Owner/chef Carl Heinrich’s comfort food card scores at Richmond Station.
I blame Food TV and Twitter.
How else to explain the feeding frenzy that now surrounds the launch of every beanery and bistro in town? Back in the day - three years ago - restos had weeks (months!) to get their act together. Now, with the spotlight's unforgiving glare, if you're not a hit straight out of the box, you're dead by week two. Foodies are now that fickle - and vocal. Mess up and you'll hear about it on Chowhound or Yelp before next service.
But this obsession with what we put in our mouths and who puts it there has given us better restaurants. It's no coincidence that eight of the following received NNNNN reviews. The latest generation of chefs has to work that much harder to stand out from the pack. Who needs heavily hyped imports like Momofuku and Café Boulud or Michelin stars for world-class validation?
924 Queen West, At Shaw, 416-536-8963, Ursa-Restaurant.Com
Using techniques normally associated with sports medicine and raw foodism, Jacob Sharkey Pearce and his considerable crew move beyond molecular gastronomy into uncharted and spectacular waters. Who else would have the gall to serve house-made ricotta with bee pollen, honeycomb and dehydrated grapes on the vine and call it dessert? Little wonder he's opening a lab upstairs.
777 Dundas West, at Markham, 647-352-0093, bentrestaurant.com
Toronto takes Susur Lee for granted. Some forget that the one-time Peter Pan burger-flipper virtually invented East-West fusion back in the 80s. His latest could be his most creative and accessible yet, a room as vibrantly exciting as its tapas-inspired lineup of grub and cocktails. Why, he even does fish tacos, though dressed with pickled mango salsa in deep-fried taro shells.
1320 Queen West, at Brock, 416-628-3586, restaurantchantecler.ca
Chef Jonathan Poon would likely be the first to admit that his ingenious lineup at this fabulously romantic Parkdale boîte owes a lot to a certain Mr. Lee. See the homage on plates of smoky duck breast bacon over bitter mustard greens or confit potato layered with barely there pork belly and a slice of raw apple. Innovation is rarely this delish.
164 Ossington, at Foxley, 647-343-4698, hawkerbar.ca
Alec Martin puts a contemporary Australian spin on Singaporean street food like curry laksa soup and Hainanese chicken. Is it just like the way grandma makes it back home? No, it's way better!
1 Richmond West, at Yonge, 647-748-1444, richmondstation.ca
Ex-Marben chef and Top Chef Canada winner Carl Heinrich parlays his game-show winnings into the hippest thing to hit the downtown core since the Gabardine. A confident comfort food card, mid-range prices and attitude-free service keep the expense-account suits at bay. Or Bay, at least.
1330 Queen West, at Elm Grove, 416-627-3459, grandelectricbar.com
Yes, they still line up every night at this impossibly popular taco stand, but the payoff's more than worth the hour or so, if only for the spicy fried chicken. Good news: recently introduced weekend lunch - don't call it brunch - and an about-to-open second floor mean the inevitable queue just got that much shorter.
325 Roncesvalles, at Grenadier, 416-533-2723, hopgoodsfoodliner.com
Former Black Hoofer Geoff Hopgood pays tribute to his East Coast roots with a room built for comfort and an idiosyncratic card that includes the likes of his mom's crab dip with Triscuits and an updated take on Haligonian donair served in a crumpled paper bag.
3030 Dundas West, at High Park, 416-769-5736, 3030dundaswest.com
A cavernous beer hall in the Junction is the last place you'd expect to find Ossington-level tapas like sautéed chicken livers in veal demi-glace on grilled baguette for five bucks a pop. Ex-Grand Electric chef Adisa Brian Glasgow shows you'd be wrong.
926 Dundas West, at Gore Vale, 647-346-9356, theblackhoof.com
Following on the heels of her Black Hoof and Hoof Café, Jennifer Agg makes it three for three with this not-surprisingly polished seafood shack. Chef Jonathan Pong keeps the all-fish menu as cutting-edge as its predecessors. Bonus: best iTunes playlist in town!
169 Niagara, at Wellington West, 416-703-4222, edulisrestaurant.com
One-time Niagara Street Café toque Michael Caballo returns to his old stomping grounds with a new direction - contemporary Spanish filtered through the south of France - and a tasting menu that evolves virtually by the hour.
Buzz of the year
The worst dish of the year
The obscenely crunchy 14-day-old duck embryos still in the shell at Filipino food stall Kanto (707 Dundas West, at Bathurst, 1-888-393-9990, kanto.ca) are said to put lead in your pencil. I tasted but did not swallow. Funny that supposed aphrodisiacs are often the last thing any woman would ever want to put in her mouth.
Agave y Aguacate on Augusta, Casa Mendoza on the Lake Shore, Bistro 990 on Bay, Frankly on Queen East, Highway 61 on Bayview, Senior's at Yonge and St. Clair, L.A.B. on College, Hardy's BBQ on St Clair West, Caju on Queen West, Goed Eten on Ossington, Toucan Taco Bar on Queen East, Watusi on Ossington, Paul Boehmer's Bohemian Gastropub and its follow-up, Lucid, on Queen West.
All photos by David Laurence