Nathan Isberg

The Dish

Restaurants

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Summerlicious: dignified dining program or “cash-grabby food factory”?

(Image: Winter/Summerlicious/Facebook)

(Image: Winter/Summerlicious/Facebook)

The idea of dining out on the cheap is nice, but what is Summerlicious like from the restaurant’s perspective? Sure, bargain meals help bring in business, but there are not-so-great tradeoffs, like stress, boredom and uncertain financial rewards (it costs over $1,150 just to participate). So, is it worth it? We got in touch with some chefs and restaurateurs to find out.

The Loyalist

image“The Fifth has enjoyed a long relationship with Summerlicious. It has been very beneficial to us, because it exposes the restaurant to a new group of dinner guests. With the backing of the city and the media exposure, we get a chance to reach out to guests who may under normal circumstances not join us.”

—Brad Livergant, chef at The Fifth


The Pragmatists

(Image: Nota Bene)“At Nota Bene, we never felt that we had to create such a program. But then we had a conversation about Summerlicious and thought that maybe we were missing out on opportunities. It’s more about promotion for us, and in that regard I think it has worked very well. We’ve introduced a lot of people to the restaurant. The profit margins aren’t as great as they could be, but we consider it an opportunity for people to discover Nota Bene.”

—Yannick Bigourgan, co-owner at Nota Bene

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People

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Q&A: Nathan Isberg, the Toronto restaurateur who doesn’t really believe in menus, set prices or restaurants

(Image: Jon Sufrin)

(Image: Jon Sufrin)

Around four years ago, Nathan Isberg opened The Atlantic, a stark, uncompromising seafood spot on Dundas West, near Brock Avenue. The cerebral chef has always had a soft spot for experimentation: he likes cooking with crickets (his latest invention: cricket charcuterie) and prefers to serve diners himself, rather than hire a formal waitstaff. Earlier this month, he took his knack for defying convention one step further by ditching the concept of the menu altogether. Now, Isberg cooks whatever he feels like cooking, and he requests that diners pay whatever they feel like paying in return—whether it’s cash, a piece of art or a great massage. We met with Isberg to chat about the business of dining out, his radical new restaurant model and why he doesn’t really like restaurants.

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Features

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The Year in Dining: our chief critic dishes on the city’s big food trends


Crostino with egg from Brockton General; Cheese from Enoteca Sociale; Bitter greens got some love; Beau's craft beer from Zócalo; Porchetta and Co.'s sandwich

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Features

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Modern comforts: Chris Nuttall-Smith takes on Woodlot and Ici Bistro

Two neighbourhood restaurants serve up light-handed renditions of our rib-sticking favourites

(Image: Vanessa Heins)

The comfort food revolution has brought us much to be thankful for, including cheaper, more casual restaurants, and the glories of deep-fried mac-and-cheese, but it hasn’t exactly delivered a surge of culinary innovation. Spurred on by a sputtering economy, the comfort trend spawned a wave of barbecue joints, gourmet burger shops, neighbourhood pubs and by-the-book bistros, and it introduced childhood-evoking staples like cookies and milk to scores of restaurant menus where the “licorice root, three ways” used to be. It offered certainty when everything else around us seemed ready to collapse, not only for diners but for restaurateurs, too.

Comfort eating, like love and psychotherapy, is driven by equal measures of longing (for simpler times) and industrial-grade denial (s’mores are less fattening when they’re made with single-estate chocolate from São Tomé), powerful motivators both. So most chefs have been happy to feed our cravings without letting their own high-minded notions get in the way.

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The Dish

Openings

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Introducing: Brockton General, Dundas West’s new snack bar

The day's menu is written by the chef before service (Image: Karon Liu)

Adding to the influx of small, simple restaurants in the city is Dundas West’s week-old, low-key snack bar Brockton General (staff: three, dishwashers: zero). As the chef, Guy Rawlings, explains, opening a room that seats 30 means less bureaucratic finagling. Look at Nathan Isberg’s similar setup a few blocks down at The Atlantic.

