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Casually cool, fresh flavours: Why can’t every neighbourhood have a Wynona?

Casually cool, fresh flavours: Why can’t every neighbourhood have a Wynona?

Wynona opened in May on Gerrard Street East, an easy natural wine and pasta spot that arrived right on time for the city’s Great Summer of the Wine Bar. It’s on a strip that needed a dependable local, that hasn’t quite forgotten the untimely end, just a few doors away, of Saturday Dinette.

And the restaurant arrived, at least if you follow these things, as if out of air. The chef and owner isn’t a name most diners would know; Jeff Bovis, who’s originally from Vancouver, spent five years teaching English in South Korea, he said, before moving to Toronto in 2012. He worked the lines at Enoteca Sociale and Skin + Bones and then briefly ran the kitchen at Ufficio on Dundas Street West. He largely funded Wynona, he said, with his teaching-in-Korea money. As for the design, he mostly did it himself. The place shouldn’t be as good as it is.

But Wynona is the sort of spot that’s hard not to fall for: its menu is short and affordable and the service is kind and the feel here is comfortable. Mr. Bovis, who is 40, fillets his own fresh sardines, bakes his own focaccia, cures and smokes his own hams and rolls his own pastas.

And as for that design of his—the chef might just have a fallback if the kitchen life ever gets tired. The space is rendered from ash and vintage-looking plaster and textured glass, with a calm open kitchen. The windows out front open wide so the light floods in low and long at dinner, so the locals wear sunglasses as they tuck into their plates of albacore and melon crudo. Grandma vases of dried and fresh flowers cast hard, pretty shadows onto the cream-coloured walls. Wynona has the look of a cool café in London Spitalfields, maybe, but designed by a Scandinavian.

Plus, when the dishes start to arrive, you realize you’re in very good hands.

Mr. Bovis cures those sardine fillets in lemon and vinegar so they’re rich but bright, sweet, sour and toothsome. And they’re decadent above all with maritime fat. He dresses them with grace, four on a plate with roasted red pepper and herb-tossed crumbs, with a flood of excellent oil and lift from Spanish pimentón. They’re about as near as you can get on Gerrard Street East to the taste of the Iberian coast.

The chef’s salad of house-smoked ham and vegetables shifts west, to France; it’s a Niçoise salad of sorts, but with sheets of applewood-cured capocollo instead of fish. That salad’s textures and flavours are crisp and bright; the green beans and asparagus come barely-cooked and crunchy, mixed with mild red radishes and a sliced boiled egg. It’s all tossed in mustard seed vinaigrette. It’s the sort of dish you eat with your fingers until you realize it’s gone and you never even paused to set down your glass of wine.

Mr. Bovis dresses thick, ivory-yellow tranches of albacore tuna loin with pine nuts and mint, with a pool of oil and cucumber and with cool summer cantaloupe. Maybe it’s his age, or maybe it’s his late arrival to the industry. The chef has humility enough to stay out of his ingredients’ way.

With the lamb ribs he’s been serving lately, he knows well enough to avoid the urge to overthink. Mr. Bovis’s kitchen roasts them slow with salt and heavy cumin, then dresses them with sumac; they’re a lot as you might find them in Central Asia. But there’s also fresh peas on the plate and a bit of torn mint and fresh cool yogurt. Is this England or the Uygur Autonomous Region? Wherever he’s taken them, those lamb ribs are spicy and cool, dry and creamy, fatty and salty, dusky flavoured and greenmarket fresh. Every neighbourhood should have a spot that does lamb ribs like Mr. Bovis does.

And the pastas here are uniformly excellent; while they won’t necessarily change your life, exactly, they’re likely at least to improve your week. There’s a pongy bottarga and anchovy tangle lately that eats like a Sicilian honeymoon. It’s fresh spaghetti and zucchini zoodles, anchovy depth and sighs of stracciatella, topped with the salty piscine punch of cured South Italian mullet roe.

The agnolotti I tried on another night brought a different sort of pong: the strangely voluptuous stink of ripe Taleggio cheese. Mr. Bovis whips it up with cream and ricotta and stuffs the mix into hand-made pasta packets. He dressed them with more of those fresh peas and with gratings of summer truffle. Come to think of it, at least in the moment, maybe that pasta did change my life.

