During this time, restaurants are being hit so hard, so when a new restaurant opens, we take notice, we wish its team success, and we happily check it out!
South America evokes the exotic spirits, flavours and images of the colourful birds of Ecuador, the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the dizzying heights of Machu Pichu, the Girl from Ipanema, Columbian emeralds and the most notoriously brilliant cuisines in the world. All things to stir the imagination. So, when a grand new South American restaurant opens, I wonder why all this is brushed aside and they name it MARKED, which sounds like a notice from the CRA. But never mind, I agree with Shakespeare, “What’s in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
In anticipation of delving into the wanton flavours of the Americas, ceviche, empanadas and coxinhas, we drive right over to Marked, in the midst of the construction zone of the Entertainment District. At the entrance we go through the routine: temperature taken, phone number given, and we’re ushered in. It’s a triplex restaurant: The Pan Am Lounge, which leads into the spacious dining room, which leads into a beautiful second lounge that invites us to continue enjoying our evening. In the Pan Am Lounge we smile at the portraits of the sexy “stewardesses” of the long-gone Pan Am Airlines, and examine the trophies of previous Pan Am Games won by partner/owner Maria Morales. Pre-dinner cocktails with intriguing names and like the Yucatán Slam of tequila, watermelon rind, jalapeño, prickly pear, hot pepper cactus, basil and haskap bitters play mariachi with my taste buds.
And then, I receive a text on my phone…from Maria Morales. “Do you like secrets?” She asks. “Yes!” I reply. I’d tell you what she texted me next, but… I can’t. It’s a secret. Ever playful, several diners receive their own private texts too.
In the dining room, strict social distancing is apparent, but wait, what’s this, I can’t believe my eyes. Is this beautiful dancer a hologram? No, just another surprise from Maria Morales to enhance our experience. Seated in an upholstered booth, we admire her performance and scan a QR code to read the menu on our phones. Our server enthusiastically explains all the provenance and nuances of Pequero, the first dishes. Carefully debating our options, we decide on earthy Churrasco Oyster Mushrooms and a platter of Dates stuffed with Manchego cheese and wrapped in bacon. The flavours are like a Bosa Nova band playing in my mouth.
The menu is a large and seductive selection of Latin delights and choices must be made. Sadly, we say “No” to the four ceviche dishes and four intriguing salads. We’re only human, and need to pace ourselves. We pick a winner with a perfectly baked Argentinian empanada filled with luscious, savoury, tenderly braised oxtail, accompanied by the ubiquitous chimichurri. I’m craving an order of spicy chicken wings, but hesitate. With Malagueta hot sauce, Aleppo and Tempero baiana, and cilantro, it reads like something that should be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own home. Now the debate gets serious, and we are torn between Lambchetta, churrasco grilled Ontario lamb, spiked with rosemary, garlic, green olive and aged balsamic, which can’t help but be a fabulous dish, and PEI flank steak grilled and served on a bed of sliced tomatoes which is playing it safe. The flank steak is disappointingly chewy and the seasonings rather ordinary. Should have ordered Lambchetta.
The kitchen has saved the best for the last. The highlight of the evening is flame-grilled boneless branzino with two salsas, Roja and Verde (that’s red and green) for non-Spanish speakers. Perfectly boned and served flat, it is a vision that we first eat with our eyes. The delicate fish is snatched from the grill at the last second and retains all its juiciness, with the crispy skin intact. A gastronomic twirl is the Brazilian coconut rice, studded with Goji berries and blanketed with shaved toasted coconut. I could not ask for anything more.
So many wonderful choices. Morales is a former javelin thrower who knows how to hit her mark! With no travel plans for winter, Marked is an exciting diversion.
Marked, 132 John Street, 647-660-7948
Sara Waxman, OOnt, is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.