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Inexpensive nostalgia, in the form of soups, sandwiches and simple veggie dishes, is on the menu at this reinvention of Hello Darling
Donna’s (827 Lansdowne, at Wallace, 416-536-1414, donnas.ca) is a lunch and dinner spot from Momofuku alumni Ann Kim, Jed Smith and Peter Jensen.
It’s the trio’s first outing as restaurant owners, and with that kind of pedigree, you might expect Donna’s to be some bombastic snack bar with outrageous plating and 13-ingredient cocktails. Instead, it’s a refreshingly pared-back spot in the vein of its predecessor, brunch joint Hello Darling. The white walls and wood bench seating are still there, now splashed with mango orange and raspberry red, with a collection of houseplants in mismatched vintage crockery strewn about the space and a 70s playlist pumping on the speakers.
The menu, too, is homey and humble, with soups, salads and sandwiches forming the cornerstone of the menu. The priciest item, at $32, is a beautiful sole served bone-in (plus a side of pan-fried sprouts) that could easily feed two.
“We wanted to have a place where everyone could come,” Kim says, adding that the three of them had, in the past, all found themselves working at places they couldn’t afford to visit on a cook’s salary.
“I think bringing [our] level of culinary training and skill to a much broader audience was really important for us, too – and being able to have our friends come by and have a good time, seeing people more often than if we were slaving away 13 hours a day for someone else,” Kim says.
Work-life balance was also a big factor: Kim and Jensen are married with young kids and live in the neighbourhood.
“I knew I needed to create a space for myself to work as a mother in this industry,” Kim says. “It’s really great that I get to work around people who are so awesome, and I can come to work every day and have a great day.”
“We all got to a point where it was time to not work for anyone else,” Smith adds. “We wanted to create something for ourselves and for our future – and for the neighbourhood’s future.”
To that end, they’re offering unfussy dishes that cater to office workers on lunch break and locals looking for a decent dinner on a dime, with English and Danish flourishes that nod to Smith and Jensen’s backgrounds.
“We wanted to get something that we used to have at home when we were kids. You can’t really get a lot of the things we’re making in Toronto because they’re too niche – too English or too Danish,” Smith says.
Now that they’re two months into opening, the menu is starting to evolve gradually, but that home-cooked feel is here to stay.
“I think the beauty of it is that everything is very simple: That’s a salad, that’s a piece of pork,” Smith says. There’s no hiding behind anything.”
From the lunch menu: The shrimp salad sandwich ($13), served on a vintage shrimp plate, is made with mayonnaise, cayenne, lemon juice, dill and iceberg lettuce on a toasted potato roll.
The short rib soup ($15) features beef short rib braised in chicken and beef stock with kombu, roasted turnips, lima beans, green chili and a pickled green chili dressing. Bread from Paris Paris is served on the side.
Smith says the leafy salad ($10), available at both lunch and dinner, is the sleeper hit of the menu. “It looks very unassuming, but it’s everybody’s favourite.” In addition to pickled beans, eggs and croutons, there’s a brown-butter-soy-sauce dressing for richness and umami.
The sole for two ($32) is cooked on the bone and topped with a shallot, white wine and red pepper sauce, and served with sautéed brussels sprouts.
The roast pork plate ($15) is the dinner menu’s answer to Donna’s ham plate dish. The pork is served chilled with endive, tarragon and a dressing made with smoked fish oil. (“It’s got a bit of a tonnato vibe,” Smith says.)