Chef Jacob Sharkey-Pearce does a bold take on winter root salad at always audacious Ursa.
924 Queen W, at Shaw, 416-536-8963, ursa-restaurant.com.
It takes seven chefs - two of them doing a stage - six people on the floor and the very deep pockets of not-so-silent partner Cosimo "Terroni" Mammoliti to pull off co-owner/chef Jacob Sharkey-Pearce's audaciously avant-garde carte. And that's in a room that seats all of 62 people. The mind boggles at the investment involved.
It shows on each jaw-dropping plate, first forays like sculpted salads of upright candy-cane beet sheets over wilted beet greens dressed with house-made probiotic kefir yogurt vinaigrette ($13). Wild venison tartare and fatty foie gras ($16) come cured in blueberry vinegar and festooned with medicinal Icelandic moss. Chef brines Niagara pork loin and belly ($24) in whey before glazing them with apple cider and plating them du Puy lentils and decorative kale ($24). And why not?
Sharkey-Pearce pulls out all the stops with his Milk & Honey ($16), a sensational closer built for two consisting of a warm bowl of made-to-order ricotta coupled with bee pollen, honeycomb, pomegranate and dehydrated grapes on the vine. Outrageously clever stuff.
Dinner Tuesday to Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Reservations recommended. Bar till late. Closed Monday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement.
2. Grand Electric
1330 Queen W, at Elm Grove, 416-627-3459, grandelectricbar.com.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: open a low-key dive in not-so-glamorous Parkdale with an emphasis on single-barrel bourbon. Offer a few salty Tex-Mex snacks, crank the old-school hip-hop and chillax. That was ex-Black Hoof chef Colin Tooke's plan anyway.
Instead, the 29-seat no-reservations bar was an instant sensation among the local Twitterati, so much so that you don't stand a frozen margarita's chance in hell of scoring a two-top unless you line up on the sidewalk half an hour before GE opens. Later than that, good luck!
If you are fortunate enough to get in, order everything on the short 15-item card. Soft-shelled tacos come generously piled with sweetly pulled pork belly and grilled pineapple, shredded arbol chicken or outrageously tender braised beef cheeks dressed with chopped avocado and jalapeños. Best of the bunch, Baja-style tilapia tacos (all $3.50) come with a chiffonade of radish and squirts of crema and lime.
A marvellously messy plate of deep-fried miscellaneous poultry parts (Chicken Frito $12) doused in a fiery Thai-style sauce make wet-naps mandatory. Is it worth the wait? No question, but the non-stop foodie feeding frenzy should die down some once GE goes seven days a week and introduces lunch as well as a 40-seat backyard patio in the very near future.
Wednesday to Monday from 6 pm. Closed Tuesdays, some holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement.
3. Hopgood's Foodliner
325 Roncesvalles, at Grenadier, 416-533-2723, hopgoodsfoodliner.com.
Ex-Hoof Café chef Geoff Hopgood's two-month-old resto not only doesn't do brunch - it doesn't even serve coffee. Apparently, it distracts from service.
But there's no ignoring the former Haligonian's playful bill of fare. Call it nouveau Nova Scotia trailer park: retro-futuristic hors d'oeuvres like his mom's recipe for crab dip and Triscuits ($14) upgraded with seasonal Atlantic snow crab. We're surprised he hasn't thought of reinventing Nuts and Bolts.
He reconfigures late-night-drunk donairs ($12) as two house-baked pitas topped with spicy sautéed beef, chopped tomato and a sweet, vinegary sauce made from evaporated milk, all served on a crunched-up paper bag. He debones naturally raised chicken thighs ($24), wraps them in crackling and plates them over cheesy grits and maple syrup studded with house-smoked bacon.
Crispy Toffee dessert ($8) resembles a frozen Coffee Crisp chocolate bar, a crushed Rice Crispies-and-white-chocolate wafer dipped in sticky toffee, air-brushed with powdered dark chocolate and wrapped in paper rubber-stamped with the resto's logo. Who says you need caffeine to create a buzz?
Dinner Thursday to Monday 6 to 11 pm. Reservations recommended. Closed Tuesday, Wednesday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement.
1211 Bloor W, at Margueretta, 647-348-4500, littledrunkbird.com.
Could Damon Clements and Daniel Usher's Bloordale bistro be Toronto's quintessential cantina?
With its 26 seats, consummately professional staff and chef-driven card, it's the resto that most toques only dream of.
From the ever-changing chalkboard menu, hit the ground running with pâté-like rabbit rillettes spread on chewy slices of Thuet baguette, or grilled scallions in Catalan almond chili sauce ($8).
The former Delux and Pizerria Libretto cooks hop the rustic Italian bandwagon with beautifully executed gnocchi in a luxurious mascarpone cream flush with foraged Hen of the Woods mushrooms ($14). They send out rare pre-sliced slices of grilled Grace Meats flank steak ($18) in a spicy pool of house-made harissa, and a red radish and kohlrabi salad ($7) comes in lemony cumin yogurt swirled with snippets of frsh dill frond.
So what if NOW's restaurant of the year for 2011 doesn't take reservations? Show up Tuesday night at 7, no problem. Saturday night at 9, problem.
Dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Licensed. Access: slight bump at door, tight tables, washrooms in basement.
5. 416 Snack Bar
181 Bathurst, at Queen W, 416-364-9320, 416snackbar.wordpress.com.
If you're planning on grabbing a bite to eat at Adrian Ravinsky and David Stewart's watering hole, remember to BYOF - bring your own fork - since their west-side saloon is proudly "cutlery-free."
They also take pride in the unconventional. As a playlist of Ziggy-era Bowie segues into the Stones, dig into tapas-style nibbles like chef Jon Vettraino's Scotch eggs Benny ($5), a halved medium-boiled egg encased in a baked house-made sausage crust. Miniature lobster rolls in baby hot dog buns arrive at table in the creamy company of a demitasse of lobster bisque. Chef's pint-sized Reuben sandwiches (both $7) on buttery toasted rye come stacked with house-smoked brisket, sauerkraut and Thousand Islands dressing.
They do, however, provide a knife with their bargain-basement Smorgasbord charcuterie platter ($9, all tax-inclusive). You'll need it to spread ambrosial chicken liver mousse and raisin chutney on toasts sided with house-made duck prosciutto, pancetta and pickled heirloom beets.
Nightly 5 pm to 2 am. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor.