The city's hottest new spots are all about seafood, sustainability and a whole lot of pasta
A new Italian place in Little Italy? Ma no! It feels almost quaint — but then again, old-school charm saturates this small-plates-oriented restaurant, the first solo outing from Buca alumni Ryan Campbell and Giuseppe Marchesini, like espresso saturates a tiramisu. Starting with the dungeon-like front door, Il Covo is all old-world romance, and the menu sticks close enough to tradition to satisfy purists while making calculated overtures toward modernity. The most wooden-spoon-happy nonna in the land couldn’t find fault with Campbell’s incredible seafood linguini, which piles the freshest of clams, calamari, mussels and scallops onto pasta sourced from Abruzzo. And while it’s not Italian tradition to stuff a tramezzino sandwich with scallop and shrimp, add a mossy coat of chopped chives, glob some smoked-lemon aioli on there for dipping and maybe slap an extra spoonful of caviar on top for kicks — it probably damn well should be.
Read our profile of Il Covo here.
585 College, at Clinton, 416-530-7585, ilcovo.ca
Photos By Natalia Manzocco
Oysters with lemon-saffron pearls and chopped fennel at Il Covo.
Crab dumplings (left), salmon tartare and fish sauce wings at Tuk Tuk Canteen.
Cambodian food is under-represented in Toronto, but it has found a champion in chef Mike Tan, who formerly ran the kitchen at the Contender on Dundas. At this spare re-imagining of the Rude Boy diner, he turns out plates inspired by his parents’ recipes hits include lemongrass, kaffir and lime salmon tartare and crisp wings with a sheen of zippy, savoury lime and fish sauce glaze. It’s an unabashedly fun crash course – especially if you wash everything down with a pitcher or three of their punchy big-batch cocktails.
Read our full profile of Tuk Tuk Canteen here.
397 Roncesvalles, at Howard Park, instagram.com/tuktukcanteen
Smoked okra with cauliflower gratin, vegan queso and purple cabbage at Mira Mira inside Assembly Chef’s Hall.
With this much star power under one roof – it’s basically the Traveling Wilburys – Assembly was pretty much a guaranteed hit from the beginning. Established hot spots like DaiLo, Shoushin, Khao San Road, Ramen Isshin, Cherry Street Bar-B-Que and more all leapt at Andreas Antoniou’s offer to bring their stuff to a downtown lunch crowd hungry for novelty and atmosphere. Even if you’ve frequented the original restaurants, surprises abound, like smoky okra at Mira Mira, from freshman chef Amira Becarevic, and the unearthly burger at Ivana Raca and Brad Smith’s Resto Boemo (Raca once looked me dead in the eyes and told me it was the best in town, and woman wasn’t blowin’ smoke).
Read our full profile of Assembly Chef’s Hall here.
111 Richmond West, at York, 647-557-5993, assemblychefshall.com
The Gold Standard breakfast sandwich with bacon, pickles, egg, cheddar and aioli.
Is there a simpler pleasure in the world – whether you’re feeling daisy-fresh or brain-full-o’-pigeon-shit hungover – than a good breakfast sandwich? Unless, of course, we’re talking about a dirty flat-top burger. The team from The Federal mercifully doesn’t make you choose at their sunny takeout window behind the Reunion Island café on Roncy. Even the standard breakfast sammy — kale or bacon, pick your poison — comes with pickles and aioli along with the standard egg, a stroke of genius that lends both a satisfying complexity and a dose of fast-food-y nostalgia. But there’s also a smashed, mustard-grilled patty on a potato roll – dubbed the Telway Burger, in homage to a Detroit diner – that’s just the perfect size, at 2.5 ounces, to let you justify ordering a burg and a breakfast sandwich. (I did it. It was awesome.)
385 Roncesvalles, at Neepawa, thefed.ca/goldstandard
Iceberg wedge salad with chive cream, avocado, pumpkin seeds and Parmesan at Aloette.
