After my dinner at Wine Bar, I was standing outside the locale feeling revitalized and settled. It seemed the Wine Bar experience had instilled me with a sense of ease – one to which I would gladly return. In my mind, as I go over the experience, I am afraid to lose it in my memory. The heavy glass door opens and other guests leave with a coquettish but charming down-to-earth smile on their faces, ready to enjoy the rest of the evening to its fullest. The door was key to my daydream as I enter Bryan Burke’s Wine Bar once again that evening.
Once you step foot in 9 Church Street, you are greeted by a range of service staff – from the snazzy sommelier, who makes you feel as though you are in Paris, to the warm, cheerful server, who you would consider asking to entertain you for the rest of your life.
Wine Bar’s location downtown Toronto is as vacillating as are the different spaces within. Local St. Lawrence market is in close proximity, as is the busy, upscale section of King Street. The dining experience inside offers exactly the beauty of this difference. The room behind the large glass window features sophisticated table seating, as well as options in the back where the space is quite enclosed and intimate. There is also seating available right by the bar or kitchen counter. Walls of homemade preserves and a wide range of wines make it all a little jazzy.
The delicious smells of freshly prepared food permeate the room from the open-concept kitchen. I feel like I have just entered Bryan Burke’s private kitchen and he makes me feel so special by cooking exactly what I want. And this is exactly what Burke is all about. “After all,” he says, “I am in a service industry and I am happy when my guests are.” His professional approach does not minimize the we-are-all-friends vibe at all. It is quite entertaining to watch your good friend Bryan and his team cook for you. I certainly felt like I had a personal invite to the evening in my handbag.
The newly won self-confidence of Canadian gastronomic culture grabbed the attention of a long list of fine Canadian chefs. Young chefs serve local artisan products with pride in attractive modern interpretations. That Canadian cuisine has changed is demonstrated every day by chef Bryan Burke at his Wine Bar. Like the food, the new spin on wine tasting is intellectual and self-assured, but no longer exclusive.
Service at Wine Bar is uncomplicated and genuine, much like the spread laid out before me on a dark parallam table. The tomato risotto is comfortably exceptional as it surrounds the fresh flavours of snap peas, chives and rich goat cheese.
The tapas-sized dishes are a workout for your palate and encourage sharing. But I want all the hand-dived seared lion paw scallops – served with shaved radishes, green beans and tomatoes, and an intelligently seasoned citrus dressing – to myself. It is like a paradise of scallops whose taste disarms me. Only to look like less of a hog, I share the grilled hanger steak served on a bed of cellared-pureed sweet potatoes wedded with roasted chipotle peppers and fresh bok-choy. Same goes for the cheddar and apple salad, whose mustard vinaigrette graces the greens and makes me feel like the healthiest hog on earth. Though if that were true, I doubt I would be drinking the fine wines offered with each course.
Burke emphasizes sustainable ingredients and flexible service, clearly placing guest satisfaction above chef ego. The menu is constantly changing, though all dishes have Wine Bar written all over them as the food “keeps its structural integrity,” explains chef de cuisine, Adam Dolley. Meaning, you actually know what you are eating.
As you browse the menu, imagine yourself picking from a bowl of artisan cherries and sipping a well-matched wine. The predisposition for Burke’s kind of cooking might be traditional European, but the picking is of sensual nature, rather cosmopolitan.
The Wine Bar dining experience is unlike that which one experienced under celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy, who formerly owned the restaurant. Bryan Burke took over mid-day and simply started cooking. In this process, however, he realized that things needed to change. He wanted to bring back a sense of fairness to the guests and attract a wide range of clientele while serving fantastic, local food. Burke calls it a “culinary sex-appeal” that they wanted to reintroduce on 9 Church Street.
Born in Ajax and raised in Haliburton, Burke never wanted to be in the big city at first. Along the way, however, he learned how to morph his local expertise with his appreciation for city life, leading to exactly the kind of sensual desirability he envisioned for his restaurant. After working under Jamie Kennedy for four years, Burke left the restaurant to gain experience in Europe. Fortunately, he came back to his Canadian roots. Since then, he has opened several other establishments in the Toronto area, showcasing his entrepreneurial spirit. For one, Hank’s Café and Great Burger Kitchen are right next to Wine Bar. But then there is also Irish McGugan’s in the East End of the City. It seems that Burke simply enjoys building and creating things. But don’t worry; Wine Bar is still his baby.
Wine Bar is not the place for a pretentious royal feast, but a celebration of great food by local people. The happy atmosphere feels welcoming – not a welcome of the penetrating kind, but a tie-loosening one. Wine Bar is unique among the city’s neighbourhood establishments. It is a place to experience affordable gourmet food in a uniquely enjoyable atmosphere.
Images by Felicia Byron.