Fine dining isn’t disappearing. It is transforming into something fresh, as self-determining restaurateurs just keep changing and redefining it with new concepts and interactive experiences. But what is driving the change?
As independent restaurant concepts continue to evolve, changing demand creates the need for new ways to enhance the customer experience. Restaurants that continue to grow and even prosper are usually the ones that are most willing and readily able to adapt to changing trends. Today’s modern restaurants are about feasting, sharing, authenticity, quality ingredients and celebrating the craft and tradition of farmers, chefs, winemakers and brewers. We are living in an age when pioneering chefs wield unprecedented influence, and some of the most innovative among them are finding original ways to utilize unfamiliar and largely neglected ingredients.
To stay at the top of their game savvy restaurateurs revamp and rethink their whole approach to their restaurant on a continuing basis. This is the story of two independent restaurants with big reputations on a similar trajectory. On the surface they may seem dissimilar. Yet they have a lot in common, appealing to both food enthusiasts and connoisseurs who enjoy participating in their own culinary experiences.
The Only On King recently went through a brief refurbishment and relaunched under the acronym TOOK. The relaunch included a makeover, rebranding, unveiling new menus, expanding the business hours, offering lunch Tuesday through Friday, and adding take-away options including coffee and fresh pastries. The updated interior is striking with lots of farm-to-table touches and handcrafted accents by local artisans.
TOOK, with its fully realized farm-to-table philosophy, dedicated acknowledgement of the local terroir and support of local farmers and producers, remains in the vanguard of the righteous modern Ontario restaurant.
Chef/owner Paul Harding brings many years of experience to this new venture. His commitment to using locally sourced ingredients on his menu hasn’t changed and the restaurant continues to serve some of its classic signature dishes. Chef is known for traditional farmstead practices such as pickling, brining, curing and ageing. There are antipasto, truffles, organic beef, organic pork, black cod and sheep’s milk ricotta together with more modest ingredients that are conferred equal reverence, and multi-cultural culinary treatments. TOOK is now open late into the evening with an expanded cocktail and beer menu to coincide with the fresh approach to casual late night dining.
TOOK’s dinner service focuses on a well-chosen but limited selection of bigger plates and an assortment of smaller tapas-style offerings divided into categories which include snacks, soil, sea, land and sweet stuff. This menu style proves to be infinitely versatile by accommodating almost every culinary tradition and the shareable plates allow diners to eat communally and sample a variety of items. It also allows diners the opportunity to curate their own tasting experience, either by ordering a selection of dishes to share, or enjoying their appetizers as entrées and vice versa.
Some of the recent menu items include sheep’s milk ricotta gundi (gnocchi-like dumplings) with red sauce and fresh basil; miso marinated black cod with pickled mushrooms and a kimchi burger with organic pork and beef patty with cilantro lime mayo. These types of modern menus remain important tools for chefs to communicate their ethos to their customers.
The other relaunch in downtown London is an updated, re-imagined Kantina — which has, after more than five years, evolved and morphed into Black George. The vibe at Black George is hip and edgy while the food is modern, rustic and playful. Owner Miljan Karac built the former Kantina’s stellar reputation on innovative Balkan-inspired cuisine, prepared from scratch with farm-to-table ideals.
The newly refurbished space has a clean, minimal style with whitewashed bricks and higher ceilings with dangling red cords and bare bulbs. The updated interior is even more casual, with less formal service than the former incarnation. It is the natural evolution and maturing of Karac as an innovator and restaurateur.
Black George similarly showcases original cuisine with small, shareable plates — tapas-style. In order to fully experience the concept, your dishes are served as they are prepared, with understated confidence by Chef Courtney Noble. The Stratford Chef School alumna runs a focused kitchen and all items are made in-house and bear her stamp. Her personalized dishes underscore a passion for big flavours and a respect for farm fresh, seasonally appropriate foods.
The restaurant’s most popular dish, and its namesake, comes with its own symbolic narrative. Legend has it when Serbia was under Soviet rule a high ranking official visited a local restaurant and ordered Chicken Kiev. The chef dared not disappoint but didn’t have all the ingredients to prepare the dish. Instead, he created a rolled, fried schnitzel and called it the Karadjordje (Black George) after the first elected leader of the First Serbian Uprising that liberated Serbia from the Ottoman Empire, and who became a national hero.
On a recent visit, the deep-fried Black George arrived at the table cut in half, with its creamy filling oozing out onto the plate. I tasted it and admired how the combination of flavours — the buttery clotted cream-like kaymak, the tenderized pork and the melt-in- your-mouth ham blend so perfectly. The dish was served with roasted potatoes, baby heirloom carrots and cubes of knobby kohlrabi, that suddenly ubiquitous cultivar of cabbage.
The new menu combines old favourites with some inspired recent additions. We love the house-made duck sausage with kale pesto and risotto. In Noble’s hands, warm feta and lemon dip with olive oil and chickpea flatbread tastes like a deconstructed version of the Greek fried cheese appetizer saganaki. An appetizer of kataifi-wrapped (phyllo pastry that looks like shredded wheat) tiger shrimp with cocktail sauce and avocado purée remains the perfect amalgam of flavours and textures. There is a chilled, layered and luxurious lemon meringue parfait served in a mason jar which has both sweet and savoury components. The salted caramel pot au crème becomes a hedonistic experience after the first spoonful.
Black George and TOOK are independent businesses that thrive on creativity, dedication and commitment enhanced by well-honed and sophisticated culinary points of view. Both restaurants continue to be meccas for serious food enthusiasts. Karac and Harding seem to be directing their attention to growing successful, sustainable businesses — based on renewed strategies for winning customers by staying on top of evolving trends while remaining true to their strengths and culinary philosophies.
Many new restaurant concepts are shedding everything that is superfluous and ingrained about guests’ fine dining perceptions. What’s left is understated and confident, genuinely hospitable and fueled with the life blood of culinary skill, craftsmanship and authenticity.
349 Talbot Street, London
Tuesday–Thursday: 5:30–9 pm
Friday & Saturday: 5:30–10:30 pm
Private bookings available Sunday & Monday
TOOK (The Only On King)
172 King Street,London
Tuesday–Thursday: 11 am–10 pm
Friday: 11 am–1 am
Saturday: 5 pm–1 am
BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.