Since opening its doors nearly a year ago, the Aga Khan Museum has been a cultural hit. It’s brought 100,000-plus visitors to its Don Mills location for events and exhibitions. The facility itself, designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki, is breathtaking, from the landscaped green space that surrounds the property to the reflective pools.
Diwan, the restaurant in the museum, has been less successful, and has undergone a number of transformations in its infancy. Since September, Diwan has been quietly helmed by Mark McEwan, the chef whose culinary empire includes North 44, One, ByMark, Fabbrica, a sprawling catering division and two grocery outlets. The museum hopes he will bring stability and consistent quality to its marquee dining room.
Mr. McEwan inherits a space that had been run by Pat Riley, who earned praise for his ambitious tasting menu at Perigee in the Distillery District. At Diwan, he broadly highlighted the food of the Muslim world. But plates of spiced-rubbed steaks and sumac-glazed salmon didn’t always resonate with diners. Many felt that he was holding back, toning it down while the city has been having a love affair with a vast range of Middle Eastern flavours and foods. Earlier this year, The Globe’s restaurant critic Chris Nuttall-Smith wrote: “You couldn’t taste any joy or skill or love. … That’s not good enough for Toronto in 2015.” Mr. Riley left the restaurant in June and the freelance chef Terry Port took over briefly for the summer as a consultant.
In Mr. McEwan, Diwan has a celebrity chef who is primarily known for his upscale fine-dining concepts. Recent years have seen him try out different cuisines. At McEwan Don Mills, he spread his wings with a sushi bar. With McEwan TD Centre, he launched a South Asian-inspired hot counter.
At Diwan, the McEwan Group has shaped a menu that includes dishes such as naan-wrapped chicken tikka masala with mango chutney and mint-cucumber raita. During both of my lunch visits – there is currently no dinner service – the lamb kibbeh was sold out and plates of beef shish kebab with roasted beets and hummus were racing out of the kitchen.
Mr. McEwan and corporate executive chef Andrew Ellerby spoke to The Globe at the restaurant about their latest endeavour.
You took over Diwan last month, but I understand your team has been cooking here for quite some time.
Mark McEwan: We started here as a caterer a year ago. It was a very natural fit. We’re really good executors – that was the problem here, the execution of the food.
Andrew Ellerby: We did McEwan-style food with elements of Middle Eastern food.
M.M.: It was very much geared to ward the ethnicity of the crowd.
And this is your first time doing a Middle Eastern restaurant?
M.M.: Yes this was our first stab at it. It’s been a good four weeks, we’re doing 90 to 100 lunches a day.
A.E.: It’s a more intense studying of the cuisine with an intense look into that part of the world. We’ve used many elements of this style of cuisine in the catering. This is the next progression.
Okay, but in terms of authenticity, how do you think diners react to knowing that you’re cooking Middle Eastern, but your cultural background doesn’t reflect that?
M.M.: We’re not claiming to be anything. We’re claiming to be students of the cuisine, and respectfully so. We’re not going out and bragging about it or misrepresenting ourselves. We did it with Italian at Fabbrica. We received a few comments from some people, but I also heard from nonnas in Woodbridge that they loved the food. It is genuine and straightforward. We have to live through the commentary.
A.E.: If you look at the menu here, you’ll notice that I consciously didn’t put the word authentic in it. I’m not Middle Eastern, I’m not of that descent. But there’s some great thought put behind the flavours and the combinations of what we’re doing. We did a lot of testing, eating and research.
Couldn’t someone else have come to Diwan with more authenticity and experience with the cuisine?
M.M.: The museum made their decision from a management standpoint that they want people who can operate and deliver. They’re tired of the story that it looks good, sounds good, but is never realized. But we were using sumac at North 44 15 years ago. We really genuinely like Middle Eastern flavours.
What are some of your favourite Middle Eastern restaurants in Toronto?
A.E.: We both love Kadbanu, the Pomegranate and Byblos.
So how did a South Asian-focused hot counter come about at McEwan TD Centre?
A.E.: A lot of the stuff Shen Ousmand has put on the hot table were based on staff meals at ByMark, things his mom cooked at home. It was incredible, so we wanted him to put it on the menus at the downtown McEwan.
M.M.: It’s not about me all the time. We have a very good pond that we all swim in. If they bring something forward and it has the proper quality level and can deliver, we put it on. Also, the diner’s palate is constantly evolving, I’m trying to keep up with that evolution.
How collaborative, then, is the process of what you're doing at Diwan?
M.M.: Our kitchen is diverse, and we’re able to pull from their backgrounds and experiences. We have a cook from Aleppo in Syria, Rim Mossa, who’s contributed to the menu.
What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
M.M.: A lot of basic ethnic cooking is not the prettiest looking product on the plate. You have to fight that as a chef because you’re always thinking, well, we want to make it different, make it look better. That’s what we’ve tried to avoid. Be genuine about it and put it out. Especially with the store downtown, that was a really good testing ground for us. What we learned there is what we’re applying here. As the diners eat the food, we’re going to continue to adjust the food and keep our ear to the track. See what works, and see how authentic we can be.
Diwan, 77 Wynford Dr., 416-646-4670, agakhanmuseum.org/dine
This interview has been edited and condensed.