It’s hard not to imagine Patrick Kriss’s diner-inspired follow-up to Alo (the No. 1 restaurant in Canada for two years running – maybe you’ve heard of it?) struggling at least a little to live up to the bar set by its prom-king older sibling. And I must admit, when I first snagged a coveted spot in those narrow banquettes last fall, I felt like something about Kriss’s steakhouse-by-way-of-bistro menu wasn’t quite gelling – but I also trusted that the chef, known for his quasi-monastic dedication and focus, was going to keep refining until everything was to his exacting standards. And he’s nailed it: Coupled with Alo’s pitch-perfect service, the menu at Aloette – from supple scallops to meaty fried smelt and a burnished-cheese burger – makes for comfort-food nirvana. And be sure to try the seasonal stuff: Kriss’s dish of buttery-sweet wedges of fried squash, recently retired for the warmer months, is so good, I would almost will us back into winter (gasp!) just so I could eat it again.
Read our full profile of Aloette here.
163 Spadina, at Queen, 416-260-3444, aloetterestaurant.com
Ravioli with spinach and ricotta at Famiglia Baldassarre.
Does Baldassarre even count as a restaurant? (If there are two dozen people queued up out front four days of the week at lunchtime, does it really matter?) Pastaiolo Leandro Baldassarre supplies some of the finest kitchens in town with fresh noodles, but you can cut out the middleman at a marble lunch counter just inside his Geary Avenue facility, where he’ll fill a takeout container with tagliatelle and housemade ragu, sunny spinach and ricotta ravioli, duck cappellacci, and any number of other daily delights for only $12. Screw candlelight and a bottle of wine – between the top-flight quality and secret-clubhouse atmosphere, this might be one of the most memorable Italian dining experiences in town.
Read our profile of Famiglia Baldassarre here.
122 Geary, at Westmoreland, 647-293-5395, famigliabaldassarre.com
Pan-seared halibut with asparagus, sweet peas, lemon and guanciale at Giulietta.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth followed the closure of Rob Rossi’s last restaurant, but it looks like the Bestellen was truly yet to come. (Hold for applause.) A collaboration with L’Unita’s David Minicucci, Giulietta jettisons its predecessor’s rib-eyes and burgers for a sprightly menu of veggie- and seafood-forward Italian fare. At the back of the long and low space (designer Guido Costantino reportedly lowered the ceiling for a cozier vibe), Rossi’s kitchen turns out impeccably handled grilled octopus slathered in bright salmoriglio, a genius spin on classic radicchio salad with sweet-n-sour green apple and earthy hazelnuts, and butter-smothered little sleeves of taleggio-filled pasta. I’m willing to bet you won’t even miss the steak.
Read our profile of Giulietta here.
972 College, at Rusholme, 416-964-0606, giu.ca
The “Arctic trio” of seal tartare, salmon and smoked trout at Ku-Kum.
At his intimate midtown kitchen, Odawa chef Joseph Shawana merges the techniques he learned over 10 years in Toronto restaurants (from pubs to fine dining to a corporate gig at Rogers Centre) with the cuisine of his heritage, putting locally sourced ingredients and game meats front and centre. First things first: Yes, this may be the only place in town to serve seal, bringing Ku-Kum the kind of free publicity that only overblown, myopic protests can provide. The much-ballyhooed seal tartare didn’t really turn my crank – it was akin to an aquatic Vegemite, musky and bitter. But seal loin, waved over a flame? Delicate as a rare steak, with a slight steely tang – and a fine foil to sweet beets and maple syrup. Other highlights: Killer smoked trout, pâté with bannock, and a rich chocolate mousse dotted with flowers and gold leaf. Not everything was note-perfect – an underdone parsnip here, a just-okay caribou hamburger steak there – but Shawana’s skill and singular approach make Ku-Kum a truly unique dining experience in a city that’s seemingly seen it all.
581 Mount Pleasant, at Manor, 416-519-2638, kukum-kitchen.com
Sea bream sushi (imported from Fukuoka) with fermented chili and yuzu kosho at Skippa.
