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Refined, spirited and eclectic – that sums up 2017's top dining destinations
A couple of boldface names and marquee openings aside, this year has been largely about the neighbourhood joint: hidden gems, local lunch spots and late-night haunts, all quietly raising the bar for their respective cuisine (Filipino, Southern BBQ, German, Latin American, you name it). Standards are getting ever higher, no matter which part of town you go to or what’s on the menu. We’ll raise a glass to that.
Chef/restaurateur Nathan Isberg has long dealt in lofty concepts – his last place, The Atlantic, became locally famous for ditching booze, tipping, menus and even prices, at one point adopting an entirely pwyc tasting-menu format. His latest experiment: a foray into veganism. Wait, come back!
Between the meatlessness and the high-minded format-tweaking, you might be expecting something monastic and preachy, the edible equivalent of a philosophy lecture (pithy and enriching, sure, but unspeakably dry). But Isberg keeps the dining experience light at his serene, candlelit kitchen, presenting a seasonal menu that bursts with surprising flavour and richness.
Highlights include a magically buttery (and, I must remind you, dairy-free) artichoke ravioli ($19) and a velvety porcini mushroom soup ($12).
Instead of an austere intellectual exercise, Awai is a living, breathing restaurant – one you’ll want to revisit again and again.
Valdez, Steve Gonzalez’s original Latin spot on King, shuttered to make way for a condo – but he came back bigger and bolder with three-floor blockbuster Baro.
In the lively, greenery-accented space, guests can watch the action from kitchen-side bar seating or slide into cozy, handsome booths that invite King West wheeler-dealing or a raucous night out with some buds and a few good margaritas (which pack such a citrusy wallop, I’m not convinced they aren’t actually Douglas Adams’s fabled Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters).
The setting and neighbourhood demand a fairly high price tag, but Gonzalez packs his dishes with maximum flavour per square inch, from the menu of ceviches (they’re all delightful, and available in flights for $32) to classic flank steak with chimichurri ($16). It speaks volumes about Gonzalez’s technique that his chaufa, a fried-rice dish with duck confit, egg and umami’d hot sauce, sells for an eyebrow-raising $35 and still manages to be the most popular thing on the menu.
Every snoozy residential strip should have its own little corner joint – a spot where you can grab coffee or a pint, dinner or snacks, bump into neighbours and bask in the homey glow of your adopted second living room.
Bodega Henriette fills that niche for a Tudor-lined strip in the Upper Beaches, not that far from Eulalie’s Corner Store, its sister restaurant (both operated by Nicole Cheung, who also has a hand in Betty’s on King and Pacific Junction Hotel).
Service spans from brunch to cozy dinners, where chef Adam Weisberg does rib-sticking eats like a honeyed hybrid of fried and jerk chicken ($15), best washed down with a pint from neighbouring Left Field.
And it’s not just a bodega in name only – pantry items, kitchen staples like milk and eggs and house-baked bread are available to go. Turns out you really can be everything to everyone!
Brothers could have been a quick-service joint designed to siphon lunch dollars from the Bay and Bloor office crowd. But it’s not, and hallelujah for that.
Instead, it’s a tiny, Tumblr-pink oasis above Bay station where diners can enjoy leisurely nibbles or glasses of wine while the subway rumbles under their feet (like hearing rain on the roof, but in reverse).
Chris White and Jonathan Nicolau keep the menu tight and ever-changing. Drop in on the right night and you can dig in to gorgeous, moist roast Cornish hen ($25) with garlicky creamed spinach, or pillowy gnocchi in savoury-sweet rabbit and prune ragù ($24). Lamb, fish, Mediterranean flavours and liberal glugs of quality olive oil all seem to be constants, as is a great sourdough course with addictive salted Prairie Boy butter.
My few quibbles with the dishes I’ve tried – a beef carpaccio ($19) simultaneously overwhelmed by black olives and unaffected by rhubarb stalks some erratic salting – can easily be chalked up to a new kitchen finding its feet. The spirit of experimentation here is bound to keep producing stellar results.
When the Whippoorwill closed down, the venue morphed from a family friendly, brunch-appropriate diner to a raucous, rattling spot swathed in squiggly black graffiti and bathed in neon (but with the bones of the original, like the checkered floors and vinyl bar stools, peeking through).
Part of Blansdowne undoubtedly still mourns, but I, for one, welcome this gastronomic “tell me about it, stud” moment.
