Inside Bar Vendetta, Jen Agg’s revamp of the Black Hoof

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Bar Vendetta (928 Dundas West, at Gore Vale, 416-551-8854, barvendetta.com) is the new incarnation of The Black Hoof, the groundbreaking charcuterie spot that sold the city on nose-to-tail dining, launched the career of owner Jen Agg in earnest, and paved the way for a thousand loud, rowdy snack bars.

When Agg decided she was taking the Hoof out on a high note last summer, but still planned hang onto the space, anticipation was high for what would come next. A little over a year, one reno, and a generous application of orange wallpaper and colourblocked linoleum later, the space is once again open for business, with a new menu from chef James Santon, bar manager David Greig and sommelier Jake Skakun, all of whom are partners in the space.

The concept: A laid-back pasta and wine bar, with a few left turns.

As tough as it was to say goodbye to the Hoof, Agg says the early reception to the new space, which has been open since mid-September, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People make a point of telling me how ‘special’ it is, and plates are coming back scraped clean,” Agg says via email. “It’s all very exciting.”

The long, narrow space is barely recognizable, with a wood slatted overhang (built by Boylan and Barlow Construction) shielding the bar where a giant mirror used to be. (The mirror now occupies place of pride at Le Swan on Queen West.) The Hoof’s famous patio, though, is just about as we left it last summer – albeit with a cool new paint job and a Spy vs. Spy mural.

Vendetta wears Agg’s love of music on its paisley-patterned sleeve, with a sweet framed poster featuring Blondie’s Debby Harry presiding over the front window and posters for everyone from the Strokes to Sufjan Stevens hanging by the intimate tables at the back.

“It just fits – I used to DJ in that space when it was Cocktail Molotov and Roland (Jean, Agg’s husband) and I had just started dating,” she says. “Places sort of tell you what they are, or at least that’s always been my experience.”

Much of the food menu recalls classic Italian dishes, but Santon decided to take the local-first attitude of Italian cuisine and apply it to what’s around him in the city. “Like, I can use fish sauce and soy sauce and stuff, because those are ‘Toronto’ ingredients, and we’re so multicultural,” Santon says. He adds that already had at least one ‘this isn’t Italian’ complaint – “but this is my interpretation of Italian food.”

Pastas and veggie-forward dishes make up the main menu. Much of it, Santon adds, is vegetarian-friendly and gluten-free – except for the pastas. (“It’s not the same,” he says.)

The food menu is bookended by a daily muffuletta sandwich special during the afternoon, plus nachos after hours. The former was a staff meal at Swan everyone instantly loved; the latter’s just there, Santon says, because “people love nachos.”

The specials let the kitchen mix things up while appealing to the service industry crowd, he says. “Even when the Hoof opened, it was a place for cooks and servers to come. We’re just keeping that tradition going.”

Playing to their core customer base also led Agg and Co. to decide to only open Sunday through Thursday, a decision that seemingly flies in the face of conventional hospitality-industry wisdom. But despite some minor Internet griping (and the profoundly confusing feeling, Santon says, of being off on a Friday and Saturday for the first time in recent history), the plan seems to be working out so far.

“I think the people we are attracting right now are extremely stoked on it,” Agg says. “It’s good to take risks.”

Here’s a closer look at the menu:

Trecce pasta is dressed in pesto made from broccolini, anchovy, browned garlic and chili and topped with guanciale, roasted mushrooms and taleggio cheese.

Santon roasts Tinkerbell eggplant with olive oil, salt and lemon juice and serves them on high-fat yogurt with olive oil-fried pistachios, mint and smoked paprika (which lends a meaty undertone).

The bruschetta is made with heirloom tomatoes from Tamarack Farms that are grown from seeds imported from Italy. They roast them in the oven until they’re essentially dehydrated, then served on housemade sourdough with smoked ricotta and herbs.

The cocktail menu is focused on easy-drinking highballs. Greig describes the Quiet American, with Campari, sweet vermouth, orange La Croix and prosecco, as “a very simple play on a Negroni Sbagliato”.

Santon makes gelato in-house, with flavours changing nearly every day. This combo (tahini and Concord grape) is a riff on a PB&J. 

Skakun’s lengthy, wide-ranging wine selection includes skin-contact and sparkling varieties, plus over a dozen by the glass options. During renos, the team added a brand-new temperature- and humidity-controlled wine cellar, plus two dedicated wine fridges behind the bar to make sure everything is served at just the right temperature.

On the way to the bathrooms: Pasta wallpaper.

@nataliamanzocco