771 Dundas St. W. (at Markham Street), 416-366-2268, no web
A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip
77 Wynford Dr. (in the Aga Khan Museum), 416-646-4670, agakhanmuseum.org/dine
A friend whose parents left Tehran for North America in the 1970s was telling me the other week about one of the differences between the crowd at Takht-e Tavoos, the extraordinary Iranian home-cooking restaurant on College Street, and the one at the newer, more contemporary Kadbanu, on Dundas West.
The friend speaks Farsi; she is a sociologist who studies the Iranian diaspora. The young recent immigrants she knows don't want Tavoos's complex offal soups made from historical recipes and its mash-it-yourself stews served in stone pots. They didn't come all the way to Canada to eat Old Country food.
They want modern, casual cooking with familiar Iranian flavours, but also a touch of cosmopolitanism – the sort you find at Kadbanu.
The café and restaurant, a spinoff of Banu Iranian Kabob and Vodka Bar, opened late last summer in a cheery room near Bathurst Street. The space is bright, with double-height glass to the north and west and an enormous skylight. It's done entirely in white, but with azure accents from hand-painted pottery, and up above the bar, a stack of colourful Persian alphabet blocks from the modernist design firm Golreezan. Sure enough, there was a table filled with young Iranian-Canadians in lumberjack shirts and watchman caps the last time I went.
The flavours are in large part fresh and light. There are superb sandwiches by day, made with crisp, sesame-crusted barbari, the Persian flatbread. I liked the gorgeous simplicity of the version made with tangy sheep's milk cheese, fresh mint and ripe tomatoes, and fell hard for the beef tongue sandwich, which gets extra pop from its wide, thin slices of salty, briny (but not sweet) dill pickles.
The smoked eggplant and tomato stew called mirza ghasemi is terrific, its flavours simultaneously bright and mellow, with just enough warming punch from garlic and a sunny-side up egg on top. The gheymeh stew uses yellow split peas and beef shank instead of eggplant, and is flavoured with the aromatic sour of dried limes; it's tasty, comforting stuff.
Have a dish of the pickled vegetables, as well as a bowl of herbed yogurt, and some cherry juice or the classic tea with cardamom, served in thin, straight-sided glasses on intricately patterned copper trays. And be sure to order chef Cosimo Trichilo's tahchin. Tahchin is made from basmati rice, yogurt and sliced chicken, which are baked in a mould, like a cake, until the inside is steamy and fragrant and the exterior browns to a toasty, white-starch crunch. Kadbanu's gracious owner, Salome Mohyeddin, serves it in slices with tart butter-fried barberries on top. Like everything else here, it goes for impossibly cheap.
I love Tavoos. I also love Kadbanu. There is plenty of room in this city for both.
In the four years between the foundation-marking ceremony for Toronto's new Ismaili Centre and the opening last summer of the 17-acre campus, the centre's architecture soaked up most of the attention. It was hard to miss: the prayer hall that rose like a shimmering glass and steel pyramid beside the Don Valley Parkway, where once the only view was office buildings; the flatter, wide-slung Aga Khan museum, with its luminous hexagonal skylights and its white granite skin that seems as though it's been folded in places, origami-like.
In all that time it didn't once strike me that a cultural centre of such ambition and importance might also include a restaurant. Diwan, which opened last October, came as a happy surprise, and not merely for its existence. The 80-seat room is more than a place to eat – its aim is to celebrate foods and cooking from across the Muslim world. With the chef Pat Riley, the centre's management hired a serious talent to bring that vision alive.
Mr. Riley made his name running Perigee, an influential tasting-menu restaurant in the Distillery District. After he left near the end of the aughts, he bounced between corporate jobs in less vaunted kitchens; his last two gigs were as executive chef behind SIR Corp's. Far Niente and its grab-and-go Four brand. Yet Mr. Riley also grew up eating Lebanese home cooking from his mother and grandmother. He was hired, one presumes, not merely for his résumé, but also because of his familiarity with some of the tastes the restaurant's management hoped to recreate.
There is enough good cooking on Mr. Riley's Iranian- and Turkish-heavy menu to reward a visit, if you don't have far to travel. The kibbeh, which are quenelles of mint and cinnamon-spiced ground lamb, coarse bulgur wheat and a fruit-forward kick from chopped dates, are superb here. They come both deep-fried, which makes them crisp and accents their darker, savoury flavours, and raw, which allows the mild, gently gamy character of the lamb to shine.
The mezze platter one night recently tasted like an eating binge through a busy spice market; it was stocked with sheets of the richly meaty Egyptian cured beef called basturma, with bright-flavoured artichoke and fennel slaw, with rice-stuffed zucchini rounds that had been poached in tomato sauce, with salted figs and pickles, the lamb dumplings called kofte, some of those lamb kibbeh and with good satay chicken. At $14, this was a bargain.
Another platter, of Turkish pastries, was lukewarm and leaden, mostly, and the platter's "tomato jam" was all but indistinguishable from the tomato paste you buy in tiny cans.
Mr. Riley's "duck breast with walnut and pomegranate," a modern take on Iran's celebrated fesenjan stew, was over salted. Its sauce had a faint but persistent metallic taste. The duck was seared and sliced – totally, forgettably decent. The dish carried little of the depth or tart-sweet- brooding character that makes traditional fesenjan so good.
The "tuna loin with Moroccan spices" didn't taste particularly Moroccan; dressed with a few green beans, minted potatoes, olives and a soft-yolked egg, it was salade niçoise, but heavy on the tuna (too heavy; the portion was ridiculous). And the green beans had been cooked for so long that they'd nearly turned to mush.
Another dish, of braised lamb shank and apricot-studded couscous, reminded me of convention centre business lunches, made by the numbers for banquet hall bun-tosses. It wasn't at all awful, but like so much of the cooking here, you couldn't taste any joy or skill or love. As for the desserts: I wouldn't bother.
That's not good enough for Toronto in 2015. It's not good enough for an out-of-the-way complex that most people have to drive to – not when the likes of Takht-e Tavoos, Kadbanu, Byblos, Paramount Fine Foods, Anatolia, Arz, Patisserie Royale and scores of other places both downtown and in the suburbs do a far better job.
To Mr. Riley's credit, he seemed aware of these issues when I spoke with him this week, and the restaurant is about to switch to lunch only while it gets the kinks worked out. I hope it succeeds.
The architecture here is truly exquisite. There's no reason the food can't be nearly as good.
- Cuisine: Iranian
- Atmosphere: A modern, sunlit Iranian café and restaurant with a full bar. Gracious service.
- Wine and drinks: Good tea and doogh, the salted yogurt drink, as well as cherry and pomegranate juice, the usual soft drinks and Persian cocktails.
- Best bets: The $12 daytime soup and sandwich specials; try the eggplant stew, split pea stew and tahchin.
- Prices: Cheap.
- NB: Hours can vary, especially in winter weather; call ahead. Vegetarian-friendly.
- Cuisine: Middle Eastern, North African.
- Atmosphere: A large, welcoming room decorated with 19th-century wood panels from Syria. Impressive outdoor views.
- Wine and drinks: A short but nicely chosen wine list, priced reasonably.
- Best bets: The daily mezze platter, Iranian chilled yogurt soup, kibbeh, lamb shank.
- Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $16; mains, $24 to $38.
- NB: Vegetarian-friendly and wheelchair-accessible.
- 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.