There is no finer form of flattery then complete imitation. Borrowing recipes, fine tuning age old traditions- these are not new ground breaking measures when it comes to being an inspired chef. But when you’re the corporate chef for the O&B Empire, celebrating your 20th anniversary with this juggernaut of Canadian hospitality, perhaps it’s fitting to toast the culinary prowess of those who influence you; in this case, if you’re Chef Anthony Walsh, it’s your 73 year old mother in law, Leña- or Lala as she’s affectionately called.
But Lala wasn’t a safe enough name for the landlord and luxury goods department store neighbour Sak’s, so Leña was born. The first O&B restaurant to pay homage to an actual individual, Leña feels different than nearby Bannock, or Jump or Luma, all restaurants under the O&B umbrella. Beaumont Kitchen opened earlier this year at the Sak’s in Sherway Gardens, but this venture immediately became personal, a generic name wasn’t going to cut it.
Perhaps it’s the art deco motif, décor rescued from the designated heritage aspect of the space. Carefully and lovingly restoring the octagonal column that now flanks the main floor bar, or repairing the pane glass windows still etched with italicised S’s from it’s heyday as a Simpsons Building. Located at Richmond and Yonge, DesignAgency created a restaurant that evokes the nostalgic flourishes of a bygone era, from the delightfully kitschy wallpaper that envelops the hallway of single stall WC’s, or the retro telephone that connects you directly with Lala herself. Meticulous in design, the area is both visually exciting with pops of bright teal and mustard but also warm and comforting much like the namesake herself. And the food channels that nature, both in principal (Anthony announces you definitely won’t see any fucking tweezers here) and in familiarity.
“Its personal, to a degree. How did I get here, why did this happen? It’ an inspiration on that kind of cooking, that effect that the matriarchal mother/grandmother kind of cooking and what kind of effect does it have on a somewhat moderately-skilled professional chef. It has an inherent result on how you cook. It’s humbling.”
Chef Anthony concedes he didn’t know the first thing about Argentinian eats until he met his mother in law. “When I met her parents, I didn’t know shit about Argentinian food. No Food Network, no internet, I didn’t know a thing. It’s big- all fire, smoke, big flavours. Obviously back then I had no idea. Susan (my wife) is a very good cook- but her mother is a fucking phenomenal cook. I’d never put these things together- it’s a slap in the face- hey dummy! I mean the techniques for cooking sweetbreads or eating tripe, like what, what’s all this fucking weird shit. I had some good skills, incredible discipline and the mental energy to stay focused, and I was like, what, whoa, wait; I’m really not that good. “
Trial by fire, quite literally, and Anthony was hooked. With influences from Italy and Spain, Argentinian fare binds many of those bold flavours into that approach, with asado style cooking techniques that impart a flair for bolder flavours.
Executive Chef Julie Marteleira had a heavy hand in the menu creation as well, bringing a Portuguese nod to the menu. Years into her career at O&B, Julie has worn whites at Jump, Auberge du Pommier and Luma and envisions Leña as a perfect setting for her family recipes to shine.
Serving breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, Leña is not merely setting her sights on ladies who lunch and shop for pretty purses. Yes, there is a direct entrance in from Sak’s, as well as an exclusive entry from the men’s shop direct to the private dining spaces on Leña’s top floor. But the Yonge street doors will beckon most, with dramatic windows flanking the high back banquettes that surround the room. An original staircase leads you downstairs to Bar Lala, an eclectic space featuring a faux-library bar that exudes a distinct speakeasy vibe. The main floor dining space is a few stairs up from the entry, with a kitchen tucked along the back wall that allows you to view the harried pace without being forced to soak in the sounds of it.
It really feels part and parcel, one sentiment echoes the next. There’s a familiar quality to the space that is intensely comforting, and resonates with the food. Anthony was tasked with creating a concept that is distinctly different than anything else in the O&B family tree and he succeeds with the Leña menu.
Breakfast boasts a bounty of pretty pastries like the Argentinian staple Alfajores or common churros, with savoury shareables like Susana’s Gaucho Empanadas ($13), blistery pockets with beef, olives, eggs and a side of herby chiminasty sauce being a solid start to anyone’s day.
Lunch noshings like the Quail Eggs ($10) offer a perfect bite at the bar, crowned with piri piri aïoli, celery salt and diced jalapeno pepper. Wild Char Crudo ($17) brings seasonal elements like tomatoes with savoury mint, lemon and marcona almonds.
The dinner menu features some standout recipes from Lala’s homeland, like the Pollo Donña Aurora ($27), a succulent chicken portion prepared in a saffron-braise with potato purée.
Smart cocktails match the food offerings. Russell Morrison manages the bar and created pretty and punchy concoctions to pair well with the food menu. The earthy Caipiroska ($13) balances Stoli Blueberri with muddled blueberries with fresh lime and Demerara sugar garnished with a Blueberry-lemon shrub. Stiffer options like the Mobranca ($13) bring Havana 3 year with a hit of tonic and brancamenta. Tipples like the Pera Crush ($7) are a vibrant mocktail, with Cactus pear and watermelon-chili juice, Xocolatl chocolate mole bitters and garnished with a watermelon wedge. Wines span from Spain, Chile and Argentina with malbecs, tempranillos and a cab sauv rounding out the reds, and pinot grigios, verdejo, and chardonnays comprising the white list. Seven beers are on tap, mostly local and craft finds like Goose Island, Mill Street and import Estrella Damm.
Chef Walsh prefers mixing his malbec with coke, ice and a lemon, a refreshing libation that no doubt was introduced to him by Leña herself.
“True influences-mentors, nine out of 10 times the source is mothers and grandmothers” offers Chef Walsh, which is fitting too, considering his own 18 year old son Noah is also working alongside him in the kitchen, preparing his own grandmother’s recipes. Weaving generations of recipes and traditions all under one historic roof, Leña has a clear vision for her stylish future, a sentiment secured not only by the sexy surroundings, but also from the stream of swanky shoppers out for a cocktail to go with that new pair of shoes.
“We have beautiful restaurants, and I’m proud of that, but this is different- it’s much more personal.”
Leña is located at 176 Yonge Street. They’re open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner.