Dude, kill the 'tude -- 2002 was all about the food. If we're to believe mainstream media coverage of the local dining scene, 21st-century Hogtown is still stuck in neo-conservative 80s Cal-Ital luxury. The rest of us ventured off the eaten track this year to explore Toronto's genre-busting multiculti finds.
1 Cafe 668 668 Dundas West, 416-703-0668
Self-taught cook Ngoc Lam draws on her Southeast Asian heritage to create a unique spin on Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese vegetarian cuisine that travels far beyond its Buddhist roots. Forget the faux pho -- though it's exquisite -- and start with Salad Number One, a julienne of shredded deep-fried tofu, bell peppers, cuke and grilled cashews in an explosive vinaigrette. It's been at the top of 668's chart since this tiny spot opened last winter. Hubby Hon Quach fronts the narrow house with genuine hospitality, and snazzy new decor includes black rubber slipcovers recycled from Volkswagens. Café 668 exemplifies new Toronto cuisine.
2accolade 225 Front West, 416-597-1400
First at Café Societa, then at Patriot and now at Accolade, Stadtlander acolyte David Chrystian makes NOW's top three for the third time in six years. Though his current and pricey Canadian-inspired tasting menu approaches the level of Susur Lee's in quality and creativity, it's a shame to sample it in a hotel-lobby restaurant full of conventioneers only interested in surf 'n' turf. Somebody buy this boy a boîte!
3 airport lounge 492 College, 416-921-3047
Couple Ciao Edie scenester Michael Sweeney's campy sci-fi decor with former Canoeist Timothy Ng's groundbreaking vegetarian sushi and get a surprisingly attitude-free ride from a joint that should, in theory, crash and burn. Just don't show up Saturday at midnight expecting the Acadian Room.
4 the fish store 657 College, 416-538-1732
SiSi Trattoria's Leo Schipani returns as a fishmonger in a funky shack grilling up sensational, olive oil- and pepper- drenched seafood sandwiches. Man overboard!
5 marcello's 1163 St. Clair West, 416-656-6159
A neighbourhood favourite, this noisy, family-style restaurant mixes old-school Italian techniques with upscale ingredients. Throw in European football on a giant-screen TV and a wood-burning oven centre stage turning out the best thin-crust pizza in town and Marcello's defines marvellous.
6 debu saha's biryani house 25 Wellesley East, 416-972-9340
Yes, the prices have increased considerably since its back-alley days, and the new digs are laughably over the top (chandeliers?!), but chef Debu Saha's meticulous interpretation of Mogul cooking is even more spectacular here. There's a tendency to over-plate -- dishes are lovely to look at but sometimes rather incongruously composed. The chef's attention to spicing details, though, is more often superb. Fans of the former locale's $5 veggie thali will have to make do with his posh $10.95 daily all-you-can-eat lunch marathon.
7 soul food 582 Lansdowne, no phone
This out-of-the-way St. Lucian diner is a restaurant critic's dream. Subtle, authentic island food, low-key storefront and nowhere nabe make it an undiscovered gem waiting to happen. Expect oven-roasted jerk tofu, nutty buttered pigeon peas in rice, the sweetest of slaws and a cold beer served to a laid-back R&B soundtrack, all for under 20 bucks. Nice people, too.
8 narula's 1438A Gerrard East, 416-466-0434
Set back from Little India's main drag, this tiny take-away specializes in incendiary southern India vegetarian between-meal snacks. Salty, sweet, fiery and sour, these tide-me-overs cause the palate to detonate: spice-drenched basmati mined with chilies, firm boiled potato, crunchy chickpeas, lentils and coriander leaf; or smooth yogurt dusted with cayenne and shredded crispy rice noodle kicked with minty relish. Better yet, it's all a toonie on Tuesday.
9 el trompo 277A Augusta, 416-260-0097
Though Planet Kensington (197 1/2 Baldwin, 416-341-0310) and Clozbe (69 Nassau, 416-340-1110) are almost-rans for the Market's best all-day breakfast, this authentic Mexico City snackateria rassles up cookbook-correct Huevos Rancheros and hand-pressed bite-sized tacos. Forget the refrieds -- they're not on the menu anyway -- and check out Chicharrón de Queso, grilled Monterey Jack spread tissue-thin, then served folded upright.
10 Chinese traditional buns 536 Dundas West, 416-299-9011
The single most startling thing I tried all last year was this subterranean grotto's Jellied Bean Curd. Sounds absolutely appalling, right? Instead, this nuclear pick-me-up lies somewhere between steaming soup and ethereal tofu custard studded with contrasting chili oil, raw garlic, salty dried shrimp, crunchy preserved vegetable pickle and fresh coriander leaf, all for $1.49. Doubters in the NOW office are still being scraped off the third-floor ceiling after sampling some en masse this past fall.
Better than it should be
Everything about hip haunt Li'ly (656 College, 416-532-0419) says run: pretentious name, Wallpaper-lite club in the basement with DJs, silly fusion tapas menu. Think again. While much of the card doesn't work, four thick, deftly grilled lamb chops crusted with pistachios for 12 bucks is a steal.
Inspire (491 Church, 416-963-0044). If only it did. Instead, we get tall, amateurishly prepared fusion food in a room so dark you need a flashlight to see it. Ex-Spiral honcho Steve Wong -- no longer a partner -- is capable of much better.
Don't believe the hype
Rain (19 Mercer, 416-599-7246)
Xacutti (503 College, 416-323-3957)
Brasserie Aix (584 College, 416-588-7377)
Crush (455 King West, 416-977-1234)
Bouchon (38 Wellington East, 416-862-2675).
Smoke-filled bars (with loud DJs) disguised as supper clubs, like Marma-lade (306 Davenport, 416-921-5666) and Sottovoce (595 College, 416-536-4564). Cough.
next big thing
First meat loaf and mash, then fondue and quiche. That leaves only ice sculptures to make a big comeback splash in 2003.
Where did the Yummy Yummy Truck at Yonge and Edward go?
Retro diner Aunties & Uncles on Bathurst, idiosyncratic Marshall's on Church, Parkdale's psychedelic taqueria El Paisano, charming Africana at Amadou on the Danforth, Sri Lankan dive Ceylantroo's in Cabbagetown and the Market's Spitfire Sound, a mod coffee bar that lasted fewer days than the second coming of Triple X (deceased).
Also gone is Jean's Fine Foods. Proprietors Harry and Jean Seow have shuttered their popular Thai spot on the Danforth but promise fans of their fiery fare that they'll return after a lengthy and well-deserved hiatus.