iSLAS: Comfort food with an upscale twist

Community News & Features Jan 26, 2018 at 5:04 pm
Mariel (co-owner and general manager) and Marc Buenaventura (chef and owner)

Mariel (co-owner and general manager) and Marc Buenaventura (chef and owner) (Photo: Irish Mae Silvester)

By Irish Mae Silvestre
The Philippine Reporter

At the November soft opening of Islas BBQ & Bar, chef and owner Marc Buenaventura was excited to finally unveil his restaurant’s menu to family and friends. That is, until it was time to serve the kare-kare. “The one thing I overheard was, ‘Oh, they don’t have bagoong so it’s not kare-kare,’” he mused. “So I learned that lesson; now, I have bagoong all the time and also serve it to non-Filipinos.”

Along with wife Mariel (who’s also co-owner and general manager), Marc has smoothed out the initial bumps and Isla’s BBQ & Bar, which officially opened on December 12, has since gained a steady following. And, happily, the kare-kare is now one of the most popular items on the menu.

And it’s no ordinary kare-kare: served with vegetables and peanut sauce topped with chunks of bagnet (crispy pork belly) rather than oxtail and tripe, it’s a fresh take on a classic dish. Another beloved dish that gets the Chef Marc treatment is the sinigang na salmon, which features the tamarind soup topped with a pan-seared salmon fillet.

“We didn’t want to compete with lola’s or nanay’s home cooking style,” said Marc. “That’s what you like at home; we just wanted to be more presentable to the Canadian market and also [create a place] for Filipinos to come and enjoy [the food].”

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7 Photos provided by iSLAS

Having worked at various Toronto restaurants for five years, Marc has certainly gained insight into the Canadian palette. Born in Canada and raised in Scarborough, he held several jobs before finally becoming a travel agent, all the while reading books and watching videos on cooking. He met Mariel through mutual friends during a 2010 trip to the Philippines and after traveling back and forth, the pair finally got married in 2012.

“When I moved here, we created this dream board of where we saw ourselves in five to ten years and what our personal goals were,” said Mariel. “Eventually, we wanted to have a restaurant, while I wanted to pursue a CPA here because I’m an accountant.”

Mariel found a job at Scotiabank, while Marc finally decided to take the leap and started working at various restaurants such as Joey’s, Red’s Wine Tavern, Houston Avenue Bar and Grill, and Bazille at Nordstrom.

“At every location, I learned something different,” he said, adding that he learned a great deal from the kitchen staff, including line cooks and dishwashers. “That’s the biggest thing in this industry, you can’t get too caught up in the titles. I’ve worked for chefs who didn’t know how to cook certain dishes. It’s not about the title, it’s about your vision, your goals and how you work towards that.”

That vision, however, came into fruition sooner than expected. They had initially wanted to buy a house but, with Toronto’s skyrocketing real estate, they soon found themselves priced out of the market. Looking to invest in something else, they wondered if it was the right time to turn their dream restaurant into a reality.

IMG_6349Islasto“When we were creating a business plan, we saw that there were two Filipino communities downtown: St. James Town and Parkdale,” said Mariel. “We wanted to introduce Filipino food to non-Filipinos but we still needed the Filipino market [nearby] that would support us.”

After finding the perfect space in Parkdale, they set about creating a menu of their favorite food. Counting renowned Filipino chefs and restaurateurs like JP Anglo, Nicole Ponseca and Margarita Forés as inspiration, Marc said that he wanted to create something authentic, yet familiar to non-Filipinos.

For Mariel, it was important to represent the Philippines as a whole. “As you can see on our menu we try, as much as possible, to put out specials from different provinces, like bulalo from Batangas or halo-halo from Pampanga,” she explained, adding that they’ve also decorated the hallway downstairs with pictures of Boracay so others can see that the country is “beautiful and rich in resources.”

26655037_10155794531571413_1558286446_oShe says that she has since left her job at Scotiabank and they both now spend their time running the restaurant and raising their two-year old son, Matteo. “Since Marc was always calling and I felt like I was also working at the restaurant, it seemed unfair to the company,” she said. “It’s actually pretty cool because I’m able to support him, help him and I also get to see the operations for myself because he’s working in the kitchen and I’m working in the front.”

Located on the edge of Parkdale, Islas BBQ & Bar is decidedly contemporary, with its built-in benches, hardwood floors and mid-century modern chairs. But there were also subtle tropical elements that drew the couple to the space: shelves made with wooden crates, a feature wall reminiscent of jalousie windows, and corrugated metal sheets wrapped around the bar and recreated as chandeliers. “It had the island vibe and the rustic look that we wanted,” said Mariel. “If you go to an island in the Philippines, you’d probably find a bar like this.”

“And we’re close to the lake, which reminds me of the Philippines,” said Marc. But, he added, his favorite feature is, in fact, the large window into the kitchen, which allows him to feel more connected to their guests.
“If you’re in a big restaurant, you’re just looking at orders on the computer screen or you’re just cooking steak non-stop,” he explained. “It’s a numbers game in that sense but you can’t really put too much love into that, you know. But here, when you see the customers and you see that it’s a family, you want to do better for them.”

1690 Queen Street West, (416) 533-0777, www.facebook.com/islasto, info@islasto.com

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Valentine’s Day at Islas BBQ & Bar

If your Valentine is an adventurous foodie, Islas’ February 14 menu is sure to impress. The kamayan dinner will feature oysters, pork spring rolls, empanadas, chicken barbecue, grilled squid and wine. Available from 5pm to 10pm. Call or email for reservations.

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