Harbord lost Yunaghi last year, but Ian Robinson is keeping the neighbourhood’s upscale-Japanese cred intact with this unassuming omakase spot. The Sushi Kaji alum puts all the skills he learned under Mitsuhiro Kaji to excellent use, showcasing selections like sea bream, grouper and ishidai imported from Fukuoka. (I looked up the English name of the latter fish, and it was barred knifejaw – what a thrill to be eating something I’d never seen outside of Animal Crossing.) Service is warm, making this a great entry point for newbies to the omakase experience, down to the server telling you whether to “dip or no dip” each piece in soy sauce. And although the sushi rightly gets tons of attention, apps like nasu, a little roulade of eggplant in a ginger-packed broth, and tsukune, a chicken meatball on a bed of grains, were so good that I hungered for main-sized versions. Though, to be honest, I also hungered in general: If I had one tiny fishbone to pick with Skippa, it’s that my dining companion and I ate an omakase menu each, split four apps and still left ready to crush a cheeseburger. (Props for not filling us up on rice, at least?)
379 Harbord, at Roxton, 416-535-8181, skippa.ca
The OC – featuring seared, shaved and puréed carrots – at City Betty.
All Alex Molitz needed to do to sell the Danforth locals on this soothing, sage-green new spot was put a bunch of carrots onto a plate. The OC, a delicious tangle of shaved, seared and puréed heirloom carrots with an unexpected smear of chimichurri, is one of the breakout hits of the former Farmhouse Tavern chef’s “seven season” menu (finally, a place that acknowledges Toronto’s second, third and fourth winters). As is farm-to-table custom, the veggies star here, playing off one another in novel but pleasingly simple combinations: think pea purée (puréed anything is pretty much guaranteed to be good here, FYI) with roasted mushroom and California-made crescenza cheese on Blackbird sourdough, or a dill-cucumber salad that just screams springtime, made meatier with fried artichoke hearts. But there’s still indulgence to be had, in the form of a salty, crisp-crusted burger with sour cherry chutney and massive wedge fries (actually each about a third of a potato) and a brunch slate of bennies and house-cured slab bacon.
1352 Danforth, at Linsmore, 647-271-3949, citybetty.com
Trout crudo (left), baby gem lettuce salad and octopus a la plancha at Drake Mini Bar.
Despite the Drake’s ubiquity, it’s tough to divine exactly what its brand as a restaurant is, outside of “American food, but fancier.” But the brand-spankin’-new Mini Bar, across the lobby from One Fifty in Adelaide Place, sees the company merge its strengths – a vast culinary brain trust, interior design and visual art curation – with a welcome idiosyncratic twist. First, there’s an indoor “patio” space with a geometric wooden pergola and palm fronds that should keep the fruity drinks (from a broad and impressively solid cocktail menu) a-flowin’ year-round. Then there’s a seafood-forward menu, spearheaded by One Fifty exec chef Jon Pong, that features the Drake Commissary’s endlessly noshable cured fish, breads and spreads, plus fried cod, venison tartare and a trout crudo with salmon roe that will each last about 10 seconds after you finish taking your Insta snaps. For both the financial district and the Drake, it’s a real breath of fresh air.
Read our profile of Drake Mini Bar here.
150 York, at Adelaide, thedrake.ca/drakeminibar
Steak au poivre with potato pavé, green beans with garlic, and cognac and cream sauce at Senator Winebar.
Leave it to the Senator, Toronto’s oldest diner, to go even more old-school for its upstairs spinoff: the tiny Senator Winebar, packed with ornate antiques and an old Heintzman piano, is the kind of time-worn bistro you’d find off some decrepit stairwell in Montmartre, rather than spitting distance from Yonge-Dundas Square. But it would all just be window dressing were it not for head chef Paul Laforet, a veteran of upscale-health-food spot Ursa (who’s probably relieved he now gets to cook with all the butter his heart desires), and Lorenzo Fattò Offidani, who followed his passion for old-school American cocktail culture onto the Orient Express (where he previously tended bar) and all the way to Toronto from Italy. Grab some savoury mushroom toast or coq au vin and something amaretto-spiked, and let the rustle of the street fade away behind the sound of the live piano – it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a ticket to Paris.
Read our profile of Senator Winebar here.
249 Victoria, at Dundas, 416-364-7517, thesenator.com/wine-bar
firstname.lastname@example.org | @nataliamanzocco