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Ex-Thoroughbred space now a chill all-day snack spot with a democratic, educational way with wine — and a people-first approach to staffing
Grand Cru Deli (304 Richmond West, at John, 416-551-9221, grandcrudeli.com) is a deli, wine bar and café, with an on-site wine school thrown in to boot.
You could consider Grand Cru a revamping of recently closed snack bar Thoroughbred it’s located in the same converted house in the heart of the entertainment district, and chef-owner Ariel Coplan and chef James Kohls are still on board.
But aside from the dining room’s new coral paint job and groovy mural, visitors to Grand Cru will also notice a renewed focus on wine – thanks largely to partner and master sommelier Bruce Wallner, who runs the Sommelier Factory school located on the building’s top floor – and a new menu that leans on snacky, cheese and charcuterie-forward selections.
As front of house manager Alanna Stuart-Young tells it, “The question was: If we’re having a delicious bottle of wine, what do we want to eat with that delicious bottle of wine? The answer was, ‘I want to pick at this and that. I want a piece of meat, some cheese, some olives, some pickles.’ Well, what kind of cuisine is that? It’s a deli.”
The pan-European influences operating within deli-style eats meant that Coplan and Kohls could pull from a number of different recipes, global cuisines and flavour profiles. But more importantly, it played into the team’s larger goal of what Stuart-Young calls a “super-approachable and very friendly” environment.
That extends to the workplace culture as well as the customer experience. Coplan is the co-founder of Not 9 to 5, a non-profit that focuses on mental health and addictions within the hospitality industry.
“Restaurants are deeply flawed,” says Stuart-Young. “They’re not that regulated as compared to other industries. There’s a lot of abuse and addiction, mismanagement. Big problems that are deep-seated within the industry. Part of the idea behind this restaurant was to really talk about those issues and break them down.”
Among the changes they made: eliminating the usual hierarchy in favour of “front of house” and “back of house” designations, getting rid of tip-outs to the house and leaving the door open for staff to take mental health days.
Many of the staff from Thoroughbred carried over to the new spot – and with a whole sommelier school operating upstairs, there’s a think tank worth of newly minted sommeliers on the premises, which feeds nicely into the restaurant’s exploratory, educational approach to wine.
“You can come in as if you were a student and do a blind tasting, and some of the servers or sommeliers can come by and chat with you about that wine – why did you like it? What would we pair with it?” Stuart-Young says. The menu will always feature a few “surprise” glasses of wine, in case you want to flex your palate or just try something new and unexpected.
The approach to pricing is decidedly democratic, with bottles starting at around $35 and going up (way up, in some cases) from there. “What we want is accessible wine, wines that everybody can come and enjoy,” Wallner says, adding that they keep their mark up on the low side and try to maintain a healthy roster of by-the-glass options, including bubbly.
Of course, it’s not all booze. The coffee counter is open every morning starting at 8 am, non-alcoholic cocktails – featuring that ubiquitous booze-less spirit Seedlip – are on offer, and the staff are even looking into stocking some classic New York deli sodas (for all you Cel-Ray heads out there) in an effort to ensure non-drinkers feel just as welcome.
Since Grand Cru opened, the Somm Factory’s students have been coming down and hanging after class – and with exams and competitions coming up, people have been doing some extra, uh, cramming. “It’s like a big wine geek party every night,” Wallner says.
“The most important thing for us with the wines program is that it’s always interactive. ‘Let’s try this, let’s open that up, let’s have some fun.’ Because at the end of the day, wine has to be fun. If it’s more like you’re buying a car at the beginning of dinner, that’s not fun.”
Diners can build their own charcuterie plates: This one features Château de Bourgogne and Morbier cheeses, homemade orange marmalade, mustard, Blackbird sourdough, soppressata, housemade pickles and country pâté.
Salmon rillettes ($10) are topped with everything-bagel spice and chives and served with crème fraîche, alfalfa sprouts, pickled onion, cucumbers, sesame seed buckwheat bread and caraway rye. The restaurant also stocks Scout Canning’s preserved seafood (market price) – this one’s a colourful mussel escabeche.
The green salad ($12) is built on a base of vegan sunflower pesto and avocado green-goddess dressing and topped with radishes and chives.
The show-stopping muffuletta for two ($26) is packed with layers of deli meats, provolone and olive tapenade on a housemade bun.
If you have room for a side, try the ketchup chip-flavoured curly fries ($11).
The kohlrabi salad ($14) comes with shaved watermelon radish, pumpkin seeds, chives, tarragon and poppy seed vinaigrette.
For dessert: A banana caramel pudding with crispy wafer bits and rainbow sprinkles.
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