Natalia Manzocco’s top 10 Toronto restaurants of 2017
In a year filled with great eats, these spots made the biggest splash
By Natalia Manzocco
Dec 20, 2017
Thanos Tripi is extending the Greek food empire he launched with Mamakas and Agora (pictured) to a new wine bar on Ossington.
1. Cafe Cancan
Even taking Victor Barry’s food out of the equation, Cancan would still be my pick for one of the most magical additions to the food scene this year. (I dare you to find a person immune to the charms of Tiffany Pratt’s frothy macaron-hued dream of an interior.) But fortunately, Barry’s follow-up to Piano Piano doesn’t just coast on its Gallic good looks. From eggs and eclairs in the am to foie gras and oysters long after sundown, Cancan capably delivers the French classics with style. (Even a down-home dish like the rabbit dijonnais is laden with texture and visual appeal in the form of crisp-melty lardons and coins of ultra-meaty boudin noire.) Here, preparation and presentation are dance partners, perfectly matched.
Having already nailed standard-setting mom-and-pop Thai (with Sukhothai) and party-ready northern Thai street eats (at Pai), Nuit Regular went for a more genteel take on the cuisine of her homeland with the jewel-box-like Kiin. In a marble-lined room inspired by the ornate colonial architecture of Regular’s hometown, she turns out delicate plates like Royal Thai dumplings sculpted into flowers or salads of edible blooms and rice tinted indigo with butterfly-pea flower and served in golden bowls. Robust, rich curries and braises remind diners that this is, after all, an ode to home.
First-time restaurateur Luke Donato went big with Bacchanal, his debut bistro inside the sprawling former home of Recess Diner, and we’re glad he did: every plate, design element and cocktail (the latter courtesy of champion barkeep Jason Griffin) is a bona fide stunner. The menu is broad, skipping from time-tested hors d’ouevres to a decidedly modern duck breast with parsnip and plum, but Donato’s command of old-school French (stemming from a love nurtured over countless mornings watching Jacques Pepin on PBS) very rarely wavers. Be sure to leave room for dessert by Alo alumna Cori Murphy.
Oddseoul and Hanmoto owner/chef Leemo Han has made a secret clubhouse-like vibe his signature, but his latest venture, set into an old Victorian just off the main Little Italy strip, feels like a private house party. Under shimmering curtains and kitschy 70s decor, slurp back pho beef dip sandwiches and a brilliant cardamom-laced riff on a tres leches cake, served McCain’s-style in its own tin. Don’t you feel so much cooler than the people eating substandard pasta 50 feet away at the Dip?
No dining room quite nailed this year’s aesthetic as neatly as Craig Harding’s companion spot to Campagnolo, with splatter-painted murals and a pastel palette fueling the lackadaisical, California-chill atmosphere. Harding designed the Italian-centric menu to ride the line between casual/takeout and upscale dining in. Though he adds accessibility with a selection of baked goods and grab-and-go salads, Harding’s dishes are still full of unexpected twists, like pairing roasted grapes and smoky cauliflower with Cornish hen or turning kale and collards into a bona fide indulgence with fried polenta and a buttery sauce.
Just walking into Mahjong’s main space is a mind-blowing experience – head past the 80s institutional-chic snack bar in front and through the vinyl curtain, and it’s like you’ve entered another world. But while you let your eyes linger on the lacquered mural, vintage furniture and checkered floors, it would be foolish to overlook the menu of shareable eats. Created by the folks at Malaysian joint Soos, dishes like beef noodle bowls, dumplings and “half-moon” turnovers were designed to evoke post-bar feasts at your fave late-night Chinese spot in scaled-down portions.
Jen Agg puts approachability and comfort first at this cozy Kensington boîte. (Also, after reading her memoir and several hundred tweets, I now have an inner self-editing Jen Agg voice, which just yelled, “Has anyone ever said ‘boîte’ out loud in their lives???” at me.) The room is done up in soothing mint and grey tones and bathed in candlelight the drink program is all about wine and cider pours instead of complicated cocktails the pink glow of the floral bathroom wallpaper makes for pure selfie gold. And, of course, there’s Mitch Bates’s plates – including a beautiful sunchoke-cod pairing, a grown-up riff on mac and cheese, and a bread course you’ll probably order in triplicate.
Rob Bragagnolo came back from his years in Spain (including a recent stint working under the Adrias at Tickets) with a whole bag of tricks now that his food hall, in the works for a year, is open to the public, he’s eager to unload ’em on the King West dining public. A lunch counter of salads and ready-made dishes holds it down during the day, but the real magic happens after dark, when the long bar gets loaded with tapas, the back kitchen (dubbed Labora) starts slinging sweet-savoury cured rib-eye and coffee/citrus-hinted sea bream, and the fizzy vermut gets a-flowin’.
It’s got the warehouse-like sheen of a corporate brew pub, but this spacious new beer hall is actually an indie project with a food menu that goes beyond the usual steak-knife-stabbed burger (though they’ve got one of those, too). Founder Jason Kaptyn brought in ex-Cowbell chef Mark Cutrara, who’s been curing charcuterie in-house and turning out lightly charred octopus, eyebrow-raisingly good steaks and beautiful platters of seasonal veg. It’s a nice twist on large-scale, suds-centric dining, and the beer program shows real promise – Heart of Tartness might have even converted my sour-hatin’ self for good.
My Dutch countrymen are not known for their food – largely because it involves a lot of herring, unphotogenic stews and croquettes, and food names like “snert.” But newsies-turned-restaurateurs Justin Go and Alison Broverman have set out to rectify this injustice with this precious little spot inspired by Amsterdam’s brown cafés. Their rib-sticking, carby eats are the perfect antidote to the frosty winter wind blowing down the Danforth one bite of their buttery poffertjes (baby pancakes) and your flapjack cravings will never be the same. (Also, snert is a pea soup packed with sausage and smoked, shredded pork, and it’s delicious.)
Natalia came to NOW as the food writer in 2015 before taking over the lifestyle desk in 2019. She has written about food, style, technology, life and travel for the National Post, Sun Media, blogTO and Metro. She enjoys thrift stores and bad puns.