It’s early on a cool, rainy Tuesday night and the joint is jumping. Lively Greek folk music pours out of the PA system as wait staff whisk platters of Greek food to tables thronged with chatty diners. The air buzzes.
Are we in the Plaka neighbourhood, in Athens, Greece? No, we’re on Toronto’s Ossington Avenue at Mamakas, the Greek taverna launched in summer by Thanos Tripi. A 15-year veteran of Toronto’s hospitality scene, Tripi envisioned a restaurant that dishes up the same homestyle Greek food cooked by his mother and grandmother. So he opened Mamakas, which, translated from the Greek, is a term of endearment a child would use for his mother.
The Mamakas kitchen, featuring two chefs, Seb Yacoubian and Pierre Restivo, who’d previously worked at Paralia (formerly Trinity Taverna), does marvelous things with the Greek larder, treating first-rate ingredients simply and skillfully.
Dips excel — tangy and smooth tzatziki; chunky spicy feta; sweet, chunky eggplant; and the city’s best taramosalata, creamy and mild. Translucent house-made phyllo pastry wraps uncommonly delicate filling of spinach, feta, scallions and dill. A sweet tangle of caramelized onions and tomato confit, perfumed with fresh thyme, envelops custard-textured eggplant, while olive oil and crumbled feta complement perfectly tender French green beans and baby zucchini.
Horiatiki salad is generous and good, its slab of feta laid atop sweet Ontario hothouse tomatoes, cucumber and shallots. More adventurous is the mound of ultra-fresh romaine and cucumber zapped with dill and white balsamic vinegar — big enough to share.
From the grill, mains bring a plate of four meaty, juicy lamb chops; a giant octopus tentacle, smoky and tender, dressed with a salsa of sweet peas and minced onion and tomato; and the nightly fish, Mediterranean sea bass, smoky and tasty.
Two desserts, changed nightly, are offered — say, rich, smooth feta cheesecake topped with stewed figs and partnered with just-sweet-enough ouzo fig sauce; and tangy, cloud-like yogurt brulee jazzed with tart raspberry sauce.
The long, narrow, industrial-chic-meets-Greek-market room — concrete floors, white-painted walls, exposed ductwork and antique-style light fixtures — is outfitted with a bar, open kitchen and communal tables up front and more tables at the back. It’s just the kind of boisterous, convivial space every neighbourhood needs.
Tripi will consider buyouts for the restaurant, which seats 85 people.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 25 years and, during that time, has critiqued almost 1,000 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.