari dish, served atop an oxtail lentil pot au feu.
Already feeling full, it was on to the mains. The first we were served was chef Cohen’s take on chraime, a fish, tomato and vegetable casserole with Sephardic roots that he told me is his signature dish. In Cohen’s version, baked snapper is plated on risotto flavoured with harisa, and topped with a tomato-root vegetable sauce flavoured with smoked paprika and fish stock. This was easily the best dish of the night, and it’s definitely something I’d go back to Mideastro to eat again.
We also had Mideastro’s lamb and beef kufta. The spiced ground meat dish is popular throughout the Mediterranean, taking the form of either meatloaf or meatballs and with slight spelling variations depending on the country—kufta in Hebrew, kefta in Morocco and koobideh in Iran. Cohen serves his ground meat on a stew of tomato and eggplant, and tops the dish with a thin, crisp layer of focaccia that the diner breaks open to reveal the meat and vegetables. It’s served with a yogurt and tahini sauce on the side.
Finally, we had dessert—a nutella parfait with frozen nutella cream, caramelized bananas and a piece of salted pecan brittle; and Fig Kataiv, which was layers of spiced mascarpone, fresh figs and pistachios sandwiched between crisp layers of shredded phyllo dough. I really enjoyed this one, as the flavours reminded me of both baklava and tiramisu.
Cohen told me that he thinks the Toronto dining scene has lacked a proper representation of Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. “People tend to think of Middle Eastern cuisine exclusively as the fast, street food that can be seen in Toronto,” he said, noting that even the quick Middle Eastern eats so popular here – falafel, shawarma, etc – are pale imitations of the originals due to the fact certain ingredients aren’t available here.
To that end, Cohen says he’s trying to bridge a gap and offer this city a better idea of the dining options, both fast and formal, they’d find around the Mediterranean. “I’m hoping to bring a truly unique experience to Torontonians by bringing the flavours of the Middle East mixed with my expression, my knowledge and my technique in a fine dining setting, and also showcasing a 2,000-year-old voyage of the Jews through history, time and space.”