McEwan All Access 4.0 Event (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: One Restaurant at 116 Yorkville Avenue

Group shot with Mark McEwan and Michelle Jobin (1)

Competition within the restaurant industry is fierce. Every week it seems another handful of restaurants open (albeit some shut down as well). Indeed, one year a restaurant can be considered a best new restaurant with reservations booked solid only to cease operating a mere two years later - Yours Truly and The Grove both unfortunate examples of this.

So, to not only survive but thrive within this intense environment is no small feat. Mark McEwan's empire of the restaurants (and now supermarkets) has endured over 20 years of service since the opening of North 44. Obviously, he's doing something right. 

This McEwan All Access was very different from my first experience earlier in the year. It was more intimate and seemed calmer set in the dimly lit bar at One (much to the detriment of my photos). Of course, Mark still walked around and took time to converse with all in attendance.

Over the course of the night, I learnt more about his newest business venture - the second McEwan shop that’s expected to open April 2014 in the bustling TD Centre (also home to Bymark). The office crowd will be treated to tons of prepared food options served for all three meals (opening 6:30am and closing 7pm). Mark expects most customers will grab-and-go; but, there will be a 45-person seating area for those who prefer to eat there. And I'm sure there will be also be a catering department supplying all the office buildings.

But, I also found out more about Mark's personal life. In his spare time he cooks for his family, likes to relax at his Georgian Bay cottage and has a garden to grow fresh ingredients. He's also artistic and sometime creates dishes by sketching out the plate before sending it to the Executive Chefs to tweek and recreate in real life. 

During the evening, our $60 tickets treated us to unlimited drinks and tons of passed bites to tantalize the taste buds. A special thank you for the photos go to Jeffrey Chan courtesy of The McEwan Group. Sadly, my smartphone’s pictures would not do the food justice, I'm sure you can tell which ones were taken by me.

The tacos were the perfect filling to tortilla ratio. Each was topped with a big plump fried shrimp, red pepper jam, pickled shallots, a light ginger aoili and some greenery to tie everything together. 

Both steak and tuna tartare was available that night. The steak sitting on a crispy crostini and mixed with quail egg, arugula, pickled shallot and black truffle shavings. The tuna tartare spoons, on the other hand, was light and refreshing spiked with some Asian ingredients.  

Beef tartare (1)

The pork belly buns were a hit with a soft steam bun wrapped around juicy pieces of "cha shu" pork belly, some pickled carrot slaw, coriander and topped with a yuzu aioli. Bahn Mi Boys and Momofuku Noodle House fans would love these.

Pork belly steamed buns (1)

I love deviled eggs and glad they are now showing up more on menus. At One, theirs are made with smaller quail egg and topped with caviar, a sprinkling of chives and some sweet pickled shallot.

Italian creations were served including a fried risotto cake filled with a creamy buffalo mozzarella cheese and topped with basil and balsamic. A delicious and rich mushroom risotto was also passed around, something I could definitely have a bigger portion of. Of course, the shaved truffles sprinkled on top doesn't hurt either.

Risotto cakes (1)

Mushroom risotto spoons (1)

Seafood spoons made their way around including a blue crab with avocado sweetened slightly with a red onion marmalade. My favourite, so much so that I had three, was the plump sweet pieces of butter poached lobster. Simple but absolutely delicious.

Crab and avocado spoons (1)

There was even a couple of desserts being passed at the end including hot freshly made mini doughnuts (I tried the cinnamon sugar) and rich raspberry cheesecake bites.

We didn't leave empty handed, with a gift bag of merchandise thrown in. The best item was an autographed copy of McEwan's cookbook Great Food At Home. 

Unlike most foodies, I'm not much of a cookbook collector. Personally, I believe we should let the experts do what they do best and this means I will not be attempting dishes with 20 ingredients, take two days to prepare and require a blowtorch. While waiting for the bathroom at Alinea (there's only one stall), they had their cookbook outside to keep waiters entertained. I was shocked to see that one recipe could reference three other recipes throughout the book and a simple powder for garnishing calls for ten ingredients and has to be prepared a day beforehand.

So, I was pleasantly surprised, while flipping through 'Great Food At Home', to see that almost all recipes were only a page long and many contained less than ten ingredients. They didn’t seem daunting and appears like something I can make. You can head here to get your own copy of Great Food At Home.

Not pictured, but also within our gift bag, was also a bottle of Stoneleigh sauvignon blanc. I ended up giving it to Owen, patron we met at the bar, in hopes he'll add it into his wine collection amongst the $100+ bottles. The @theuncorkedbtl and I had met him while hanging around the bar. He ended up treating us to a nice bottle of red wine and regaled us with such interesting conversation.

I had gone to the McEwan All Access event wanting to get Mark’s thoughts about the changing landscape for restaurateurs. There's so much choice for customers with restaurants opening up in every nook and cranny - some are even driven around in the form of brightly coloured food trucks! Add in social media and food bloggers (everyone has an opinion and admittedly I’m guilty of expressing mine) and customer expectations are increasing and likely becoming more demanding. Alas, in our conversations I never did get a chance to understand Mark's view on this new environment and how he stays competitive.

So, it was a lucky fluke that I met Owen, a loyal customer of One. On the Monday of the event, he had stopped by the bar just to have a couple of glasses of wine and watch football. My question to him - what was it about One that keeps him coming back?

He narrowed it down to:
  1. Location – he’s not going to travel far and valet is always a plus;
  2. Layout – he dislikes posts disrupting his (and staff members) views;
  3. Good food; and
  4. A restaurant who’s willing and able to build a relationship. For him, he has no qualms of visiting a place and spending lots of money on food and wine. But, the restaurant needs to recognize that and reciprocate with a last minute reservation if he ever requires. A win-win situation some would say.

As a blogger I visit a lot of restaurants. Indeed, many of them are outstanding and I'd like to visit regularly. But, with little resources and so many options available, I can't help but desire trying something new. Those that I consistently visit is inevitably due to its proximity (again all about location). But, it's questionable whether I'm racking up the bill totals that would be impressive enough for a restaurant to remember me (somehow I sense $50 bottles of wine won’t classify me for an elite status).

So, although it's important to maintain a positive social media presence. It doesn’t guarantee you success. Being able to produce good food and hiring the right staff who recognizes loyal customers are perhaps the most important factors for longevity. Also, locating yourself around target customers is important – for fine dining restaurants, affluent individuals tend not to trek to the city borders to eat and subject themselves to Green P parking and rustic dining rooms. In the end, it seems to come down to every business's fundamentals - know your customer, meet their needs, don't let quality slip and innovate as necessary.

And it's seems that Mark McEwan has mastered this formula. Although he will pleasantly converse with me and make me feel welcomed, it’s unlikely he’ll depend on me. Rather, making patrons like Owen feel valued so that they'll walk in on a Monday to have $40 glasses of wine and watch the game, that’s the likely secret to his success.

Follow me on twitter to chat, be notified about new posts and more -

Photo Sources:

  1. Photos were generously provided by Jeffrey Chan courtesy of The McEwan Group

One on Urbanspoon