rick mcginnis/metro toronto
Address: Renaissance Toronto Hotel, 1 Blue Jays Way
Lunch: Monday - Friday 6:30 a.m. - 1:00 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7:00 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.
Dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $100
*** 1/2 (out of 5)
Few restaurants in the city can boast of a view that involves much more than a stretch of street, and of those who can, Arriba can say that its view is likely the most unique in the city. The restaurant in the Renaissance Toronto Hotel is built on a long, slow curve, one wall of which is floor-to-ceiling glass looking out over what was once known as the Skydome, now the Rogers Centre.
On the day I’m there, my table has a view over the half-finished left field of the field where the Blue Jays will be playing for the balance of spring and summer, but depending on the day and time of year, it could be the display floor of the auto show, the gridiron where the Argos play, a concert stage, or a monster truck show.
Running the kitchen in a hotel involves unique challenges for any chef, but Michael Jensen, executive chef at the Renaissance, has to put together menus for any and all of the crowds who might turn out for any of the Dome’s events, in addition to his regular hotel guests, and any number of special events.
Born and raised in Toronto, Jensen has worked in hotels for most of his career, at several properties owned by the Delta chain and as executive sous chef at Matisse, another Marriot property in the Bloor-Yorkville neighbourhood. He was in charge of redesigning the kitchen at the Renaissance when it was renovated last year, into a two-part eatery with a distinctly modern Mediterranean theme — think Barcelona, not old Napoli.
The hardest thing about being in charge of a hotel kitchen, according to Jensen, is control — or rather, the lack of it.
“There’s more financial stuff,” he says, “so you’re taken of the kitchen more than you might want to be, so you have to rely on your sous chefs. We’re open 21 hours a day, so there’s somebody in the kitchen from 4 a.m. right through till 1 a.m. When you’re not here there’s a lot of food going out, so that’s a tough thing, to rely on other people who have the same passion and the same vision as you do.”
Mediterranean was more of a colour than a requirement when designing Arriba’s new menu, according to Jensen. “We’re not doing authentic Mediterranean cuisine, where you’ll see smelts — I’ve done this at restaurants before — just served whole with the heads on sticking out of a basked with some sort of a dip. North Americans aren’t really into that."
Still, he did his best to avoid overused Italian and Greek dishes, and favoured Spanish, Provencal and North African flavours — spices like cumin and coriander, pistachios and fresh basil, and flavourful little stews of tomato and white beans like the one that comes with the Pistachio Crusted Halibut.
Maintaining the Mediterranean theme is a challenge, though, when the view outside Arriba’s windows brings in different crowds.
“What we try to do with our menu is keep it simple and cater to the groups we have in the hotel with a fresh sheet,” Jensen explains, referring to the daily specials.
“When it’s monster truck, it’s often families, so we’ll keep it simple and offer more specials, something as simple as barbecue ribs, but we’ll keep the Mediterranean twist with, say, a dry rub, like the Ras al-Hanut, which is the spice of the house in Morocco, and grill them. Serve it up with some sweet potato fries, keep it family friendly.”