PORT has been open since 2008 in the picturesque seaside Frenchman’s Bay in Pickering. And while Pickering is a bit of a stretch from Hogtown, there will be one commonality come early 2015: Chef Eric Wood will be taking the helm as executive chef at both PORT and the buzz-worthy renovation of the storied Maple Leaf Tavern (MLT).
Chef Eric Wood
Chef Eric Wood is an industry veteran — most recently he ran the kitchen at The Beverly Hotel, Fabarnak, and Hawthorne. He’s a natural fit to oversee the renovation and build out of MLT, all tge while breathing new life into PORT with the introduction of an almost entirely new menu.
PORT has over 200 seats that are regularly filled with the Pickering peckish, with manager/owner Todd Morgan at the helm. Tastes are slightly different in the sticks, so the offal trend stays firmly in 416-land. Here, his menu is an ode to Canada, with stops in So-Cal, Italy, and New Orleans for inspiration.
Crispy Brussel Sprouts ($5.00) with Honey Sriracha Butter from the bar menu offer a healthy dose of fibre, but the playful balance of heat and sweet makes it anything but boring. Other starters include the colourful Baja Grilled Calamari, which comes somewhat deconstructed, with strips of salty tortilla crisps, side guacamole, roasted cherry tomatoes, and slightly charred Ancho-Oregano Marinated Squid ($13.00).
Mushroom Toast ($13.00) is a funghi’d up version of the too common and completely overdone bruschetta, here elevated by the in house-made oat bread, with a bounty of mixed mushrooms tossed in roasted garlic butter and topped with parsley and scallions. Trails of rosemary and sweet cippolini onions make this woodsy starter a must-try.
House greens ($8.00) make a perfect palate cleanser, with crisp fresh greens finished off with cold pressed canola oil and a crown of slightly pickled seasonal veggies.
NOLA is well-represented with the spicy Bayou Jambalaya ($17.00) — a perfect dish for cold winter days, with stick-to-your-ribs braised chicken thighs, Andoulle sausage, and shrimp all nestled in layers of dirty rice, red peppers, and peppery tomato sauce. A dollop of the citrus sour cream cools things down just enough.
Wild Mushroom and Sage Garganelle ($16.00) evoke images of Italy, with four types of mushrooms, braised winter greens, and hits of preserved lemon in a perfect brown butter base — no sauce required with ingredients that are this fresh and seasonal.
Halls Harbour Seafood Chowder ($16.00) is a sophisticated approach to a seaside dining staple. Instead of soupy fish portions swimming around in a pond of vegetables with no texture, here you can distinguish between clams or potatoes, and everything is cooked with precision and added to a warm lobster tarragon cream base.
My favourite dish went to the Diver Scallop BLT ($28.00), an inventive and lively take on your standard scallops, here resting atop an onion-laced cornbread with slow-cooked pork belly and twirls of house-made tomato jam and red chilli honey.
The equally savoury Pork and Beans ($1.009) come Flintstone-sized with a massive bone in pork shoulder snuggled up alongside a white bean cassoulet, with seasonal veg and cornbread.
Donuts or PORT holes ($7.00) — as they go by here — are light and fluffy, served still warm alongside a ramekin of lemon curd. Chef Eric, clearly not afraid to push boundaries, offers up his preferred condiment: maple malt vinegar that dissolves the puffy pastries on impact.
Chef Eric’s creativity is married with his belief that food is equal parts fantasy and nostalgia. Fantasy comes in the form of being transported back to a food memory — maybe a favourite trip to Italy is represented in the accessible form of his comforting garganelle. Nostalgia is embodied in plates like pork and beans, a childhood favourite for most that reminds you of cold winter nights and the comfort of family.
While the menus will be different at both restaurants, this sneak peek at PORT offers Toronto foodies a glimpse of things to come at their newest downtown hangout. Maple Leaf Tavern should be open in early 2015 with food lovers flocking to this historical building. Once a dive bar, it’s sure to be just as scenic as PORT after their extensive renovations are complete.
Chef Eric mentioned that his and Todd’s plans for MLT will not only echo the historical side of the building — when it had its brief heyday as a proper supper club in the ’40s — but also the menu and interior will pay tribute to those sentiments as well. They have a few challenges to sort out before the place will be back to its prime. MLT is currently doing some structural work on the building’s crumbling foundation. After that’s complete, it’s hammer time. The rooming houses above the tavern will likely be converted into shared offices, keeping the tavern’s tenants on the up-and-up, and away from some of the more storied events that haunt the building’s past.
Menu-wise, look for comfort foods and Canadian classics from that period with a refined twist — similar to what Gramercy Park does in NYC, which is one of Chef’s favourite dining experiences. While Chef was tight-lipped on specifics for the menu, he did mention that they will be open for lunch and dinner daily, and that his garden greens will likely cross over from PORT’s menu — some things are too good to leave behind.
With the careful attention that is going into preserving the history of this 110-year-old building, this type of ground-breaking investment into Toronto’s past will hopefully have a trickle-down effect to wrecking ball-wielding condo developers. Chef Eric lives in the east end and is attached to the area, so the restaurant’s success isn’t only to his benefit; it will also revitalize a neighbourhood he calls home.
If you’ve checked out PORT Restaurant, what has been your favourite dish so far? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.