Boehmer: the gentle giant of Ossington’s restaurant row

March 20, 2024
Photography By Amy Pigeon

I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Paul Boehmer in 2010 when he first opened his fabulous restaurant Boehmer on Toronto’s very cool Ossington Avenue, located in Toronto’s west end. Ossington back then was anything but the high energy, hot bar and restaurant street it is today. Boehmer, which was originally an auto garage laden with oil cans and cars parts, was transformed by Paul’s vision who saw it as a unique opportunity to build a statement restaurant and make Ossington a destination worthy of discovering for those seeking out a unique dining experience. To be certain it was an adventurous idea fraught with risk, but true to his character as a lover of adventure himself, he boldly built this statement restaurant to the delight of food aficionados.

Next year will be Paul’s 15th anniversary. An amazing testament to tenacity, creativity and excellence that has seen him weather recessions, lockdowns and a plethora of competitors that now crowd the once bare street of Ossington. The design of Boehmer has stood the test of time. Where “trendier” restaurants must reimagine themselves every 2-3 years to stay relevant, Boehmer has held to its original look and vision. Treat people like you care (and he does), give them amazing service (and they do), and delight them with amazing food that stirs the senses and, most importantly, excites the palate (and it does), in a warm, eclectically cool but earthy environment (and it is). And people will come to love you and keep coming back (and they do).

Differentiating yourself in the highly congested world of Toronto’s wonderful restaurants is not easy. But you immediately feel when you enter Boehmer that there’s an aura of kindness. Like all great businesses, it starts from the top: Paul’s spirit permeates the culture of his team. Recently, he appointed Joseph Larita, his sous-chef who has been by his side for several years, to be the Executive Chef of the restaurant. Paul places less value on his personal title or ego, and more on employee recognition. This flows through his servers, how you are greeted at the door, and how your drink is poured by the barman. Some of his handpicked staff have tenure of up to 12 years.

For transparency purposes, Paul, has become a close friend over the years, which gives me possibly a slightly better insight to the man than most see when they first experience the very real warmness of this kind giant. At 6’7″, Paul is undoubtedly the tallest chef in Toronto. But he doesn’t tower over his staff or anyone for that matter, he kind of floats through the restaurant chatting with his patrons, often sitting with them and offering them a glass of wine on the house, while drifting through the restaurant’s kitchen, putting his magic touch on the renowned dishes the restaurant serves. There is an unassuming beauty to this giant of a man. An unpretentious loveliness that all too often is absent in the ego-centric nature of perceived chef culture.

Paul doesn’t have the classic training one would expect from someone of his caliber. Some would be surprised when your food hits your palette at Boehmer that he didn’t study at Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu. His beginnings were humble, inspired by his father Fritz Boehmer who was an abstract artist of note and arrived from Germany in 1956. He was also, apparently, a great cook. In his early years, Paul happened to meet the extraordinary Michael Stadtländer. “Michael took me under his wing and for two years mentored me and heavily influenced how I look at food. I grew from mentored helper to a sous chef and then, ultimately, a chef at fine restaurants like Scaramouche and others.” He speaks fondly of his time with Michael, who gave him his start and they are close friends to this day.

Notably, Boehmer celebrates the work of great artists from around the globe, which decorate the expansive 4,000 square feet of space. Unsurprisingly, a fabulous portrait by Frank Webber of ever-missed Anthony Bourdain (one of my culinary adventuring heroes) is front and centre. The similarity between these men (Bourdain and Boehmer) is not lost on me.

A heavy wood slab dining table that seats 18 with, soft and creative lighting and simple furnishing that create a warm ambiance are part of the restaurants signature feel. “The centre table is built from old beams we pulled out of the ceiling,” noted Paul. “The long benches were created from those same beams. When the workmen were on site, they fashioned these amazing, powerfully long benches ,so they could sit and eat their lunch. They turned to me one day and said: ‘When we get rid of these, what kind of seating will you use?’ I replied: ‘The very benches you crafted and are sitting on… they’re fabulous.'”

