Chris McDonald joins Barsa Taberna as consulting chef


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Acclaimed Toronto chef Chris McDonald (Cava, Avalon) is taking over Barsa Taberna's kitchen as consulting chef.

Image: Suresh Doss

The Market District's Spanish tapas restaurant, Barsa Taberna, is undergoing a big switch as chef Chris McDonald has recently joined the team as consulting chef. 

The 13 months-old restaurant opened in a heritage building across the street to the St. Lawrence Market with Chef Michael G. Smith. Initially there was much buzz about the restaurant's launch menu, a mix of hot and cold dishes that loosely played on the theme of Spanish tapas. Smith's menu was heavily influenced by global cooking and ingredients: dishes like rack of lamb with pomegranate glaze, grilled octopus with chana masala. He also featured a rotating paella special with variations on the classic Valencian rice dish. Recently, Smith handed in his notice and is soon to depart Barsa, so owner Aras Azadian turned to ex-Cava chef Chris McDonald for assistance.

McDonald has kept a low profile since leaving his post at the popular midtown restaurant. He is partly responsible for turning Toronto on to Spanish cuisine when Cava opened in 2006. He sold the restaurant to his former partner and chef Doug Penfold late last year. While he was finishing up his time there, McDonald had an accident that left him house-bound for a few months. 

A few months later, McDonald was approached by publisher Robert Rose to work on a cookbook. "I'm working on the book right now, it's a comprehensive guide to sous vide cooking for the home cook," he said. The book is due out later this year.

I met with him months ago over a meal at King Place to chat about future projects. He seemed ready (and happy) to move on from Spanish cooking; he shared his vision for a Hungarian wine bar, similar to the original incarnation of Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar but focusing more on Hungarian food. But the idea was put on hold while he recovered from his knee injury.

In early spring 2015, McDonald met Azadian and the two hit it off over their mutual love for Spanish food and culture.  McDonald says he immediately took a liking to the cavernous Barcelona-styled restaurant. After Smith's notice, Azadian tapped McDonald, who agreed to come on board as a consulting chef to tweak the restaurant's menu while they searched for the restaurant's new chef de cuisine. He's been interviewing candidates for the position for a few days. "We've had a flock of chefs come in, a guy that won Chopped Canada, some great talent," said McDonald.  

 
Chris McDonald at Cava restaurant, preparing seal shoulder from Quebec's Îles de la Madeleine. 2014

 

"The restaurant has a great location and it's beautiful, I want to give the kitchen the menu it deserves," said McDonald. "I'm working with the Barcelona tapas concept but I'm going to give it a more casual feel, more casual than Cava. It will be a fun place."

McDonald joined the team days ago, and he's been working on adjusting the menu for the summer. "I want to simplify the menus, add a few tapas options, definitely more vegetarian items," he said.

McDonald wanted to keep some details to himself but indicated that the menu will be a bit more modular for flexible ordering; croquetas can be ordered individually, for example. "I'm working on a vegetarian empanada dish with roasted eggplant and walnuts."

"We're also going for value and increasing the sizes of the dishes," McDonald said. The paella stays but it won't be a rotating version. "There will be one seafood paella, in the classic sense. No rabbit or snail for now, we'll wait for fall. And I'm going to add a creamy wild mushroom fideos version to the menu as the vegetarian option," McDonald said. Fideos is a classic Catalan pasta dish similar to paella. 

He also plans on setting up a hand cut iberico station, and rebooting drink options. One of the most adored aspects of dining at Cava was the wine selection, and McDonald is hoping to ramp up Barsa's program. "I'm bringing in some of my favourite wine suppliers, ones that we used at Cava, to Spain-ify the wine list. I'm also adding sherry to the list."

You should start seeing McDonald's additions and changes to the menu in the next two weeks, who knows, you may even find McDonald in the kitchen.

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Suresh Doss is resident food and drink writer and associate web editor at Post City Magazines. In addition to covering the culinary scene, Suresh regularly hosts food events across the GTHA. You can follow him on Twitter (@spotlightcity) or Instagram (@suresh) or email him at sureshdoss@postcity.com.

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