Grant Van Gamaren's latest restaurant Martine's joins Toronto's food scene

The King of College Grant Van Gameren is back with a brand new restaurant

Grant van Gameren brought oomph to Little Italy with the deliciously unique Bar Isabel, the impeccably designed Bar Raval, the Michelin-starred Quetzal and now Martine's joins the scene.

Grant van Gameren is shaving pecorino cheese on dishes and working the line, tattoos sticking out from his black T-shirt like a rock ’n’ roll star superimposed in a kitchen. He’s wearing a black baseball cap and apron, and while he pumps out crudites and fish, the restaurateur as responsible as anyone for elevated hipster dining in Toronto reveals a new flourish — a grin.

“COVID was hard for me, man. Laying off 400 staff, fighting with landlords, selling my house in Toronto. To be honest, coming back has taken years,” says van Gameren, whose eleven revenue streams include luminary hot spots Bar Raval, Bar Isabel, Quetzal and El Rey, three Harry’s locations and an Airbnb on his vegetable farm in Prince Edward County.

 

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Alongside Jen Agg, van Gameren was responsible for launching the Black Hoof on Dundas Street in 2008, and his roller-coaster ride through commerce and cooking has produced some of the city’s best bites, biggest fallouts and legendary nights on the town. You don’t need to watch The Bear to know the restaurant business is dicey — big egos, huge overhead, tight margins, and that’s during usual times. The pandemic was unusual times and though everyone was affected, few businesses dissolved overnight like restaurants, and Grant van Gameren owned or co-owned nearly a dozen of them (and a catering company too). Talented, irascible, famous, the 42-year-old dad says he’s opening Martine’s in the old Woodlot space on Palmerston because he believes dining in Toronto could use a course correction.

“I’m old. I’ve done this dozens of times, but food has become so complicated over the years — this is is the opposite,” says van Gameren, who opened Martine’s in the building he also rents for Bar Raval, has chef Luke Haines in charge of both kitchens and his partner, Hailey Burke, managing both rooms.

“Luke is chef de cuisine at Bar Raval and extremely talented, but I told him, ‘If I give you an ingredient and it takes you more than three minutes to come up with a dish, you’re probably overthinking it,” says van Gameren, who grows the vegetables for Martine’s at his home garden in Prince Edward County, sometimes going from ground to plate in a day. “From the Black Hoof to everything I’ve done, food is only one part of what we’re selling. The experience has to be awesome, and if we get accolades like a Best New Restaurants’ list or a Michelin star, amazing — but it ain’t paying our bills.”

 

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Oyster mushrooms with razor clams and wild leeks is the Martine’s dish that has tongues wagging. And the after-party for Canada’s Top 100 Restaurants, “reminded me of the Black Hoof days,” says van Gameren. When chefs crowded into his tight new space, it was an affirmation that Toronto’s original cooking influencer still has support from inside the biz.

“It’s never been about the money. It’s about: what do we want to do? We can make economical sense of it later,” van Gameren says.

We sampled his branzino, tuna butter with turnip and radishes and skate wing in an amatriciana sauce that was tangy, crisp, simple and sweet.

“What’s important is that we’re doing food that we like and understand and can evolve frequently so people will come back and, because of it, keep us in business.”

Martine’s is located off College Street, and gives off cool in-the-know speakeasy vibes. (When we visited, the owners of Ardo occupied the adjoining bar stools.) With a kitchen occupying 30 per cent of the dining room, a small submerged bar opposite the wood-burning stove and an upstairs area seating 16 beneath a skylight, Martine’s is a tucked away Little Italy snack bar — a place to add to the half block confection backstopped by DaiLo and Bar Raval.

“Chefs have been raving recently about our oyster mushrooms with clams, and that’s the beauty of cooking simply — it tastes good and doesn’t have any pretension,” van Gameren says. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the kitchen. My family misses me and I won’t be in there forever, but I see myself doing more cooking over the next little while.”

The other night, after a few glasses of sparkling Italian red, we perched at the bar, watching over the heads of diners — many standing, just like at Bar Raval — while van Gameren did his thing. It’s been lots of long hard years since the Black Hoof helped transform dining in Toronto, and van Gameren has carried each win and loss like the tattoos covering his arms. Before leaving, I told the star chef to enjoy his journey.

“Absolutely,” he says, with a grin.

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