Wynona’s shortcomings, though they matter, are minor in the context of a neighbourhood spot. The house focaccia is too plain, too white, too angel food mangiacake to be memorable. (The store-bought I’ve had is just as good.) The shaved zucchini dish Mr. Bovis has been doing lately dies a little on the plate from insufficient seasoning. Zucchini will do that. It needs salt, sweet and acid to what can seem like excess.

And the pork chop at Wynona could be better than it is: it’s nicely smoky from the grill and burnished deep brown, and the seasoning is also excellent. But the chop itself didn’t taste enough like pork. (The Frenched chops at Sanagan’s are easily better.) At least when I tried it, this was the only case I noted of the chef’s shopping letting him down.

And Wynona can feel like a wine bar in name but not practice. At the best sorts of wine bars, the wine list is an argument and a bet—we know what’s great and we bet you’re going to love it. With a list like that, the service must be built on narrative and expertise.

At the best sorts of wine bars, the staff tell the story of where the wine’s from and why it’s worth drinking, so you trust in their judgement, and follow where they lead. At Wynona, not all the staff seem even to have tried the wines. If you ask, for instance, for a crisp, summery white that’s available by the glass, you may learn that they just got one in, but no idea where it’s from and maybe it’s a pinot gris and perhaps it’s from Ontario?

When I asked one night about the glass list’s skin-contact Aglianico, the server answered, “The . . . that . . . that is . . . interesting . . .” before she quickly began talking about an entirely different and far less . . . interesting wine.

When I came back to the Aglianico, the server struggled for another minute before offering to just get me a taste. (It was a pretty delicious Aglianico, by the way.) Wynona’s general manager, Hayley-Jean Lochner, seemed, by contrast, to know her stuff when she poured for us one night. I’d love to see her spread that knowledge among the staff.

But Wynona also has a naïveté—or is it humility?—that’s rare in good Toronto restaurants: do they not know they could probably charge more, and pack the tables tighter, and play louder, less crowd-friendly music and bring in the bread and the pasta and buy frozen sardines instead of fresh? Or maybe their choices are only realism at play: Gerrard Street East can keep an ambitious neighbourhood kitchen honest like that.

If that pork chop doesn’t strike your fancy, Mr. Bovis does whole, butterflied branzino on the grill, with a flood of brown butter and lemon, with capers and firm Cerignola olives, and it is a gorgeous plate of grilled fish.

He does a tiramisu too that’s nicely made but as big as a snowbank; when I ordered it a few weeks ago, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to end a summer meal like that.

Good new restaurants never sit still, though, and Wynona is better than merely good. Last weekend, on Instagram, I saw that Mr. Bovis had introduced a new dessert: a sweet white flouf of meringue, some dots of lemon curd and a passel of local berries. I’ve been thinking about that dish since the moment I saw its picture. On days when I’m stuck at my desk and life seems tough I figure I could always just head back to Wynona and have that dessert and all would be well. That’s the sort of feeling a very good neighbourhood restaurant is supposed to inspire.

Wynona

Cuisine: Canadian, Italian

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Atmosphere: A bright, beautifully designed neighbourhood wine and pasta bar with freshly cut flowers around the room. Kind service.

Sound: Reasonable

Prices: Small plates, $4 to $18, pastas, $18 to $24, large proteins, $26 to $27.

Drinks: The wine list, focused on organic and natural wines, is relatively short, but filled with very good picks. The staff’s wine knowledge is in some cases limited.

What to eat: Sardines, capocollo, lamb ribs, any of the pastas, whole branzino, a nice salad, some sort of fruity dessert. NB, menu changes seasonally.

What the symbols mean:

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Vegetarian options available

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Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible

Critic's Pick

Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.

1 star

One star (out of four). A good restaurant. Recommended.

Two stars (out of four). A very good restaurant.

Three stars (out of four). An excellent restaurant.

Four stars (out of four). An extraordinary restaurant.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Taster’s editor-in-chief and founder. He’s worked as food editor, chief critic and dining columnist at Toronto Life, restaurant critic for enRoute (he wrote the magazine’s celebrated Canada’s Best New Restaurant list in 2009), and more recently, national food reporter and Toronto restaurants columnist for The Globe and Mail. Nuttall-Smith’s writing on food, drink and other subjects has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, New York magazine, Toro and Lucky Peach. He’s also a resident judge on Top Chef Canada.