When it was announced that Toronto’s own rock star chef, Susur Lee, would be packing up his pots and pans and heading to New York City, foodies across town wept. The closing of Susur, one of his two eponymous restos (Lee, located right next door, is the other), felt like a feather being ripped from the city’s culinary cap. Though the chef promised to occasionally get behind the stove at Lee, whenever he’s back in Toronto, his main focus would be Shang, a new venture in the Thompson hotel in NYC.
While many wouldn’t have thought twice about handing the kitchen over to another capable chef, continuing to let the
money roll in, Lee felt it wouldn’t be right to keep Susur going without its namesake at the helm. So the restaurant closed its doors in May. And many thought that was it.
“I thought it was crazy to open another restaurant,” says Brenda Bent, the chef’s wife and one of the designers of the eatery that now occupies Susur’s former digs. She explains that Lee didn’t want to rent out the space, handing his kitchen over to strangers, nor did he want to leave the staff out in the cold. So a new restaurant was the only solution, with the torch (or stove, as it were) being passed to Lee’s long-time right hand man, Dominic Armanal.
Madeline’s, named for the chef’s mother, is a radical departure from Susur. It’s the kind of place that you could drop by and have dinner with friends or family, or start a night out on the town. “With Susur, you didn’t come on a night you were going to the theatre. Dinner was the theatre,” Bent says.
The look at Susur did indeed allow the food to take centre stage, a stark, white space that featured little ornamentation. Lee wanted the Madeline’s experience to begin with a room that had a distinct vibe of its own. “It had to be really different from Susur. Darker, more elaborate. Sexier,” says Bent.
The minimalist Susur room proved to be the perfect canvas for a new design, requiring minimal preparation. “Greg Colucci [the architect responsible for Susur] did everything really well. Architects approach longevity differently,” Bent says. She mentions that having elements like floors that had held up against wear and tear during the seven years that Susur was open was a big help with both time and budget. “Without good bones to work with, we wouldn’t have known where to start.”
Bent enlisted pal Karen Gable to co-design the space. Taking a look at Madeline’s, it’s not surprising to learn that both have a background in fashion design. The space is a veritable feast of texture, pattern and colour, heaped in seemingly endless layers. “The room has a lot of movement to it,” Gable says. “There’s always something different to look at and it’s all just kind of swirling.” Sounds like a room that might give you a headache, or maybe at least a case of the spins, but it’s true when she says the room is “calm, but complicated.”
Bent and Gable approached the design process in much they same way they would if designing a clothing collection. Rather than carefully planning everything on paper, they went shopping, picking out flocked wallpapers, richly coloured textiles and decorative bits like antique frames. “When you look around you can see that you would have to have a lot of flexibility to create this,” says Bent of the trial and error method they used to coordinate the many patterns of the wallpaper, velvet upholsteries and custom-created laser cut screens. “Our kind of hands-on approach was more like a fashion process.” Seems like a perfect match with owner Lee, who Jeanne Beker once called “the Karl Lagerfeld of the kitchen.”
The design is a little bit of a lot of different things. Many elements are custom, and, fittingly, there is no pretention in the design -it’s not about such-and-such a chair, or so-and-so’s fabric. What you see is what you get. But you get plenty. cI
There’s always something new to look at at Madeline’s. Whimsical decorative elements -such as stuffed chickens, dressed in accessories like hats and coats, and housed in boxes behind antique frames -adorn the dining room’s walls. The numerous swirling patterns, vibrant colours and rich textures are all anchored by plenty of black and dark wood on the laser-cut screens, the floors and tables.