Dolly’s, a “Filipino mojito bar” that sees Playa Cabana mogul Dave Sidhu breaking free from his taco-shack playbook, is an absolute blast, right down to the paintings of Spam adorning battered old baking trays in the bathroom hallway.
The kitchen’s take on kinilaw ($12), the Filipino version of ceviche, is a little burst of the tropics, with tuna bathed in ginger and lime perched on shrimp chips slathered in coconut cream. Crispy-skinned wings ($7) sprinkled with lemongrass salt get a nice kick from a squeeze of calamansi. And the mojitos (turns out the Philippines is a big rum exporter) are fresh, varied and very reasonable by T.O. standards – my $8 Mestizo came with 1.5 ounces of booze and packed in so much mint and coconut flavour, I could practically feel a beachy breeze whooshing past my ears.
Then again, maybe that was just the speakers blaring.
Jen Agg: service-industry arch-villain or the hero Toronto deserves? These days, the veteran restaurateur and part-time author/Twitter activist gets about as many column inches as her food does, but not nearly enough of them have been devoted to this essential, shining truth: the woman seriously knows how to run a restaurant.
The latest jewel in her crown is Grey Gardens, a precious (not in the bad way) little wine bar on a quiet strip in Kensington Market. The atmosphere is chill and cozy, with turquoise stools lining an open kitchen. There, chef Mitchell Bates cranks out pretty-as-a-watercolour plates like twirly gigli pasta with crispy dehydrated cheddar, yours to dot with house-made hot sauce ($23), and a standout salt cod and sunchoke dish ($22) that will have you raving to your friends, but not before ordering more house bread ($6, and paired with an awesome chicken-fat concoction) to sponge up the bright, buttery sauce.
It’s a bit of a departure from the Kensington we know in terms of both vibe and price, but Toronto is richer for its existence.
Fine French food is many wonderful things, but “fun” is rarely one of them. So the wink and nod accompanying the perfectly executed fare at La Banane is a breath of fresh air – one Torontonians have been desperately huffing since the place opened in January.
There’s a sense of playfulness at work. The name is part of a French saying that means “grinning like an idiot,” and it’s the home of chef Brandon Olsen’s famous splatter-painted chocolate egg dessert. That whimsy takes the edge off what is otherwise a room of Gatsby-level opulence, with a marble raw bar and a front dining room doused in deep green and gold.
Seafood, sourced largely from Honest Weight, is a sure bet here. Aside from that now-famous sea bass en croute ($32), which makes heads whip mid-chew every time it leaves the kitchen, there’s the impossibly melty, airy buttermilk-marinated scallop ($22), served in slurpable slices on a half-shell. (Olsen’s salmon en beurre blanc is also well-executed, if a little less inspired.)
The chef even converts liver and onions ($15) to a lighter-than-air pâté with sweet roasted onions, glazed mushrooms and buttery toast points that reappear, as if by magic, the second you run out. As will, say, a spoon, if you’re left desperately trying to scrape sauce off your plate with a fork. And you’ll want to.
Lake Inez is a bit of an anomaly – an elegant mishmash that somehow never feels disjointed.
It’s in Little India, a neighbourhood largely heretofore uncolonized by hipster restaurants. The nicely appointed white-and-wood interior is classy but not at all stuffy, and features a massive, glimmering mosaic of Virginia Woolf and Kate Bush behind the bar.
Beer’s the thing to drink here, and the list is populated by chef-y local options like Bellwoods and Burdock. What’s the food like? Pan-Asian, naturally.
Robbie Hojilla, recruited by the owners (who also have a hand in beloved Danforth pub the Wren) to lead the kitchen, puts the Filipino recipes learned from his folks, as well as his years at Harbord Room and Hudson Kitchen, to vibrant use.
Begin with creamy, coconutty kinilaw ($16) and unusual Japanese devilled eggs ($6) that come topped with big orange pearls of roe that burst in your mouth. Hojilla does great things with simple veggies like sweet sunchoke skewers ($8), cooked in the grand tradition of Filipino BBQ, and savoury, citrusy miso-roasted carrots ($12). And don’t sleep on the pastas – house-made egg tagliatelle ($22) shine in a sweet, nutty ragù with smoked eggplant, miso butter, maitakes, hazelnut and Parm. It’s a left-field combo, but just like all the other ones here, it works.
There’s nary a pair of lederhosen in sight (well, unless your evening happens to go in that direction) at this coolly modern take on a German beer garden.
