Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Jamie Kennedy at The Gardiner
Address: 111 Queen’s Park
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. every day
Dinner: Fridays only, first come first served dinner, 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m. (closed Aug. 11, 18, 25)
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $90
Much of the museum is still unfinished, but the Gardiner Museum opened last month with three completed spaces — a huge, light-filled exhibition gallery on the third floor, the gift shop, and Jamie Kennedy’s new restaurant, a bright, airy space facing the Royal Ontario Museum across Queen’s Park Circle.
Daniel Libeskind’s striking “crystal” expansion to the ROM is on the site of Kennedy’s old restaurant, a warm, formal space where he ran the kitchen for nine years. Demolished to make way for Libeskind’s new annex, it was a very different space from his new restaurant at the Gardiner. Getting there was never easy — you had to pass through several security checkpoints at night in the darkened museum, and Kennedy recalls with a wince the long, circuitous route from the basement loading dock to his kitchen.
The Gardiner is very different. It fits so perfectly into the building that, at this point, it’s almost tempting to think that the museum was created to house his eatery. Kennedy admits that serving food in a museum setting was, after nine years at the ROM, hardly a challenge.
“It’s like putting on an old shoe,” he says. “I know how to do it.”
After he left the ROM, Kennedy seemed to take a brief sabbatical from the Toronto restaurant scene, but suddenly reappeared with a tiny wine bar at the foot of Church Street. “To me, there was this huge gap between fine dining and not-so-fine dining,” he recalls, “and I wanted to close the gap somewhat. The idea with the wine bar was democratizing fine dining, making it more affordable, more approachable, not so formal but keeping intact the high level of professionalism and preparation of the food.”
He says that the Gardiner space, a lunch venue for the most part, is “an evolution of the wine bar, where we do these kinds of dishes that are very well prepared and conceived, but they’re not fancy or overdone. It’s very reflective of what’s done now; the ingredients are sourced through artisan producers, we do a lot of our own preparation in-house, like smoking and curing the meats and fish. Further to that, we support local growers in season, and still have a very vibrant preserving program that lets us use summer’s bounty right through the winter.”
The Gardiner menu features signature Kennedy dishes like his Yukon Gold fries with lemon mayo, and a lamb sandwich with almond pesto, but it’s also home to new dishes like his hopper, a traditional Sri Lankan and south Indian curry that was inspired by his mother. Curried vegetables or fish sit on a plump rice pancake, while a stainless-steel side platter features a choice of accompaniments — chutneys and yogurt raita, dried shallots and savoury eggplant.
“The condiments,” he says, “are authentically Tamil. People like curry, especially in the U.K., curry is huge, and I think that was also sort of a thing to me about what felt right about putting it on the menu, was this kind of throwback. We get a lot of older people coming into the restaurant here, at least now, and I remember that from the ROM, too, and curry is right up the alley — they’ve had it before, though it’s more authentic, say, than U.K. curry.”
Kennedy shares a place, along with chefs like Susur Lee, Marc Thuet, Michael Stadtlander and Chris McDonald, at the top of the city’s restaurant food chain, so it goes without saying that anything he does will be an event, scrutinized more than any new chef’s first dining room.
Looking across the street at the site of his old restaurant, he’s serenely optimistic. “I think that in a year’s time when the new wing (of the ROM) opens it’s going to be a pulsing neighbourhood. There’ll be so much interest in the museum, culturally, and the Gardiner being here as another cultural institution to visit while you’re in the neighbourhood. I look forward to that.”