It took a chef with almost 20 years of experience in fine dining to have the cojones to open the city’s first meatball-only restaurant.
Rod Bowers has been thinking about meatballs for three years, since he was honeymooning with his wife in Turkey. “They don’t have fast-food places there, but they have kofta houses, where they grill little meatballs and serve them with bread,” the chef says. “I thought, ‘This is amazing, I have to bring this back to Toronto.’”
He’s chosen the ideal time to open his new restaurant Hey Meatball!, an unassuming joint near College and Ossington where diners place their order at the counter and can grab one of the 30 seats. The city is in the midst of a love affair with both simple Italian fare and street eats. Hey Meatball!—which, for now, only has three mains and two sides on its menu—brings the two together.
Originally slated for a July launch, the restaurant didn’t serve its first meatball until September. “This used to be a convenience store, so we had to get a food retail licence,” says Bowers. “It took me two months just for the city to tell me I could have seating.” Restaurant scenesters waited: When a highly regarded chef decides to devote almost two decades of cooking experience to perfecting the meatball, people pay attention. This is Bowers’ first restaurant since he sold The Rosebud and The Citizen in 2009. Since then, he’s consulted on menus for Bay Street bistro The Gabardine and Hrvati Bar, a Croatian spot in Seaton Village.
Each morning, Bowers and manager Kyle Brown roll out 400 meatballs. “A perfect meatball has to have a good ratio of fat, meat and panade [a paste of starch and liquid that ensures the meatballs stay moist],” says Bowers. He also adds in a healthy dose of Sriracha hot sauce. There are two types of meatball: a pork and beef mixture (served on bread) or pork-only meatballs (served on pasta). The bolognese sandwich, called the Rodfather, features three piping-hot meatballs slathered in homemade tomato sauce (made with home-jarred tomatoes) on toasted ciabatti. Bowers finishes it with a drizzle of olive oil. Eating one is a messy affair: A meatball will fall onto your plate and sauce will drip down your chin, but this is a place where licking one’s fingers seems more appropriate than grabbing a napkin. Fresh pasta arrives each morning from a supplier in Mississauga—the shape (be it spaghetti or rigatoni) changes daily.
The vegetarian meatballs are also good. They’re made with ground eggplant and mushrooms that are cooked with onions and garlic until they caramelize. The veggies are mixed with ricotta, Parmesan and panade before they’re rolled into balls. They’re served on a velvety bed of polenta and topped with a Parmesan and cream sauce.
The menu is a work in progress. Bowers plans to add other kinds of meatballs—perhaps a chicken version, a sweet-and-sour ball with rice like Bowers’ mom made when he was growing up, or ones in the Vietnamese style for bánh mì subs—and have more sauce options, including alfredo, pesto and bolognese. Bowers is also cooking up a plan to convert his catering truck to a meatball-mobile. Considering how long his fans had waited for this restaurant, what’s another month or two?
719 College St., 416-546-1483, heymeatball.ca. #COL