Grant van Gameren and Jennifer Agg, owners of the Black Hoof, made charcuterie Toronto’s food trend of the year.
Hemlines aren't the only way to gauge an economy's health. Restaurants, too, have always been harbingers of what's around the corner, and the past 12 months have seen prescient Hogtown boîtes downsize and streamline in anticipation of the current economic crunch. Say goodbye to fois gras and hello to mashed potatoes.
If the return yet again of comfort food may not be the most exciting culinary trend around, at least the long-past-its-prime small plate/big ticket tapas bandwagon has finally left town.
1 THE BLACK HOOF, 928 Dundas West, at Gore Vale, 416-551-8854
Launching a restaurant specializing in charcuterie in the midst of a listeria scare might have seemed ill-advised, but Jennifer Agg and chef Grant van Gameren's casual west-side diner is the unequivocal runaway smash of the 08 resto season. That van Gameren is capable of such skill (I'm still swooning over his deconstructed BLT with pork belly pastrami) using only an old four-burner electric stove is alone cause for applause. A star is born.
2 THE HARBORD ROOM, 89 Harbord, at Spadina, 416-962-8989
Cory Vitiello may be younger and better-looking than FoodTV superstar Rocco DiSpirito, but there's nothing superficial about his food. Like the Hoof, this restaurant-row bistro is a favourite of other local chefs, who chow down on the likes of grilled Mediterranean-style calamari with clams and chorizo till 2 am. Cool tunes, unusually friendly staff, too.
3 GILEAD CAFÉ, 4 Gilead Place, at King East, 647-288-0680
Jamie Kennedy's no-frills luncheonette in an obscure downtown laneway delivers his top-of-the-line restaurant experience without the considerable expense. Sorry, Smoke's - Kennedy's upscale take on poutine may not duplicate that found along the autoroutes of la belle provence, but it's far tastier.
Photo By David Laurence
Pizzeria Libretto owner/chef Max Rimaldi's pies are worth the wait.
4 PIZZERIA LIBRETTO, 221 Ossington, at Dundas W, 416-532-8000
At times, Rocco Agostino and Max Rimaldi's insanely popular no-reservations Neapolitan pizza parlour seems more like an exercise in crowd control than hospitality - 45-minute lineup, spectacular pizzas in seconds, out the door 45 minutes later - but the payoff is worth the chaos.
5 DELUX, 92 Ossington, at Humbert, 416-537-0134
Corrina Mozo's candlelit supper club on downtown's hippest strip gives French classics like duck confit and bouillabaisse an unexpected Cuban accent. Unexpectedly delish, too.
6 ALICE'S RESTAURANT, 856 College, at Concord, 416-534-7500
Since he opened Alice's in the spring, former Niagara-on-the-Lake chef John Pekka Woods has shaken off his play-it-safe turista inclinations to focus on an all-Ontario card that often impresses with its simplicity.
7 DEBU'S NOUVELLE INDIAN CUISINE, 552 Mt. Pleasant, at Belsize, 416-927-9340
Toronto's foremost Indo fusion chef is constantly compared to Vancouver's Vikram Vij. Truth be told, Debu Saha was doing the same Continental-meets-Subcontinental shtick, first at Biryani House on Roy's Square, then on Wellesley and now at this swanky uptown spot, long before Vij ever dreamed up lamb popsicles. Bonus: best brunch in town, hands down!
8 CRUSH, 455 King West, at Spadina, 416-977-1234
Once a Gallic wine bar, Jamieson Kerr's long-running brasserie rebranded itself a UK-centric gastro-pub earlier this year with winning results: out goes Edith Piaf and caribou with morel sauce and Brussels sprout leaves and in comes Amy Winehouse, bangers and mash.
9 ODDFELLOWS, 936 Queen West, at Shaw, 416-534-5244
Despite the open sneers that greet our arrival and the fuck-you volume of the heavy rock soundtrack accompanying dinner, former La Palette chef Matty Matheson's all-comfort card makes up for the room's hipster pretensions.
10 HANOI 3 SEASONS, 1135 Queen East, at Larchmount, 416-469-3010
Not content with launching the only North Vietnamese eatery in the GTA, Hai Luke Tran's opened a second even more wildly successful outpost in trendy Leslieville. The menu may be identical, but the vibe's more fin de siècle than ever.
Get T.O's best brisket sandwich at Caplansky's.
CAPLANSKY's, in the Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton, at Henderson, 416-531-5833
Although it's been hailed rapturously by the blogosphere, Zane Caplansky's Montreal-style house-cured smoked meat sandwiches are not the second coming of Schwartz's. Yes, his fatty brisket's better than any other local pretender's to the throne, but they're no match for the real thing.
Sauna Squid at HOME OF HOT TASTE, 710 Yonge, at St. Mary, 416-975-0000
Like ordering the hottest vindaloo during a drinking binge, this oddly named main - described on the card as "Squid takes a shower!" - must be a dare only undertaken by drunks. How else to explain the appeal of deep-fried calamari doused in several bottles of thermonuclear Tabasco? One bite and you'll understand the exclamation mark.