Friends and first-time restaurateurs Pam Thomson and Brie Read found the space on Craigslist in June (it was previously a Portuguese sports bar) and hired Rawlings (Cowbell, Célestin) to man the small kitchen. Each night, Rawlings writes the menu, starring produce found at Downsview Park’s urban farm, on a roll of chart paper hung on a blank wall. On one visit, it included two appetizers and three mains—all under $20—in the nose-to-tail Cowbell tradition. Tagliatelle with wild boar’s head, anyone?

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Features

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Fisherman’s Friends: Chris Nuttall-Smith reviews Maléna and The Atlantic

The season’s most anticipated openings are two seafood-centric spots

Maléna at Av and Dav (Image: Ryan Szulc)

Toronto is a raw bar town. We’re over-served by excellent oyster houses, and we probably consume more sushi per capita than any city east of Vancouver. But cooked fish is a problem here; we’ve never had a standout seafood spot. This spring, Nathan Isberg, of Czehoski and Coca fame, opened what early adopters described as a nose-to-tail disciple’s take on the life aquatic on Dundas West. And in Yorkville, a neighbourhood that’s desperate for a few more decent places to eat, front-of-house kings David Minicucci and Sam Kalogiros launched Maléna, a flashy fish spot. It looked like Toronto might finally turn into a seafood town.

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The Dish

Neighbourhoods

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The Dundas West Guide: our 21 favourite places between Ossington and Lansdowne

The strip of Dundas West between Ossington and Lansdowne has not been immune to the wild gentrification going on directly south of it. New restaurants, stores and bars have been cropping up for the past couple of years (Red Canoe, a swank Canadiana shop, opened two weeks ago), but there is a hesitation in the ’hood to turn Little Portugal and Brockton Village into the next Ossington. Incoming business owners make a point of blending in with the long-standing family-owned bakeries, soccer bars and pho stops. Even in new establishments, the decor has a thrift shop feel, and the prices cater to locals rather than destination diners. From east to west, here are our 21 favourite Dundas West spots for cheap eats, good music and authentic Portuguese cuisine.

The Dish

Openings

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Just Opened: Atlantic, where Nathan Isberg goes from Coca to crickets

Devotion to the ocean: Nathan Isberg at his new restaurant, Atlantic

There are two things that chef Nathan Isberg kept in mind when opening his new restaurant: he wanted to do it without investors and stay away from condo-land or whatever is deemed “the next big neighbourhood.” That’s why he snatched up a 33-year-old sports bar at Brock and Dundas West after biking past it last summer. With an initial budget of $600, he gradually transformed it into the cozy nautical-themed tapas-style restaurant now known as Atlantic.

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The Dish

Openings

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Ex-Coca chef Nathan Isberg to open new restaurant on Dundas West

Nathan Isberg goes it alone on Dundas West (Image: Renée Suen)

It’s been a year since Coca closed under shady circumstances, and now its chef, Nathan Isberg, is opening his own place, Atlantic, along the rapidly hipifying stretch of Dundas West near Brock Avenue. Isberg says that the new spot is similar to Coca (the food, he means, not the investors who allegedly screwed over the staff). “The menu is going to be flexible in the first while as I play around, but it’ll be Italian based with Moorish flavorings—northern African spices,” he says. “It’s like Coca but more modest and spicier and a little lower on the food chain. By that, I mean there’s no beef or pork or charcuterie. There’s going to be a bit of seafood, but it’s more focused on produce.”

Isberg says the doors will be officially open by April 6.

