Ortolan’s Damon Clements
Used to be, new restaurants took months to find a following. But these days, thanks to th'interweb and a gazillion food bloggers, all they have to do is throw open the doors, send out a tweet and it's a veritable foodie flash mob. People don't just go out to eat any more. They photograph the food and post to Facebook.
Comfort food and burgers were everywhere, trendy Guu expanded into the Annex, and Salad King literally rose from the ashes into flashy new digs on Yonge. Dinah Koo came back to her old Queen West stomping grounds with Fusia Dog, and Lahore Tikka House finally completed its seemingly endless renovation. Almost. Here are the 10 best meals we enjoyed at new restos this year.
1211 Bloor West, at Margueretta, 647-348-4500, littledrunkbird.com
The perfect restaurant? A low-key location far off the eaten track, 26 comfortable seats, romantic lighting and a reasonably priced locavore carte - perfectly grilled Grace Meats flank steak finished with flaky sea salt and truffled emulsion followed by feather-light gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream and boozy bourbon pannacotta - from publicity-shy chefs Damon Clements and Daniel Usher. So what if they don't take reservations? Show up at any hour other than prime-time Friday and Saturday night and you won't need one.
Agave y Aguacate's Francisco Alejandri
2. Agave y Aguacate
214 Augusta, at Baldwin, 647-208-3091, agaveyaguacate.blogspot.com
Technically, Francisco Alejandri's Mexican take-away in Kensington Market isn't even a restaurant, since it doesn't have basics like tables and chairs. Or plates, for that matter. Little concern, considering the ex-Scaramouche and Torito cook's dazzling attention to detail. Brilliant flavours and rock-bottom prices - seven bucks for an astonishingly sweet tomatillo salad piled with crumbled queso fresco, avocado and hellishly hot piquin peppers? - make the occasional weekend lineups bearable.
3. Black Skirt
974 College, at Rusholme, 416-532-7424, blackskirtrestaurant.com
Everyone and their nonna has jumped on the rustic Italian bandwagon. But only Rosa Gallé and Aggie Decina's west-side trat combines old-school classics - veal ravioli in brown butter, slow-braised osso buco - with attentive service and genuine hospitality. In Little Italy, of all places.
Swish by Han's Shigenori Arai
4. Swish by Han
38 Wellington East, at Leader Lane, 647-343-0268, swishbyhan.wordpress.com
Come this time next year, Toronto will be knee-deep in kimchee, trying to keep up with NYC superstar chef David Chang's two new Momofuku restaurants in the yet-to-open Shangrila Hotel. Sorry, Mr. Chang, but brothers Leeto and Leemo Han got there first with a playful tapas card - pulled pork shoulder tacos, pickled pears with Stilton - that's as clever as it is delish.
5. Cafe Belong
550 Bayview, at Pottery, 416-901-8234, cafebelong.ca
Despite the cornball name TV chef Brad Long insists wasn't his idea, this bucolic boîte in the Brick Works eco-centre ticks all the current resto boxes: locally sourced and often organic ingredients, knowledgeable servers and a spectacular back-to-the-land setting. Too bad it's virtually inaccessible without a car or dogsled.
Fabarnak's Eric Wood
519 Church, at Dundonald, 416-355-6781, fabarnak.com
No question that this stylish café in the 519 Community Centre has the best intentions, helping disadvantaged kids gain entry-level experience in the resto biz. But who could have predicted that its efforts would be this tasty - bone marrow brûlée, perfectly executed quiche, braised duck papardelle - and this inexpensive?
Lee Lounge's Roel Capitan
7. Lee Lounge
601 King West, at Portland, 416-504-7867, susur.com
Susur Lee's Shang in New York City might have tanked (blame the recession, or a menu that focused on sushi, of all things), but his latest rebranding finds Mr. Lee at his most accessible yet. Goodbye, $400 tasting menus. Hello, $7 cheeseburger spring rolls.
8. The Gabardine
372 Bay, at Richmond West, 647-352-3211, thegabardine.com
Put Alison Mackenna and Katherine Rodriques's cozy cantina on the furthest reaches of Queen East or West and it'd barely make an impression, so many are the similar options. But plunk it down in the heart of the financial district and it's a breath of fresh air. And, no, they don't do brunch.
Keriwa Cafe's Dennis Tay
9. Keriwa Cafe
1690 Queen West, at Roncesvalles, 416-533-2552, keriwacafe.ca
He worked under Eigensinn Farm's Michael Stadtländer and Splendido's Victor Barry, so chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe's indigenous card comes as no surprise. That it's this accomplished is merely a bonus. Acadia, et al., take note: sometimes simpler is better.
Pizza e Pazzi
10. Pizza e Pazzi
1182 St. Clair West, at Dufferin, 647-352-7882, pizzaepazzi.ca
Certified VPN Neapolitan pies, quality ingredients and a Monday-to-Wednesday 5-to-7-pm happy hour, when $10 gets you a cocktail and unlimited access to the antipasto buffet, guaranteed full houses from the get-go. Think Jersey Shore meets the Corso Italia.
In previous best-of roundups, we've always countered with the year's awful offerings, punning that these were the Wurst. Coincidentally, two of 2011's bottom-feeders feature sausage. At WVRST (609 King West, at Portland, 416-703-7775, wvrst.com), we couldn't finish gag-worthy currywurst - aka cut-up wieners in curried ketchup, the poutine of Germany - while Paul Boehmer's flatbread tarte flambée topped with sausage and hot dog mustard at Bohemian Gastropub (571 Queen West, at Portland, 416-361-6154, thebohemiangastropub.ca) came with the warning "Wurst pizza ever." Got that right.
Hoof Café on Dundas West, Kaiseki Sakura on Church, Ame on Mercer, Vanipha Lanna on St. Clair West, Spice Safar on Adelaide West, Ackee Tree on Spadina, Brad's on Roncesvalles, China House on Eglinton West, m:brgr on King West ($100 hamburgers? We think not), Negroni and its follow-up, Carpano, on College, both Chimichangas, Bigabaldi's on Marlee, Tomi-kro and Pulp Kitchen on Queen East, Bar One, Oddfellows and Inigo on Queen West, and Liberty Noodle, Liberty Bistro and Liberty Belle in Liberty Village.