Little Italy has seen a lot of movement in the last few years. A revolving door of food concepts have come and gone, but relative newcomer Chez’s at just a year-and-a-half old, plans on sticking around for the long haul.
Chef and co-owner Mike Bradshaw and wife Alexandra Velocci recently set up shop to live out their dream, a restaurant to call their very own.
The lead up
Born and raised in Toronto’s east end, Bradshaw grew up playing lacrosse, eventually nabbing a spot on the Men's National Lacrosse Team in Ireland. Instead of going pro, he decided to follow his dream to cook in Europe.
He trained at George Brown before heading off at age 21 to prestigious kitchens including: Smiths of Smithfield and 2-star Barkley Hotel in London, and Chai 33 in Paris. He returned to the GTA almost nine years later, realizing home is where the heart is.
He landed at Chop Steakhouse in Vaughan and Meadowvale, where Velocci was working the salad station. Eight months later, they went on their first date. Not long after, they were hitched.
In search of
The couple looked as far afield as Ottawa, Creemore, Collingwood, Barrie, and Oakville before opting for Toronto. Why here? “No one knows who I am. I need to make it here first,” says Bradshaw.
After scouring popular neighbourhoods - Lawrence Park, Leaside, Roncesvalles, Dovercourt and Dundas, Queen and Portland, The Beaches – they discovered 588 College Street at Clinton.
A place to call home
The former home to Frank’s Kitchen didn’t need much of an overhaul, just a few tweaks and additions: a little paint and mural by Stacey MacNevin and Cindy Scaife in front, oven and heat lamps in back. The hundred-year-old building with exposed brick is mighty charming on its own.
Out back, there’s a smoker and Bradshaw’s garden. There may be a patio too this summer.
Every other Friday, there’s live music during the dinner hour – acoustic top ten acoustic. After 9pm, other types get mixed in.
Speaking of which, it’s hard not to notice the music. It was Bradshaw’s idea to play only nineties R&B in the restaurant. So while you’re digging into Smoked Beef Cheek Poutine ($15.50) or Mushroom Linguini ($17), don’t be surprised if the vibe gets mighty amorous all of a sudden, lasting all the way through Mariah’s endless high notes.
No seaweed from Norway
The “globally inspired” dinner menu consists of three starters, two sharing plates, six mains, three sides, and three desserts. Interesting choices (beef cheek, bone marrow, veal) intertwine with crowd pleasers (calamari, beet salad, pasta, steak frites). Current sides are spud-centric: Fries ($3), Parmesan Fries ($3.75), and Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes ($3), though dishes change frequently. “I try to change two to three items every five to seven weeks,” says Bradshaw.
He describes his fare as “Simple food done well. There’s nothing fancy, no seaweed from Norway, just a lot of love in the food, a lot of passion on the plate.”
Everything’s made in house, reasonably priced ($3-$26.50), and doled out in American-sized portions. (The risotto for example, is enough for two.)
Raise a glass
You’ll find a local craft brews in can and draught ($7.50-$8) and a small list of mostly consignment vino (gls $9-$18, btl $42-$80) to choose from
Craft cocktails include a Smoked Manhattan ($19) and small array of martinis ($9-$19).
Off the Menu
Roasted Bone Marrow ($21.50)
Two gargantuan roasted bones arrive with three sides: bacon espresso marmalade, chimichurri, and grilled sourdough from the Portuguese bakery a few doors down. The fresh, light herbaceous sauce includes unusual, though tasty additions of basil, Dijon, and tarragon. This, alongside crumbled bacon enveloped in sweet marmalade bolstered with espresso, is a fascinating juxtaposition.
Octopus Risotto ($26.50)
The dish features octopus cooked two ways and boasts almost as much mollusc as plump rice. The body is braised in tomato for four hours, while legs are marinated, cooked sous vide for 90 minutes, and finished on the grill.
Creamy risotto is studded with red wine braised octopus then topped with grilled tentacles, fresh parmesan, and fried basil leaves.
Catch of the Day (MP)
A thick, even black char crust covers a fillet of rainbow trout, accompanied by coconut rice, crispy kale, grilled asparagus, curry-scented béchamel, and herb oil.
Confit Pork Belly ($24.50)
Bradshaw’s take on the British classic starts with pork belly cooked in duck fat for three-and-a-half hours until tender. Served with braised red cabbage, creamy mascarpone mashed potatoes infused with smoked garlic, and rosemary jus, the acidicity from the cabbage help cut the pork’s unctuousness.
Earl Grey Crème Brûlée ($7)
One of three desserts on the menu, Bradshaw is eager to give all credit to Velocci.
Inspired by her time working at George Restaurant - they do a tea-infused creme brûlée – she’s created her own version that’s been on the menu since day one, and remains their most popular dessert.
No need to try and shoot a slow-mo video of breaking the hard layer of caramel - the thin covering cracks with just a slight tap. Underneath, a smooth grey custard perfumed with bold bergamot notes awaits. A weightless espresso meringue and blackberry dusted in icing sugar completes the plate.
588 College St.
Tues to Thurs 5pm-11pm
Fri & Sat 5pm-1am