The Dish

Restaurants

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It’s official: Coca has closed for good

This is goodbye: The tapas bar once known as Coca bows out (Photo by John Hritz)

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye: tapas bar Coca bows out (Photo by John Hritz)

After a saga of financial woes, the sudden departure of a star chef and an unexpected shutdown in March, the official word on Coca’s fate is finally out: the restaurant will not reopen, and plans of renewal have been shelved. When we last checked in on the Coca fiasco, chef Nathan Isberg (who left the restaurant after a break with management in November) was weighing his options. Should he go his own way, or get back in the overheated kitchen with one of Coca’s investors? When a letter was posted last week, indicating the site’s seizure by the landlord, we talked to Isberg to find out what went wrong.

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The Dish

Random Stuff

Comments

Loss of appetite: It’s a double whammy for restaurants as their Bay Street backers go broke

The centre of the universe: Bay Street goes gastronomical (Photo by Jim U)

The centre of the universe: Bay Street goes gastronomical (Photo by Jim U)

There’s no question that investing in a restaurant is a high-risk venture. That said, many of the city’s swankiest downtown dining rooms are partially owned by investment-savvy Bay Streeters—those who should be the first to spot a bum deal. Czehoski, Centro, Six Steps and the aptly named Bottom Line are just a few of the dining establishments fed by Bay Street assets. It is no coincidence, then, that Toronto’s golden age of culinary evolution matched up with a golden age of culinary investment. In the boom times, an underperforming investment (even if it was a restaurant) was compensated by market gains. But when the TSX started to slide last year, restaurants got a double whammy: not only were expense accounts drying up, but so was investment capital. Suits who diversified into the restaurant industry suffered, too, prompting us to ask, why keep investing in restaurants?

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The Dish

Restaurants

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Tip of the Isberg: Coca’s fate is in the hands of its one-time chef

Nathan Isberg ponders his future (Photo by Renée Suen)

Nathan Isberg ponders his future (Photo by Renée Suen)

When we asked whether Coca’s surprise shutdown signalled closure or reincarnation, we didn’t know that its management was wondering exactly the same thing. The now-shuttered restaurant will either reopen as an entirely new enterprise, or not at all. But there is some good news. If the spot has gone downhill since losing its signature chef, Nathan Isberg, it might make hipsters swoon again: estranged from Coca since an unceremonious split from investors back in November, Isberg was surprised to get a call asking him to come back and shape an entirely new venture in the same space. Burned by bad politics and immersed in new endeavours, though, the young chef now faces a dilemma. His choice may decide the project’s ruin or renewal.

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The Dish

Restaurants

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What’s become of Coca?

The interior of Coca (Photo by Riley)

The interior of Coca (Photo by Riley)

Last night, we noticed that the windows of the trendy tapas bar Coca had been papered over. Though it was open on Friday, its phone now rings into eternity and its Web site is off-line. But devotees should remain calm. Though we can’t confirm, a tip from former affiliate restaurant Czehoski tells us that Coca is not a recession sob story. (The two spots were formerly associated by ownership under Brad Denton and the shared culinary custody of chef Nathan Isberg.) A Czehoski insider claims that Coca is slated for a major overhaul that will include a large-scale renovation and a name change. Sometimes referred to as Czehoski West, the restaurant may be seeking to assert a new—and distinct—identity. With buzz building, we’re wondering just what the lockdown means. Is this the unceremonious end of the strip’s beloved Coca cabana, or is it just a reinvention? Stay tuned. For further developments, check out our latest dispatch.

The Dish

Restaurants

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Guess who’s coming to dinner: Queen West restaurants are under siege by child critics

Parkdale kids are to eat their way along Queen West (Photo by Ramon Abasolo)

Parkdale kids are to eat their way along Queen West (Photo by Ramon Abasolo)

Continuing its “performance art that doesn’t suck” mandate, activist group Mammalian Diving Reflex is teaming up again with the students at Parkdale Public School. The last time, it was for haircuts; this time, it’s to eat their way down Queen Street in the name of art. For the campaign, appropriately called Parkdale Public School vs. Queen Street West Part 2, the “Pumas” (the name given to the school’s teams) are pitted against selected Queen West restaurants. The kids will eat, then write up show-no-mercy reviews to be posted on the event’s blog.

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