At the newly redesigned Marben, every item on the menu is named after someone: Marcus' Mushroom Fricassee, Dennis' Roasted Beef, Alex's Chilled Pea Soup. It's like being in a Times Square deli - try the Regis Philbin! - except you don't always know who you're eating.
Simon's Tortellini, we can surmise, are named after co-owner Simon Benstead. And Rodney's Oysters likely reference Rodney (the Oysterman) Clark, a well-known local bivalve dealer. But who exactly is Brent and why does he get stuck with the turnip salad?
"Brent is Brent Preston from New Farm in Creemore and he's the guy who grows our turnips," a patient, gracious server explains.
Even if you think turnip salad sounds like something that wicked stepparents feed to orphans, you've got to admire the guts of a restaurant willing to put such a humble dish on its menu. Besides, there's no need to worry about Brent: The kitchen does him proud, making a surprisingly good salad out of turnips, iceberg lettuce, celery leaves and ranch dressing. It's not the most colourful dish on the menu - white, black (from the ground pepper) and green - but it is light and refreshing and pretty in a minimalist sort of way on its long oval plate with thin slices of super-fresh turnips still wearing their little stem crowns.
It is a good sign when a restaurant can elevate such modest ingredients to such a high level and an accurate predictor in this case of some of the excellent food to come. The room, though, isn't so impressive.
Radically redesigned through an effort known as the Marben Project, which brought together artists, architects and tradesmen to completely revamp the space, the restaurant has gone from being a striking but dated room (fancy wallpaper, illuminated onyx, Ultrasuede seating) to resembling the inside of the Keebler Elves' tree house.
Reclaimed wood is everywhere, from the undulating birch-ply and barnboard sculpture that spans the dining room to the cabinet behind a little counter where they sell various pickles and preserves. More wood in the form of hand-lettered blocks spells out various messages ("We Heart Welly West") and frames the living wall of herbs and vegetables that screens the wooden patio.
Bare bulbs shine out from Mason jars, upturned champagne flutes and enormous balloon whisks. There's an oil-on-wood painting of a wolf attacking a rabbit and another portraying a Lara Flynn Boyle look-alike surrounded by kindly North American apex predators. Music from the more introspective end of the indie rock spectrum - The National, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses - is sing-along familiar to most of the restaurant's pop-savvy patrons.
And with the new look comes a new chef: Carl Heinrich, who brings a pretty impressive CV with him, having worked with Daniel Boulud in New York for several years and trained with Alain Ducasse and Georges Blanc. Ryan Donovan, formerly of Cowbell, is onboard as butcher and charcutier. (Ryan's Duck Terrine, an excellent, meaty slab enhanced with a bit of pork shoulder and the earthiness of mushrooms, is his eponymous menu contribution.)
They make a formidable team and are turning out some terrific food. A glistening fillet of trout (Giggie's) is sprinkled with fleur de sel and draped over a fresh salad. A sweet, vegetal antipasto gives the dish body while a wiggle of aioli harmonizes the components. Marianne's Duck Breast, meanwhile, is cooked sous vide to a ruby centre and then seared to give the skin a shattering crust. It comes dressed in a complex, expertly balanced honey gastrique (a sauce made by deglazing caramel - or, in this case, honey - with vinegar). Creamy succotash plays the supporting role, but nearly steals the show with its deep savoury/sweet corn goodness.
Not everything reaches those heights, though. Sam's Cucumber Salad with tiny heirloom tomatoes just sits there like so much cucumber and tomato. A more assertive dressing is needed to give the dish some life. Similarly, Jesse's Halibut would be a nice example of spa food, delicate and fresh in its mild, vegetable-studded shellfish broth, but the fish is badly overcooked.
The name game continues with dessert and while there are only two on the menu, they are both excellent. Ervinna's highly touted ice cream sandwich is a study in chocolate overkill. A pair of dense chocolate chocolate-chip cookies enclose a filling of chocolate ice cream. Two sauces, hot fudge and crème anglaise, share the plate and are there for your dipping pleasure. It is delicious but can lead to near-homicidal chocolate endorphin rushes in those unaccustomed to such excess. More restrained but no less delicious are Lynn's warmed summer fruits: strawberries, cherries and blueberries poured over a velvety bread pudding and served with two mini-scoops of excellent strawberry ripple ice cream and a lacy almond tuile.
While your reaction to the dining room will have a lot to do with your tolerance for lumber, there is little doubt that the revamped menu has made what was already a very good neighbourhood restaurant very nearly great.
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