The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is an expression of contrasts. Its facets are modern and ancient; ornate and modest; serious and whimsical. The striking, stark, and angular exterior of the museum is a combination of old and new worlds. Reminiscent of a palace but with all the trappings of modernity, it is, without a doubt, one of the city’s most striking cultural centres.
Its interior, exterior, and galleries aptly reflect the multi-faceted, global, and historic traditions associated with the Islamic world.
Developed as a centre of education and learning, the museum offers insight into Islamic civilizations from ancient to contemporary times, with the aim to foster mutual understanding and tolerance. Its collections span from the 8th to the 21st century and traverse the globe, from Spain to South East Asia.
This theme of contrast extends to the menu of the museum’s on-site restaurant, Diwan. The restaurant is guided by the McEwan Group, led by celebrity chef, Mark McEwan, who lends his expertise to create a simple yet refined menu, which showcases the best ingredients from the breadth of the Islamic world.
Diwan’s menu draws inspiration from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, all of which lends itself to a diverse and exploratory experience of flavors, influence, tradition, and trend.
The restaurant is, like the Aga Khan museum itself, a delicate balance of old and new. Art from 19th century Damascus adorns the walls of the dining room, artifacts so ornate that they belong in the museum galleries, but instead are displayed for the enjoyment of the restaurant’s patrons. Austere, sleek, and elegant table settings contrast the historic art and reflect the scope and contrast inherent within the menu.
Currently, Diwan is capitalizing on its comfortable and trendy patio, which overlooks the Aga Khan garden and serves a selection of casual dishes, barbecued fare, and mezes, perfect for communal sharing.
A must try is the Mezes Platter, a perfect starter or sharing plate. Served atop a wooden platter, the dish includes many middle-eastern favorites. Creamy hummus is served streaked with fragrant sumac, providing a lemony kick to the beloved dip. Pressed labneh – strained yogurt, formed into small spheres resembling bocconcini and rolled in Persian spices – is so rich and textured it is a call for pause. The charcuterie, a coupling of bastırma (air-cured beef) and kalbas (Persian mortadella) offer richness and firm and soft textures, respectively, which is countered by sour pickles and crunchy, hot pink pickled turnips. This dish is made for sharing while swapping stories, and goes perfectly with a chilled glass of rose.
Heartier fare can be found from the grill. The lamb burger is a thick and liberally seasoned patty topped with airy whipped feta, house-pickled cucumber slices, and fresh heirloom tomatoes, all atop a dense yet forgiving potato bun. The complexity of the lamb is met by the abundance of fresh and crisp toppings to make for one of the better lamb burgers in the city.
The Paratha taco offers a spin on the traditional chicken shawarma. Shaved chicken is served on a buttery, flaky pita and well dressed with tomatoes, cilantro, and garlic sauce. It is sure to satisfy both a taco and shawarma craving.
More traditional appetites can be met by the chicken kabob, which is carefully marinated, grilled and served alongside a generous heaping of crisp salad with citrus tahini and grilled pita.
The setting of the patio, with a mix of bistro tables and comfortable couch-like seating, large umbrellas, and a tranquil view is a great stop-off for a casual lunch or a sip and a snack after work.
Along with the extensive collections, restaurant and patio, the Aga Khan Museum also boasts a number of venues available for private events, including a glass-enclosed courtyard, a Persian salon-inspired room, and a 350 seat auditorium.
For restaurant hours, please visit Diwan’s website.