This was the year that Queen Street got its bite back. Toronto's trendiest strip is home to half of NOW's picks for resto of the year, four of them in the leading positions.
Three more were in the running. Habitat (735 Queen West, 416-860-1551) would be nudging the top spot if management hadn't given celebu-chef Greg Couillard and his tarted-up world fusion card the heave-ho last fall. Across the street, Czehoski (678 Queen West, 416-366-6787) ditched its initial avant-garde lineup - duck confit parfait, anyone? - for a fast food lineup with delusions of grandeur. (Witness its post-ironic $36.94 hamburger.) Just down the street and blessed with the cachet of Susur Lee's legendary Lotus location, Amuse-Bouche (96 Tecumseth, 416-913-5830) failed to live up to its fawning food-media hype. Speaking of which - the envelope please!
1 GEORGE (111 Queen East, 416-863-6006) After 15 years in the trenches, Lorenzo Loseto literally stepped up to the plate at this terribly swank supper club installed in an elite downtown spa. Glamorous digs, knowledgeable service and a tasting menu that will metaphorically blow your socks off. Can't afford the big bucks? Then hit his chic Verity café next door for spectacular desserts at a fraction of the price.
2 SANDWICH BOX (238 Queen West, 416-204-9411) One-time Goldfish owner/chef Abdi Ghotb had me the second I saw the thin piece of waxed paper he uses to separate his balsamic-dressed organic greens from the Ace Bakery-based sandwiches he packages in stylish logo-free recyclable containers at this extremely popular take-away in an abbatoir turned food court. Pure genius, and a franchise in the making.
3 TOMI-KRO (1214 Queen East, 416-463-6677) When chef Laura Prentice and club czar Johnny Katsuras regrouped with John "JC" Coronios at this clandestine east-side cantina, it marked the first time the three had worked together since they launched their wildly successful Lolita's Lust 10 years ago. The format's identical: expertly executed Mediterranea tweaked with Asian accents. Noisy, but compared to Gio's next door downright serene.
4 THE ROSEBUD (669 Queen West, 416-703-8810) The former home of Mr. Pong and his jumbo eggroll, this intimate boîte on a skuzzy corner delivers generously portioned upscale comfort food to the jarring soundtrack of a randomly programmed iPod. There's a reason they come with headphones, you know.
5 THE OLD NICK (123 Danforth, 416-461-5546) Named best emerging chef of 2004 for her radical work at the Restaurant, Michelle Bellerose resurfaced at this unlikely if friendly neighbourhood pub with a weekend-only organic brunch that combines homeopathy, improvisation and luck. Get there quick if you want to experience it yourself - the ever unpredictable and self-taught cook heads off to the Himalayas for inspiration come January.
6 LIVE ORGANIC FOOD BAR (264 Dupont, 416-515-2002) Jennifer Italiano finally gets the Honey Dew-inspired room her revolutionary vegetarian raw food resto has always deserved. Still unconvinced? Her scrumptious combo platter alone will convert any carnivore to the green side.
7 DJERBA LADOUCE (1475 Danforth, 416-778-7870) Combining the best of north African, southern Italian and Mediterranean French cuisines, this sweet Tunisian eatery offers a one-of-a-kind card that's not only palate-pleasing but wallet-friendly, too. Think couscous meets cacciatore.
8 HANOI 3 SEASONS (588 Gerrard East, 416-463-9940) First-time restaurateur Hai Luke 's transformation of a dismal Chinatown soup kitchen into an oasis of Saigon chic is the makeover story of the year. The only north Vietnamese eatery in town, this modest storefront's card is unique. Where else will you find an explosive starter like Hen, stir-fried clams tossed with chopped raw chili over black sesame seed rice crackers?
9 THE GHALI KITCHEN (4 Greenwood, 416-466-5140) With the exception of the Southern soul-food-style chicken-fried waffles I guiltily scarfed this summer at Cabbagetown's Left Door, the single most memorable dish I tried this year has to be this Leslieville Caribbean slash Italian pizzeria's braised oxtail, saltfish 'n' ackee rasta pasta. Has there ever been a more delicious collision of such seemingly disparate cookeries?
10 HONEY KAFFE AND EAT BOUTIQUE (492 College, 416-962-5111) When Ciao Edie and Andy Poolhall's eccentric honcho, Michael Sweenie , announced that he was closing his space-age bachelor pad Airport to turn it into a French country kitchen, more than a few local cynics were heard to snicker. But the proof's in the crème brûlée: this gorgeously decked out and refreshingly adult room delivers its promise of rustic sophistication.
Concept of the year
To Wagamama , the UK chain of high-end Japanese restaurants designed for those afraid of sushi, for unknowingly providing the blueprint for Izakaya (69 Front East, 416-703-8658) lock, stock and pickle barrel, right down to its uncomfortable seating (gets them in and out faster) and word-for-word descriptions of its appropriated lineup. Of course, it could be just a coincidence.
M for merde
Serendipitously, the names of the most disappointing restos of 2005 all begin with the letter "M." We were less than entranced with dinner at Mantra (31 Elm, 416-979-9696), a misguided and over-reaching hybrid of classic French and Indo cuisines on touristy restaurant row that left us hungry for less.
After yet another underwhelming meal in the Village, the identity of whoever's behind the Mask (566 Church, 416-963-9299), the Middle Eastern mess cum cocktail lounge, is best left a mystery.
And we're still trying to fathom why anyone would bother with the gringo grub at La Mexicana (838 Yonge, 416-934-0712) when there's a perfectly good Taco Bell nearby.
But the award for worst of the wurst goes to MBCo (100 Bloor West, rear, 416-961-6226, and others), the Montreal-based franchise in Yorkville that unashamedly rips the UK's Pret A Manger. A badly designed space -- loading dock, more like -- inexperienced service and pricey sandwiches no better than the closest Druxy's make this a chain to avoid.