District Oven dishes up healthy Middleterranean fare
Isam Kaisi, owner and executive chef of District Oven, was born in Bethlehem. His love of food comes from seeing his mother, relatives and neighbours with dough and money in hand, for the baker to put in the public ovens – called district ovens. For a small fee, the villagers would get freshly baked bread. The ovens became a gathering place for the neighbourhood, a place to get together and exchange ideas.
This is what Chef Kaisi wants his restaurant to be - "Have a beautiful communal meal and conversation with the warmth of the bread from the oven."
The restaurant is very much a family affair – wife Hanadi works at the front of the house and in fact, did much of the design, while their two daughters are often in the dining room for a quick visit, drop off or pick up.
Kaisi grew up in a very traditional household with his Mom, the housewife doing all the cooking. Out of all 13 brothers and sisters, he was the one to come home from school and stand and watch Mom cook, taking in all the aromas. He did some cooking when he reached high school and after coming to Canada in October 1987, he began inviting friends over to cook in the summertime. Kaisi worked at a restaurant for money while getting a Bachelor of Science of McMaster, and always looking for a new challenge, kept going to school and did IT Management.
"I did computer science after I finished McMaster and then worked at a magazine. A few years later, I quit. I didn't want to work for people. I want to work for myself. I thought, if I open a restaurant, I can do something very different, very creative."
His reinterpretation of Middle Eastern food was first showcased at 93 Harbord (closed after 14 years), long before the recent trend (Byblos, Fat Pasha, etc.) as popular destinations for foodies. Kaisi says it wasthe first Middle Eastern fine dining in Toronto. His other restaurant Blue Fig, located inside SickKids Hospital offers fresh Middle Eastern dishes for takeout. District Oven marks is first foray into Middleterranean cuisine, made famous worldwide by cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi. The mashup of Middle Eastern and southern Mediterranean foods is fresh, vibrant and alluring.
Passing the one year mark in February, Kaisi has changed things up a bit, but kept what works. 93 Harbord fans can still enjoy the mezza that was famous there. But there are some small tweaks -the romesco, for instance, instead of roasted red peppers, walnuts and spice, he’s added fresh grilled tomato. The lamb and duck tagines that were the restaurant’s calling cards have a slightly different twist now, but the cornish hen with preserved lemon remains.
Everything at District Oven is made in-house except the meat. Meats are mostly halal and Kaisi uses as much local product as possible – 99% (Ontario lamb shoulder, top of the line beef brisket, etc.). He also grinds his own meats so that he can ensure the ingredients and quality. In the summertime, everything comes from the farmers. Same goes for Blue Fig.
The wood stone pizza oven in the back is exceptional – it maintains the heat with thermal stones, made by a company from California. Kaisi made Italian pizzas back in the day (those summertime jobs paid off) and now creates flatbreads topped with a variety of enticing ingredients: three cheeses (halloumi, mozzarella, akkawi) and arugula; figs, shallots, mint, and halloumi; beef, onions, and pomegranate molasses.
The menu features sumptuous items that you won’t find elsewhere, such as:
- Braised Beef Cheek & Tongue, Apple, Green Harissa
- Cauliflower, Maftool Risotto, Sumac Chili Oil
- Grilled Red Snapper, Mango Amba, Pita Crisps
And the brunch menu is just as striking, with it’s a shared sofra-style dishes:
- Tomato, Red Pepper, Garlic & Green Chili Tagine (add Poached-in Egg Shakshuka)
- Pomegranate Chicken Liver (add Poached Egg, Crispy Halal Bacon & Greens)
- French Toast: Egg-Soaked & Thick-cut Brioche, Eshta Crème, Date-Honey Anglaise
Licensed to seat 268, Kaisi and Hanadi keep the expansive restaurant’s seating at a roomy 150. They’ve got more than enough space, so tables can linger over brunch and dinner without feeling crowded or rushed.
And the room is done with all sustainable materials. Dinning tables are made from reclaimed Indonesian teak from dying or dead trees. The impressive communal tables is over 150 years old from Mexico and the wood along the bar is black walnut from North Ontario. It is all sustainable. Artistic elements are also on display - Hanadi designed the copper water pipe lighting and dynamic art on the wall draws the eye and is changed every three months, with only Toronto artist’s work featured. The room has a sexy modern feel, with a warm depth from the older, natural elements. The only original fixture left from the impressive space is the 1947 tin ceiling.
"You open a restaurant to make everyone comfortable, not show off camels, rugs and bags of chickpeas," Kaisi says.
Don’t expect to see any shawarma anytime soon.
Kaisi is looking to open another place in the next few years. In the meantime, get to District Oven and see why Middleterranean is your new addiction. And a healthy one at that.
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