Everybody knows that monks make the best everything – beer, bread, cheese… While tweeting a link to an article about Toronto’s “best” tasting menus, fellow foodie Trevor Lui (La Brea Food) mentioned Monk Kitchen located inside the Templar Hotel.
My first thought was “What is this Templar Hotel and why haven’t I heard of it before?” My second thought was the coincidence of the reference to the Templars, the brotherhood of “holy knights” that fought during the Crusades that according to Steve Berry-esque fiction had secret rites and mysterious sources of wealth. But like I would discover throughout the evening – nothing is what it appears to be.
The Templar Hotel, is so-named after Simon Templar, a British fictional character that is thought to have been inspired by Robin Hood. His initials S.T. often earned him the nickname the Saint. Monk Kitchen, is named after jazz legend Thelonius Monk. The allusion to religious symbols is quite clever, in an artsy kind of way.
That’s no surprise, seeing as the owners are designer Del Terrelonge and John Wee Tom. Tired of the sad state of so-called “boutique hotels” in Toronto, the Templar Hotel was born, about 11 years after it all started. It opened quite unofficially with minimal media involvement. In fact, the entire place is sort of covert, making it a hotspot for dignitaries and celebrities alike.
Having walked by the building many times, you would’ve never guessed that behind the doors to a minimalist lobby consisting of two chairs and a front desk would be a hotel, let alone a tasting menu-only restaurant in the basement. And while everything is in the fine details, such as the 2,999 tiles that line the elevator or the provision of left-handed spoons – you can’t help but be in awe at how things so simple can enhance the overall experience.
We happen to stumble upon the chef as we enter the elevator. Roberto Fracchioni is a native of Niagara-on-the-Lake where he’s cooked at some of the regions finest restaurants (Inn on the Twenty just to name one). As we exit I can only assume we’ve gotten onto the service elevator because we’ve arrived at the kitchen. Nope, wrong again.
Instinct tells me to take my shoes off, because the whole operation feels like I’ve just entered into someone’s home for a private dinner party. There’s a “50 Best Hits of the 80s” mix playing in the background as the chef and his team discuss how Vanilla Ice is doing better as a house-flipper than he ever did as a singer. But as the night goes on, the music fades into the background and it is the guest to chef interaction that takes centre stage – the kind of stuff they don’t teach you in culinary school.
The “mi casa es su casa” feel is refreshing, and many of the chef’s dishes are inspired by female relatives, be it his aunt, or Fracchioni’s “ma.”
Cutlery and dinnerware are cleared away and replenished for each of the 7 courses we enjoy. Not only is Fracchioni a talented chef, he also seems to have mastered the art of being a great host. He weaves seamlessly from kitchen to table, never disappearing for too long. We wander over to his “temple” (kitchen) many times, glass of wine in hand, lured by the wonderful aromas wafting over in our direction and sometimes egged on by Fracchioni to get hands-on. My sister (the birthday girl) got a lesson in plating. Mama would be proud.
Standout dishes of the evening for me were the arancini, a deep-fried risotto ball which encases a fior di latte that has that stringy cheesiness that the inner child in me loves. The richness is cut with an acidic tomato sauce and topped with salsa verde and Shimeji mushroom.
Breakfast for dinner doesn’t sound so bad if it includes a spread of house made bourbon ketchup, caramelized onion hash, pan seared tomatoes, candied maple bacon, pancake, fried quail egg, fried focaccia and strawberry jam. The focaccia is utterly amazing, perfectly golden and crispy. The secret? Butter of course.
From the handmade orecchiette to the Rosina cookie we have as part of the dessert platter – we feel truly “blessed” to have dined in Fracchioni’s kitchen and sharing in his stories too. Like the fact his mom inherited the walnut and brown sugar cookie recipe from the town baker, where their family comes from, just north of Milan. She practically had to beg for it and the story goes that the old woman only gave it up upon making mama Fracchioni swear to never give it to anyone. The chef had to jump through his fair share of hurdles to snatch up this delicious recipe; it may involved ordering 100s of cookies from his mom until demand overwhelmed supply.
We’re not surprised that Fracchioni is so happy-go-lucky, seeing as many chefs would die to have his gig. He gets to cook whatever he wants. You need only make a reservation (and hope and pray you’ll get one as the restaurant is almost always fully booked or closed for private dinners), sit, and eat. Oh yeah, you can drink too. Wine pairings are available by the full pairing (3 ounce pours) or by the half (1-1/2 ounce pours).
The food is good here. It may not be the most blow-your-mind meal you’ll ever have; it’s definitely not a place where you dress up for a night on the town; but what you will leave with is undoubtedly one of the most unique dining experiences you’ll remember, at least in this city.
As I leave the restaurant, I couldn’t help but think that I didn’t want to share this hidden gem. But seeing as there was a Toronto Star photographer there that night taking shots (no doubt for an impending write-up); the secret’s as good as out!
My word of advice? Run, don’t walk to Monk Kitchen. Reservations can be made via OpenTable here.