by John Ortved
Charcuterie may not be what first springs to mind when thinking about Toronto, but Canada's major metropolis is quickly becoming a destination point for carnivores seeking fresh cured meats. Two restaurants making their individual marks, The Black Hoof and Marben, stand out for not just what they're accomplishing local.
The Black Hoof (known by locals as simply "The Hoof") was opened in 2008 by Jenn Agg, who bemoaned the city's lack of a welcoming spot where meat cured in-house could be served alongside cocktails. Her search for a charcutier/garde manger led her to Grant van Gameron, who became the executive chef and co-owner.
At candle-lit wooden tables, fans of savory meats can delight in elegantly-presented tongue on brioche—served end-to-end—smoked sweetbreads or the raw horse sammy—an equine tribute to steak tartar. Bone marrow comes as a side dish and, combined with Agg's special touch with a cocktail shaker (her Manhattan is one of the best I've tasted), she can almost wrangle in the most rigid of vegans.
"Since we opened every casual and fine dining restaurant now has charcuterie in some form, but not house-made." says Agg. The Black Hoof's success has allowed Agg to open up a brunch spot, The Hoof Cafe, just across the street.
Along the western reaches of Wellington Street, there's Simon Benstead's Marben, a farmhouse restaurant boasting a head butcher—Ryan Donovan—as well as a head chef—Daniel Boulud-trained Carl Heinrich. Buying whole cows, they use all but one percent of the animal, embracing responsible and ethical means of food preparation.
Heinrich and Donovan have taken great care to cultivate relationships with their producers, constantly visiting the farms and personally investigating their sources. "The beef represents our closest relationship with a single family," says Donovan. "We use the Harrisons—Dennis and Denise. They have six kids and a small farm north of the city." He appreciates the care the Harrisons put into pasturing, as well as the fact that they live a very close distance to the slaughterhouse (its not uncommon for animals to travel 50 hours before slaughter) and dry-age their meat whole.
The result is delectable comfort classics, like John's Burger—stuffed with braised ribs, topped with local cheddar and decorated with Branston pickles—and Denise's Pork Belly—served atop delicate cucumber salad and scallions.
Photo at top left of The Black Hoof by VB Photography