Deep in the heart of midtown, in the Davisville neighbourhood near Yonge and Eglinton, sits a treasure. Zee Grill (641 Mt Pleasant Rd) is one of oldest and best oyster bars and seafood restaurants in the city. They have been sourcing and serving the finest oyster, clams, mussels, lobsters and fish – as well as an excellent selection of duck, steak and lamb – since 1981. That’s a long time to keep your head above water in the restaurant business. Zee Grill has managed to survive and thrive in a sea of competition. The restaurant is owned and operated by Jac and Beth Eckhardt — a chef and sommelier husband and wife team. We spoke with Mr. Eckhardt to learn about the secret to their success.
So Jac, what sets Zee Grill apart from other seafood restaurants?
That’s a difficult question to answer but I’ll try. I think the main difference is the composition of our dishes. For example, our tuna. We plate it in a variety of flavors without the flavors getting in the way of each other. Our tuna is served rare only and seared in a crust of Cajun style spices. We serve it with shiitake mushrooms that are sautéed in a ginger carrot broth.
It comes with shanghai bok choy, a bit of mango salsa, pickled daikon and fermented cabbage. It is finished with an asparagus spring roll, with fresh wasabi and soy on the side.
I don’t think that a lot of seafood restaurants go to the extent of making every single plate different. We do.
That sounds like a brilliant dish and approach! What’s your most popular menu item and why?
Our grilled calamari and our crab cakes are extremely popular and are in the appetizer category, however, lots of people order just appetizers and share them for the table. As a main, our tuna is something that is impossible for me to take off our menu. I would lose some clientele if I did.
We noticed that you refer to Zee Grill as the oldest seafood restaurant in the city — when and why was it founded?
We opened in 1981 and we have been the sole owners of Zee Grill since. We opened as Phebes Oyster Bar but changed that name to Zee Grill in 1998. The reason for the name change was simple: we started to drift away from the simple and short oyster bar menu and I was getting into a more diverse cooking style. Zee is Dutch for Sea. I am Dutch. The reason we opened the restaurant is simple, I am a chef and Beth is a certified sommelier.
It seems like opening the restaurant and changing your focus were the right decisions! Is there anything special about the fish you serve? For example, is it sustainable or sashimi-grade?
I like to serve wild caught fish and other seafood like shrimp, squid etc. I am all for sustainable and therefore I try to source my products from respectable companies. I like to buy Ocean Wise product as long as it is not farmed. If it is farmed and I buy it, it has to be organic.Organic fish for example is not fed with hormones or antibiotics. I also use sashimi grade fish and other seafood for some of my dishes. Yellow fin tuna, scallops for our ceviches and other fish types for our crudo or carpaccio.
Thank you for speaking with us, Jac! Your success and longevity at Zee Grill is not surprising. You and your wife obviously take great pride in what you serve and invest in quality ingredients that speak for themselves. It’s no wonder Zee Grill has become a fixture of the Davisville community over the past few decades.