Monday, November 18, 2013

Evergreen Brick Works

Executive summary by darmansjah

New life for a former industrial wasteland

Change, however, can sometimes go unnoticed by locals. The downside of the city  of neighborhoods is that in Toronto, people often don’t leave their own. In the spirit of investigating one of Toronto’s newest areas, I find myself early one Saturday morning on a free shuttle bus to Evergreen Brick Works.

The Don Valley was once the mouth of a glacial river. Now this green strip of land divides the eastern and western halves of the city. Years ago, l lived nearby, and I’d take long runs through the ravines into the valley as the traffic rumbled on the surrounding freeways. It never failed to astound me that only minutes from downtown, I could spot a rabbit, or a lone fisherman trying to get the Don River to give up a carp.

The recent opening of the Evergreen Brick Works, the revitalized site of the abandoned Don Valley Brick Works, has turned the valley into a hot destination. For years, the massive smokestacks and kilns sheltered squatters and served as a practice canvas for graffiti artists. But a charity called Evergreen reclaimed the ignored lands, turning them into an area of nonprofit urban sustainability. Not really knowing what this means, I discover as soon as I get off the bus at the basin of the Don Valley that the eco-jargon translates into a fun Saturday morning. Joggers have ended their runs at the farmers market, making up for burned calories with French fries and artisanal cheeses.

Behind the market, in the children’s Garden, kids crawl in a wood fort and dig for worms. Mountain bikers who have survived the trails lean against buildings, soaking up a blast of sun. it’s so pleasant that I’m not even annoyed by the guy with the didgeridoo.

“The Bricks Works isn’t some hippie-dippie experiment,” says Brad Long, the gravelly voiced chef who runs the Brick Works restaurant Café Belong. “OK, it’s an experiment, but it’s not crazy.” Pause. “Well, crazy in a good way.”

Long is one of Toronto’s celebrity chefs-his past as a journeyman rock musician makes him highly telegenic and delightfully profane. Absorbing hellos from everyone he passes, Long walks me up a hill to point out the paths that wind through the grass from the neighborhoods above, a 26-miles walking circle. In the summer, wildflowers bloom on once toxic soil. “Come at night,” says Long. “The whole city is alight.”

Before this, Long ran the restaurant at the Air Canada Centre sports arena, bringing organic fare to Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs and feeding haute cuisine to high rollers in the box seats. But after years struggling with the environmental footprint left by how we eat, he quit the ACC to open Café Belong, which strives to use local, organic, responsibly sourced ingredients.

The repurposed décor features expose wood over an open kitchen, with tall windows looking across at the graffiti-splattered walls of a factory (the graffiti at Brick Works are legally protected). Long points out reclaimed design elements in the infrastructure and talks up his sustainable initiatives, such as rain-barrel water sourcing. In locavore spirit, Long buys his produce from the same farmers who set up their stalls on Saturday Morning. “People ask me: What is Canadian food? It’s the beauty of our natural resources, used in this incredibly multicultural way.”

The menu is always changing, but this season, critics are hailing the pork belly glazed in maple syrup and apple cider vinegar. To get through the Canadian winters with flavor, Long is also experimenting with pickling.

Pickling has always seemed apocalyptic to me; it’s how we’ll eat at the end of the world, which doesn’t seem so delicious. But I order the pickle plate, and what appears is a sampling, including pears, carrots, and chokecherries, each uniquely flavored. My ladylike nibbling quickly becomes inelegant wolfing. The eggplant in madras sauce has a complicated, revelatory spiciness. “I’ll admit I’ve taken a jar of that home after work and eaten the whole thing before bed,” says the server. It’s even better washed down with a dry white wine from Stratus in the nearby Niagara region.

For the dinners, the emphasis is on taste, not sustainability. “ I tell my staff to shut up,” says Long. “You can scare people by explaining provenance. It’s too much information. We give them good food with value and ambience, and the trick is to get the hell out of the way.”

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