First Look: Robbie Hojilla lands at Lake Inez, a restaurant by the team behind The Wren


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Image: Jason Finestone

Lake Inez bears no sign (yet), save for the elegant etching of its name into the glass pane on a white antique door – a name that comes from a once unknown lake in Michigan, where co-owner Zac Schwartz’s grandparents built a country home.

“Most of the world didn’t know it, but for those that did, it was a sacred place,” Schwartz says. Perhaps Lake Inez the restaurant will thrive on the same essence?

The front window is half-curtained, tempting passersby to step inside for a first look at the newly minted Gerrard Street East restaurant. Through the gateway one’s eyes are immediately lead towards the far wall with an elaborate Byzantine mosaic depicting Virginia Woolf and Kate Bush. The two literary inspirations for Schwartz, who, alongside Kimeda and Ciappara, designed and constructed most of the space.


(IMAGE: JASON FINESTONE)

 

Dennis Kimeda and Patrick Ciappara grew up together and were pals throughout high school. When Kimeda opened up The Wren on the Danforth several years back, Ciappara, a Development Manager for a major Canadian bank, begged his buddy to let him work there. It became his “social life” outside of work. Schwartz was one of The Wren’s early employees, as well, and the three became a natural team when Ciappara began to push for a new project. 

“We wanted to open up something different in the neighbourhood,” says Ciappara. 

“At one point the deal almost fell through,” Kimeda recalls. “To be honest, I almost wanted it to. Opening up a restaurant is so bananas. But the guys really helped push things through.” 

“I wanted to do craft beer again – just wanting to go for it,” he says.


(IMAGE: JASON FINESTONE)

 

Lake Inez has a rotating, all-Ontario craft beer list, that flows from their 24 draught lines that run through the mosaic’s façade. They currently have 18 on the roster, with locals like the Left Field's oatmeal brown ale, Eephus; Ritual Madness, a Flanders Red by Indie Alehouse and more well-travelled brews like the Royal City Hibiscus Saison from Guelph and Bench's Clean Slate, Brett Saison. 


(IMAGE: JASON FINESTONE)

 

During the nine-month construction project, they began courting Chef Robbie Hojilla (Harbord Room, Hudson Kitchen, Ursa, Woodlot). Chef Hojilla has a long CV, but has been limited to cooking food that isn’t quite his own, aside from a series of Filipino pop-ups and other events.

“A lot of the chef’s we interviewed were so vanilla,” Kimeda admits. “We’d ask what kind of food they cook, and they’d be like ‘I can do whatever you guys want’. We were looking for a chef that wanted to cook their own food.” 

“We were honestly nervous the first time we went to meet with Robbie,” Schwartz bashfully admits. “It was like going on a first date. We knew how incredible his food was and we were trying to play it cool, but we wanted to work with him so badly.”

“I didn’t give it serious thought at the beginning, but then as it came closer and we got to talking more, I really liked the guys and their vision,” Chef Hojilla says. “I’d been wanting to do this sort of food for a while. It’s a piece of my own and it was a great opportunity.”

The pan-Asian flavours are reflective of both Chef Hojilla's Filipino background and influences from cuisines he loves like Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean, which are complemented by the use of seasonal North American ingredients to bring his personal touch to the table. 

BC Snapper Kinilaw ($16, lead photo) is a creamy Filipino style ceviche made with coconut vinegar and served with crispy cassava chips. And the Thai Winter Vegetable Salad ($13) sees local root vegetables like parsnip, kale, apple and carrot married together by mortar and pestle with bright seasonings of fish sauce, lime, palm sugar, chili dried fried shrimp and crushed peanuts.

“We’re super multicultural in Toronto, of course – I was born in the Philippines and I grew up here – sometimes people are like ‘That’s not authentic’, or whatever that means, but for me this is authentic,” Chef Hojilla says when describing his cooking style. “I didn’t grow up in the Philippines, and I trained with French techniques and worked with a handful modernist chefs, so that’s what’s authentic to me”.


(IMAGE: JASON FINESTONE)

 

Braised Mussels ($19) are served in a Filipino sinigang broth, with smoked ham hock and tamarind, enriched with aromatic fennel, chilies and topped with crunchy pork crackling. 

A Vietnamese-style Grilled Pork Chop ($25) is cooked over Japanese charcoal and glazed with a fish sauce caramel and placed atop sweet potato puree, pineapple salsa and cashews. Each bite is a reflection of how Chef Hojilla defines his cuisine – and complementary to the ever-evolving craft beer list. Same goes for the Pan Seared Duck Leg ($24), served on ginger lime and fish sauce infused arroz caldo, a type of Filipino sticky rice congee. 

"There’s a lot of passion. Everything’s coming from the heart,” says Chef Hojilla.

“It’s a creative outlet,” says Kimeda. “It’s like an album. You write it and it’s done. You can’t just not write another album again.”

Lake Inez, 1471 Gerrard St. E., 416-792-1590


(IMAGE: JASON FINESTONE)

 


(IMAGE: JASON FINESTONE)

 

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Jason is a freelance food and travel writer and the Chief Experience Officer at U-Feast, a website to discover unique, off-menu dining experiences. A lover of dumplings, noodle soups and schmaltz, his ethnically inclined palate is constantly searching for the next flavour wave in Toronto and beyond. Find him on Instagram @finest_one and on Twitter @j_finestone.

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