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MARBEN (488 Wellington West, at Portland, 416-979-1990, marbenrestaurant.com) Complete dinners for $50 per person (lunches/brunches $30), including tax, tip and a pint. Average main $18/$12. Open Tuesday to Thursday 11 am to 11 pm, Friday 11 am to 2 am, Saturday 10 am to 2 am, Sunday 10 am to 11 pm; brunch Saturday and Sunday till 3 pm. Closed Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: seven steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Marben chef Carl Heinrich can't come to the phone just now.
"Can he call you back?" says the voice down the line. "He's right in the middle of butchering a wild boar."
Aren't we all? Seems you can't swing a leg of locally grown grass-fed preservative-free lamb these days without hitting yet another rustic back-to-the-land cantina, whether it's Woodlot, Black Hoof or Cowbell. Heinrich and ex-Healthy Butcher Ryan Donovan worked at the last until they were poached to relaunch the downtown resto-lounge last spring.
If the new Marben were a shirt, it would be vintage Eddie Bauer - faded, plaid and Viyella. See, provenance is king in the locavore world. It's not just what you eat, it's where it came from, the closer the better. But Marben takes food fetishism to the next level, every dish saluting the person most responsible for its creation.
And so we get a block of Petra Cooper of Fifth Town Cheese's buttery Cape Vessey chèvre paired with candied walnuts ($12), followed by fish broker Jim Giggie's terrific house-cured rainbow trout, sided with more trout in croquettes, olive tapenade and a perky salad of shaved fennel and pink grapefruit in pesto aioli ($9 small/$15 large). Daily Seafood's Pauline Cheng supplies the sustainable wild striped sea bass that chef slowly pan-roasts before plating it in a soupy minestrone of braised fennel and spinach ($16) to great effect.
Marben owner Simon Benstead's dad, John, came up with the concept for the mighty house burger ($17 with fries and mustardy slaw): 6 ounces of Dingo Farm of Bradford's braised and pulled beef ribs dressed with aged white cheddar and Branston pickle, while a certain H.J. Heinz of Leamington ponies up the ketchup served alongside exceptionally crunchy onion rings ($5).
Quickly sautéed in panko crumbs, Carl's poached eggs ($9/$15) ride a bed of celery remoulade and caramelized onion vinaigrette? Who he?
"Er, that'd be me," laughs the modest Heinrich.
Some connections are a bit of a stretch. Seinfield's Elaine provides the inspiration for Marben's Big Salad ($7/$13), a massive mess o' mesclun tossed with julienned snow peas, carrot and turnip in retro ranch dressing, the occasional ripe cherry tomato and chunk of English cuke adding extra bite. The Little Bird ($7), another health-conscious salad of nutty quinoa, rye berries and Gala apple in lemon vinaigrette takes its name from the tattoo on a server's arm.
Kitchen cook Zander Gut's gnocchi in brown butter and sage leaves deserves the spotlight, a swirl of hand-formed dumplings, roasted Brussels sprouts and toasted pepitas over a butternut squash purée ($13) so delish, the recipe's featured in the current issue of the LCBO's Trend Report. And kudos to pastry chef Ervinna Quach's retro Callebaut chocolate ice cream sandwich ($7), a fitting close to any eco-minded meal.
"There are two ways a restaurant can buy food: make the menu and then buy the food, or buy the food first and make the menu to fit it," says Heinrich. "I'd rather spend the time sourcing good ingredients. Sometimes you find them in your own backyard."