The new 105-seat “premium casual” restaurant is coming to us from the team behind the vegan pizza and ice cream chainlet, Virtuous Pie, the original location of which can be found just around the corner on Main Street (where I’m a regular customer). The food concept cleaves to no particular cuisine style, though the press materials I’ve seen says we can expect “globally inspired dishes with Asian flair.” This gives chef Jim Vesal, a creatively-minded Red Seal toque who came to Virtuous Pie via the systems-driven Earls, all kinds of room to play.
I walked through the 2,900 sqft space a couple of days ago. The original vision back in January, Vesal explained, was to aim for some of the finesse and complexity found at The Acorn, one of the best plant-based restaurants in the world. They would open in May – one kindly allows – to immediate glory and acclaim. Then came that meddling motherfucker of a curveball, Covid-19. The project was delayed and the concept understandably dialled down to “elevated yet approachable” (codewords for “familiar but fancy-ish”). The final draft menu for MILA nevertheless reads temptingly with bao buns, sushi cones, smash burgers, bulgogi tacos and some really interesting-sounding vegan desserts. (Come to me, gingerbread with rum caramel, pear and vanilla!) If I were a dedicated vegan there’s a degree to which I’d probably be more excited, but food is food. I’ve been impressed by Vesal’s work at Virtuous Pie so I’m all in to try his polenta bolognese, glazed tempeh ribs and whatever else he dreams up from behind the line. He’s a good chef with a vision. That matters, always.
Of course, MILA inherits some challenges that Vesal’s obvious talent won’t be able to fix. I was struck by how – even with new light fixtures and paint – it still looked and felt a lot like the restaurant it was replacing. Juniper’s layout – four very different rectangular dining spaces on multiple levels – did it few favours. Each dining area was removed from the gorgeous 12-seat foyer bar, the central feature of the project with its only entrance/exit. This made for discombobulating dining experiences. Such cloistering works in nightclubs and fine dining establishments, where the most removed, quiet and intimate corners are the most desirable seats in the house. It makes less sense in a restaurant that wants to be considered approachable. (While most eateries have two or three corner tables, Juniper had almost a dozen.) This “series of discrete zones” was purposely built into Juniper’s design to “bring a sense of comfort and intimacy.” Put another way, the original designer built the client a Ferrari assuming the client would know how to drive it. It turns out they didn’t.
There’s still well over a week to go before they plan to open (September 9th) so I hope/expect the look and feel to change considerably as new chairs come in, art is installed, and the myriad final touches that make up every restaurant’s unique interior are put in place. The opening press release hints at some awareness of this challenge:
Light, airy and welcoming, MILA’s design updates the former space’s dim lighting and neutral colours with warm pastel hues and brighter lighting. Contrast takes centre stage, with new elements playing off the old, intertwining and meeting in the central focal point: a majestic suspended light feature. Hung low to create intimacy, the fixture is populated with plants placed on coloured glass panels, thoughtfully arranged to refract and reflect the mood.
I’m excited to see how it turns out. Take a look inside…