It had to escape first, across town and out of the living time capsule, away from the tub tzatziki and the Krinos Taste of the Danforth defilements, out of scorning distance of the old men who’ve run the show for decades now, making the rules, setting the standards, slinging cheap meat on sticks and horiatiki salads bulked out with limp romaine.
First principles. Real chefs. For Greek cooking to catch up with the times in the city, it would have to be properly Greek: great ingredients, prepared with skill. None of this hyphenated Canadian compromise.
One year into its life, Mamakas, a modern taverna on Ossington Avenue, has begun to fulfill that promise. It is by far the best Greek restaurant in Toronto. It’s testament to what a touch of ambition and some distance from Danforth Avenue can do. The cooking is fresh, light, fantastically nuanced: the battered zucchini flowers a few weeks ago that burst with mint and citrus zest and the barnyard voluptuousness of melting mizithra goat’s cheese; the roasted baby eggplants so soft that they collapse into themselves, that are studded with chopped roasted walnuts, that you scoop with char-grilled pita; the tzatziki that you will dream of for weeks on end, just you and it, alone in the dark with a cold guilty smile and a spoon.
Yes, the tzatziki. Mamakas’s tzatziki is made with thick, tart yogurt, pressed so that its texture is full and rich, so it tastes like a sour-sweet-savoury gelato that somebody’s spiked with deep-green olive oil and cucumber and dill and fennel and a low, mellow hum of good local garlic. It’s round-flavoured and refreshing when most tzatziki is all hard edges and burpy garlic; when most tzatziki’s good only for choking the pork souvlaki down.
Even a dish as unassuming as taramosalata – fish roe dip – is an extraordinary thing here: briny-salty pale pink caviar pop smoothed out with whipped potato and olive oil, and brightened with torrents of lemon. I don’t know why it’s as incredible as it is, exactly, but both times I ate it I leaned toward the table next to us, wild-eyed and spluttering, and told them that they ought to order it and they could try ours if they liked.
Now imagine a table spread with all of that, and with grilled nectarines and halloumi, and a dandelion and pistachio salad seasoned with plum puree and Quebec seashore honey, and with cubes of grilled beef heart and a whole-grilled seabass basted with lemon and olive oil, and with great, gluggable, refreshingly minor Assyrtiko and Xinomavro wines that taste like a sun-soaked picnic on the sea. You still want that souvlaki platter from Mr. Greek?
Mamaka’s is owned by Thanos Tripi, a 40-year-old, first-generation Canadian who grew up in Thornhill but spent every summer with his grandparents in Greece. He patrols the room in designer sneakers and tailored T-shirts, with the sort of pride and knowing that you almost never see. The restaurant is long and narrow, a corner space with pine floors and whitewashed walls and polished copper pots hanging in the kitchen, all glowing warm incandescent from patio lights. The Greek words for “market and general store” are hand-lettered on the front window – the same logo that was on Mr. Tripi’s grandparents’ first store in Athens, after the war.
Mamakas is not the first Greek place in the city to try something different. There was Malena a few years back, on Avenue Road. It was sort of Greek but not entirely. It was a nice room, great wines, friendly service. Malena’s cooking was not good enough. There’s Estiatorio Volos in the financial district. Nice room, fine food, absolutely worth checking out if you’re in the neighbourhood. Paralia, in the Beaches, is alright – it’s better than the Danforth. But nowhere yet has been close to as good as this.
Mamakas took some time to find itself. This past April, Mr. Tripi hired the chef Chris Kalisperas – he’d been at Paralia, briefly – to run his kitchen. Mr. Kalisperas, it turns out, is a very good chef. His parents are from Cyprus. He’d been trapped in third-tier corporate restaurants for the better part of his career.
Mr. Kalisperas hired Danny Hassell, the chef de cuisine from Bar Buca, to join him. He also brought over Bar Buca’s smart and ambitious pastry chef Cora James, who took up her new post last month. This is what an all-star kitchen looks like.
The best way to do Mamakas is in a group of four; that way you can load your table with lots of tastes. Have the tzatziki, the taramosalata, the feta and fire-roasted peppers dip called kopanisti. “Try to imagine you’re at your Greek grandmother’s house,” our friendly server said.
The Mediterranean sea smelts, if they’re in season, are a must: They’re the tiny ones, about half the size of your pinkie, each of them, but rich and oily sweet, floured and deep-fried and sided with lemon wedges, mounded into a compulsively delicious pile.
The fried artichokes were terrific when I had them, the butterflied anchovies a rare but significant disappointment – one of them had turned limp and swampy. The keftedes – meatballs – were good, though far heavier on the cinnamon than necessary. Mamakas’s tomatoes right now come from Prince Edward County’s brilliant Vicki’s Veggies. These are epically tasty tomatoes. You should get to the restaurant quickly. You’re going to want to order Mamakas’s horiatiki. It is lettuce-less, of course.
Mains come à la carte, the portions smaller and pricier than you may be used to. That’s the trade-off for great ingredients and an all-star kitchen. It’s worth every penny, I think. The lamb chops were superb when I had them. They were small and pink-centred, buttery-tender, with a fringe of sweet, smoky fat. They’d been grilled hot and fast and tossed in herbs.
The roast chicken was excellent: juicy, simple, with piccalilli daubed on top. (This is common in Cyprus, thanks to the British influence there.) The grilled fish – Euro sea bass and snapper, the usual selection – is turned out nicely. It’s Greek food: They don’t burden the proteins with add-ons and fussiness. It’s well-sourced, well-handled fish with a sizzle of smoky char, a dusting of flake salt and caper leaves, a trickle of oil and a confident squeeze of lemon.
The whey-fed pork chop was cooked properly to medium, so that it was milky mild and pink and yielding, with mustard, nicely sour plums and dark-roasted onions. And while I love that they serve beef heart souvlaki here (but only sometimes; it’s off the menu at the moment), heart is tricky. The version I tried had been too long on the fire. This kitchen should be able to do it right – whatever “this kitchen” means, that is.
On the phone this week, Mr. Kalisperas said that Danny Hassell had just accepted the head chef’s job in the Entertainment District’s boutique Templar Hotel. It’s a great move for Mr. Hassell and the Templar, unfortunate for Mr. Kalisperas. Mr. Hassell will be hard to replace.
As for Cora James, she started at Mamakas less than two weeks before my final visit. Which is to say: It’s too early to judge her work. But there was plenty of promise in what we tried: a light and blissfully mild-tasting goat milk and vanilla ice cream; an excellent yellow plum sherbet, a baklava, made with rare restraint, that didn’t leave you gasping in diabetic shock. If Ms. James’s desserts reach the level of what she did at Bar Buca – and I expect that they will – afters will be one of the best things about eating here. (She’s also set to start making pitas in-house next week.)
My last time at Mamakas, we made a point of ordering much too much, so the table quickly ran out of space. We kept up, though, the four of us, eating and drinking and laughing with rare abandon. Mamakas is the sort of place that encourages that. It’s the sort of place that encourages inter-table conversations too.
The guy sitting at the next table turned toward us and said, “I can tell how much you love eating. What did you order?”
“Here,” I began. It felt in that moment as if maybe we all actually were in somebody’s Greek grandmother’s house. I looked around at the spread in front of us. “What do you want to try?”
- No stars: Not recommended.
- * Good, but won’t blow a lot of people’s minds.
- ** Very good, with some standout qualities.
- *** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
- **** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.