This burger from Maple Leaf Tavern is topped with cheddar cheese made in-house
Maple Leaf Tavern is located at 955 Gerrard St. E. in Toronto
In recent years I've seen Gerrard Street East being praised as one of Toronto's fastest growing food corridors.
Stretching from the Discovery District in the downtown core through East Chinatown and ending at Little India, the area is evolving fast. What's exciting to me is how much change is taking place every few blocks with new independent barbecue and chocolate shops, breweries and a growing selection of snack bars.
"When we first scouted this place for the restaurant, this was not a dining destination," said Todd Morgan, owner and operator at Maple Leaf Tavern — a spot that offers a burger that brings back fond memories with the taste of freshly ground sirloin, homemade cheddar cheese and brioche buns, as well as different varieties of seasonal sausages and a selection of vegetarian plates.
When Morgan stumbled upon 955 Gerrard St. E., the history behind the site was tempting.
"This building we are in is over 100 years old. It is the identity of Gerrard Street."
The property was originally part of a farm and market garden when it was first constructed in 1910. In the 1930s, it became home to the Maple Leaf Hotel and grew with subsequent expansions over the years before it fell into disrepair..
Morgan took over the property in 2013 hoping to preserve the historical charm of the building, and I think his team has succeeded.
It feels like an eatery that has been around for decades with its Victorian-era windows and preserved stained glass panes, yet it's just over three years old. New restaurants just don't look like this.
"It wasn't easy, it took us nearly three years to strip, preserve and build it." Morgan said.
The look and feel of the restaurant synthesizes with chef Jesse Vallins's cooking to form something unique. It's an approachable menu that is influenced by American classics and executed with finer attention to detail and seasonal ingredients.
Vallins has cooked in a number of noteworthy restaurants across the city such as The Saint, Trevor, and Beer Bistro. He's a chef known for his technical proficiency, sometimes taking years to fine-tune individual dishes.
Vallins will have anywhere from five to 10 varieties of seasonal sausages on the menu. There's also the burger, created from childhood memories growing up on Scarborough and eating at roadside burger shacks. Vallins grinds his own sirloin meat in house. He makes the cheese slices in house. He even makes the brioche buns.
"For me, I am trying to evoke the textures that I remember as a kid," Vallins said.
"I've been working on this burger for over a decade now."
And it's one of my all-time favourites, made from marbled meat cooked over a flat top and minimally dressed. It is an incredibly juicy sandwich with beefy flavour and soft texture from the bun and pronounced cheddar notes from custom slices.
A year ago, Vallins debuted a vegetarian version that he had been working on for sometime. Made from mushrooms, red lentils, onion, celery and garlic.
The vegetarian plates at Maple Leaf Tavern are some of the best in the city and they don't taste like they've been created to fill a void. I recently enjoyed a plate of cauliflower florets roasted with a breadcrumb mix and served with a mousse-y emulsion of cream and cheddar.
Don't skip the carrots; they're one of Vallins's best dishes. They're cooked low and slow until dark and soft and then doused with cumin and served over a bed of parsley yogurt.