When Juliana Conceicao decided to quit her job in criminal justice to start her own popup company, she knew that she wasn’t doing anything revolutionary. Certainly not the first person to join the popup food parade in Toronto, for her it was all about passion. Having grown up in Brazil, Juliana saw the farms around her being forced to cultivate the same crops year after year for the purposes of mass exportation, coincidentally degrading the land. Though there has been an evident shift, the Toronto food scene and North American attitudes are largely fueled by a rampant import culture. With the inception of Toronto PopUp, Juliana will curate monthly dinners that focus on local, seasonal and organic offerings from a variety of chefs around the city.
After two trial runs with some family and friends, Toronto PopUp held their first official dinner on Sunday, March 24 at Monarch Tavern (owned by her business partner, Michael Dorbyk). Chef Peter Petruniak, former jr. sous at Ten Restaurant & Wine Bar in Port Credit, now residing at newly opened The Guild Restaurant, brought his love for local fish to the table. A five-course, seafood dinner that was also gluten free was meant to highlight the natural flavours in the lake fish that abound around Ontario.
I brought along one of my oldest buddies in celebration of his birthday, but we left our table with a host of new friends, including the Beergonaut. If anything at this meal was truly standout, it was the atmosphere – relaxed and elegant, but entirely welcoming. With a sampling of one of the Monarch Tavern’s local craft beers to begin, and beer or wine pairings ($2 or $4/course), at $40 the price tag was as inviting as the ambiance.
A start of some pickled Lake Erie smelt with herb forward micro greens, Kozlik’s grainy mustard and sour cream was light and fresh, pairing well with crisp, clean King Pilsner.
My favourite of the dishes followed. A soft Lake Huron white fish on top of velvety celeriac puree, micro greens with a tangy vinaigrette, sautéed celery and crunchy walnuts.
A bit under seasoned, but a nice combination was the Lake Superior rainbow trout with poached red cabbage, radish and slivered apple. The one element that lacked throughout the meal was the crisp, salty fish skin that I crave.
The final fish offering, a supple and delicious Lake Erie pickerel, I found to be a bit misguided by a bland, watery ham hock stock. If only the carrots and parsnip could have slightly enhanced the flavour of this beautifully presented dish.
I was wondering if Chef Pietruniak was going to fuse some seafood into his dessert offering, Iron Chef styles, but nay. Another fetching presentation, he paired Niagara winter fruit with a butternut squash puree, yogurt and candied hazelnuts. Alongside it was my favourite beer of the evening, a deep and rich Great Lakes Harry Porter & The Bourbon Soaked Vanilla Bean. Smooth and balanced bitterness with a hint of sweet – like the evening, this sure went down well!
A glass of scotch from the large selection at Monarch Tavern to finish off the inaugural Toronto PopUp affair would have been a treat, but I had to get behind the wheel. I’m anticipating the monthly events that will follow, as new chefs will bring their chops and spirit to the plate. Next up is an all-raw vegetarian dinner. I’ve skeptically told Juliana it would be quite the compliment if such a supper impresses me. Alas, I’ve been proven wrong before.