At the height of the pandemic, Paul developed the novel idea of delivering his restaurant’s secret recipes in a very transparent format, ingredients and all, to some of his valued patrons. I was fortunate enough to be one of those. He sent an email with a zoom video invite and right on time showed up at 7 p.m. to coach this neophyte through the process of making dinner. It brought a little joy to our home and gave us a little hope during uncertain times, in addition to an amazing homecooked Boehmer-style meal.

But back to the man and his unassuming character. I inquired about his win on Iron Chef Canada, where he went head-to-head with the incredible Susur Lee. He lights up. “I was two seconds behind Susur in presenting my dish to the judges. I knew that was not a good thing until I saw their expressions as they tasted my dish. I got a 12 versus my colleague’s 10. It was a great moment and, ultimately, I won the title.” And, he states this not in a gloating way: there’s an undertone of sadness that his friend lost but pride that he had come out on top. Humility is in short supply these days and it was a special moment for me seeing how he handled this question.

But the meal was surely not all about Paul. It was about the food. My guests for the evening were my two wonderful daughters. Beautiful, intelligent young women that make me ever so proud. Our busy lives rarely see the three of us at the same table, so the welcoming warmth of Boehmer was a fitting location for us to convene.

The food surely did not disappoint. We started with three incredible appetizers. Pan-seared, heart-stopping Fois Gras with Bourbon-infused, maple syrup-glazed apples, with Eigensinn Farm black currents, all nestled on a toasted brioche and cooked to perfection. A grilled octopus teaser came next with niçoise olives, and tomatoe passata infused with Spanish chorizo and Aji Amarillo (a Peruvian yellow chilli pepper). Lastly, a brilliant Hamachi Crudo: delicate and delicious! Hokkaido Hamachi with leche de tigre, vibrant blood orange and fine herbs. Accompanied by a lovely California, lightly oaked chardonnay.

The main event saw the arrival of a Rabbit Cannelloni cooked to perfection. Made with spinach, pasta and lightly bathed with prosciutto bechamel, brussel spout leaves and Kobocha squash purée. Dreamy would be the best way to describe that sensorial experience.

A grilled Branzino was served up in a surprising coconut broth infused with chilli oils, basil, coriander and pickled shallots. A touch of Vietnam-inspired cuisine made this a nice touch to the already outstanding menu. An Ontario rack of venison appeased this outdoorsman’s heart, but served beautifully rare and tender in a salsify puree, with parslied shallots, forest mushrooms, and once again Eigensinn Farm (Michael Stadtlander’s home farm) black currant jus.

The finale was a sinful Maple Bourbon Crème Brulee with an almond biscotti. The description understates the magnificent explosion of flavour that my mouth enjoyed while consuming it.

The true testament to the dinner was the quiet enjoyment my daughters and I had, sharing and exchanging stories, and somewhat stunned glances every time we delighted in a mouthful of Paul’s culinary artistry.

The night finished off with me hugging my daughters goodnight and sitting at the bar with Paul, laughing and talking about times gone by.

In terms of value, cuisine and overall experience, I give Boehmer a 10/10. I have had the great privilege of dining at wonderful restaurants around the world. I’ve had more than my share of Michelin-starred restaurant experiences, sat eating by the campfire with the Masaii in Tanzania, consumed the freshest of fish with handmade tzatziki from a seaside family restaurant in Santorini and tried the finest pasta at the footsteps of the Duomo in Milano. These were all great memories with wonderful food and wonderful experiences. A night at Boehmer rates up there in this writer’s life experiences with the best of the best.

As I bid Paul “au revoir” and walked down Ossington Avenue on a dark rainy evening, I was touched by the emotion of the evening. A wonderful time with my little girls (now strong women in their 30s) and a fabulous evening with Paul, fuelled by great conversations, wondrous food and exceptional wine. Life does not get a lot better than this.

Bon Appetite!

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Story by Thomas Pigeon
Photography by Amy Pigeon

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