Two dozen taps’ worth of suds, with options from here to Germany and back again, are an understandably large draw for the Queen West party crowd, who gather under boughs of greenery and striking colour-changing neon lights to raise a stein.
Since this is the first sit-down place from Otto’s Berlin Doner, the buzzy Kensington street-food shop, its owners clearly want the food to make its own splash. German and Alsatian favourites are available à la carte or in “feast” platters, served on industrial steel trays. Options include gooey, chewy, slightly funky spaetzle and cheese ($8), a great take on a classic mac. There’s also the obligatory hunks of pork and beef in the form of schweinshaxe (a hefty roasted pork hock, $24), seared pork belly ($7) and a host of schnitzels, including vegetarian mushroom and halloumi versions ($6).
It sounds heavy. It is heavy.
But sides like white wine sauerkraut ($3) or roasted Brussels sprouts ($4.50) provide a peek at the alchemy quietly at work on the menu – both are a little rawer than I usually like ’em, but scooped onto a fork with some spatz or ham hock, their freshness and acidity make the fatty stuff really sing. It’d be a mistake to just look at Otto’s through beer goggles.
Don’t do what I did and bring a book as your date to Pinky’s. Leemo Han’s Vietnamese joint, hidden within a Victorian home on a Little Italy side street, is pure party. Neon beer signs, lanterns and metallic fringe bedeck the walls choice 70s fromage like Why Can’t We Be Friends? blasts on the stereo. Much of the menu is large-format and shareable (think grilled pork jowl and short rib with fried rice) – another reason to bring buds.
But they still took real good care of my sad, single self, starting with the most punchy, powerful ceviche dish I’ve had in eons: scallops, yellowfin and surf clam dressed in lime, coconut, chili and cilantro, each note leaping by turns off accompanying taro chips ($12).
Appetite whetted by a gin-and-orgeat Saigon Rock cocktail ($13, and tastes like a lime jujube), I gleefully crushed the pho beef dip sandwich (a bargain at $10), which comes stacked with tender beef, herbs and a smidge of cheese and flanked by a ramekin of broth dense with star anise.
And since this is Han we’re talking about, the surprises don’t stop. The “Viet tres leches” cake ($8), infused with cinnamon, cloves and star anise, is piped with little starbursts and comes in a tin tray – the stuff Deep ’n Delicious dreams are made of.
Though it began as a summer fling last year, it looks like Toronto’s appetite for nouveau barbecue is going to be a permanent thing.
Adamson Barbecue and Cherry Street Bar-B-Que are still going strong, and though J&J Bar-B-Que (RIP) has packed up its smoker and hit the road, Nick Chen-Yin’s Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q has stepped in to fill the void they left.
Chen-Yin started out building oil-drum smokers for kicks. He built the one out back of his Dundas West kitchen out from a 1,000-gallon water tank, where he does perfect, melty brisket ($14/half-pound), dry-rubbed ribs ($10/half-pound) and house-made sausages ($6) punched up with pickled jalapeños and oozing with cheddar.
But sides are key, as any barbecue nerd knows. Fortunately, Chen-Yin doesn’t disappoint here either. Frito pie ($9), built on lime crema and smoky chili, is the most fun you can have in a metal tray. Gooey mac and cheese ($9) is easily the best on the strip now that the wonderful weirdness known as the Junked Food Co. white chocolate mac is no longer available a few doors down. Sink your teeth in, pop a tall can of Woodhouse or Pabst and squint – it’s like summer’s here already.
Sometimes, the best thing in the world is a simple diner sandwich – say, a big, beefy patty melt or an oozy Reuben on butter-browned bread.
Chef Ben Denham, a veteran of guilty-pleasure cooking (he co-ran the kitchen at BBQ shack Electric Mud before striking out on his own with partner Ashley Lloyd) knows this primeval urge all too well. His menu at White Lily is a rundown of classic diner fare with a little Southern-fried flair: note the prevalence of sausage gravy, which is available in a bowl with house-baked biscuits ($5.50), on white corn grits ($4) or deliciously negating any nutritional value in a plate of seared broccoli ($8.50).
Yep, it’s “elevated” comfort eating – not exactly a new concept. But Denham single-handedly aces the tightrope walk needed to pull off this sort of menu, replacing convenience ingredients with all-homemade everything (bread, sausage, pickles), eschewing deep-fried heaviness while keeping the richness, and nostalgia factor, intact.