Chef Martha Wright (left) and executive chef Anne Yarymowich power Frank.
FRANK @ THE AGO (317 Dundas, at McCaul, 416-979-6688) Complete dinners for $100 per person (lunches $50/brunches $40), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $26/$20/$15. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, for dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 pm; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
When it comes to the traditional restaurant kitchen, soul brother James Brown got it right: it's a man's man's world.
But that's not the case at Frank, the newly launched supper club in the renovated AGO. It's no surprise that long-time Agora executive chef Anne Yarymowich continues to helm the resto, but we notice that, as well as chef de cuisine Martha Wright (ex-Starfish), most of the kitchen crew are women.
"I've always had a number of women working with me," says Yarymowich. "A lot of female chefs are looking for mentors, and they find a positivity here that they don't find elsewhere."
The front-of-house staff are also overwhelmingly not of the male persuasion. Nor are they mere window dressing.
"We hired the best people who applied," chef explains. "Most of them happened to be women."
Too bad that the Gehry-designed space that's replaced Agora has such little personality. The old joint had plenty, located in a soaring sculpture court that faced south to the gardens of Grange Park. But, other than a Frank Stella installation best appreciated from the resto's upper level, there's very little about Frank that says art. Instead, we get a subdued palette of black, white and beige offset by a lot of blond plywood, the same anonymous Douglas fir featured throughout the gallery.
Luckily, the room's anodyne design doesn't extend to the food on the plates. Our exceptionally charming server starts us off with a linen-lined basket of Fred's Breads - slices of very good baguette, multi-grain and dark-chocolate-coffee loaf - as well as a ramekin of unsalted goat butter and a clamshell of Maldon sea salt for those that do. She also regularly tops up our tumblers of eau de tap. Why not just leave the jug?
Photo By David Laurence
"We're not allowed to," she replies. "They're 150 bucks in the gift shop."
Nor are we trusted with salt and pepper shakers, though neither are needed. An impossibly smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée ($5 small/$8 large) arrives perfectly pre-seasoned and dressed with toasted sunflower seeds and a splash of sunflower oil. Artfully described on the card as a "composition in red, yellow and green" ($12), said opus turns out to be an ample tangle of Soiled Reputation's wild arugula heaped with both roasted and pickled heirloom beets, all dolloped with ultra-creamy unripened chèvre.
Two first-rate cornmeal-crusted fritters come generously stuffed à la Portuguese with shredded salt cod ($13), a snarl of pickled white anchovies, arbequina olives, wilted baby tatsoi and lemony aioli on the side. Despite having been plucked from the murky waters of mighty Lake Erie, pan-seared pickerel plated over cauliflower ragout and a pool of tart cloudberries manages to be crisp of skin and flaky of flesh, something David Lee's version at nearby Nota Bene fails to do.
Six sliced ounces of Cumbrae's grilled skirt (both $23) shows up rare as requested in a tasty red wine and shallot reduction, and sided with superb frites and a festoon of amaranth seedlings. And what's more deliciously retro than chicken pot pie ($17, lunch only) thick with peas, carrots and mushrooms in rosemary gravy?
Before taking the AGO gig back in 96, Yarymowich spent six years in charge of the kitchen at Donna Dooher's Mildred Pierce. Previous to that, the two first cooked together at Greg Couillard's long-gone Parrot on Queen West in the early 80s. Did she ever imagine back then that they they'd be launching two of Toronto's most highly anticipated restaurants within days of each other 25 years later?
"Isn't that a wonderful coincidence?" laughs Yarymowich. "I'm just dying to go over to the new Mildred's and take a look."