Natalia Manzocco’s top 10 restaurants of 2018

This was a year of reinvention for heavy hitters in the city’s food scene


1. MOMOFUKU KOJIN

The Momo moniker has long been synonymous with celeb chef David Chang, but the restaurant empire’s newest Toronto outing, which occupies the former footprint of Daisho and Shoto in the Shangri-La Hotel, wisely puts homegrown chef Paula Navarrete front and centre. Billed as a celebration of the flame (“Kojin” is the ancient Japanese god of the hearth), Kojin does simple, well-executed dishes that pull in equal measure from the chef’s Colombian upbringing, Momofuku’s pan-Asian oeuvre and the seasonal nature of Ontario meats and produce. Kojin’s 15-ounce Ontario strip, aged in-house for 45 days, is (unsurprisingly) one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. But for all the suitably Shangri-La dishes on the menu – the sturgeon caviar crepes, the $115 seafood platters – it’s the comfort-food carbs I dream about at night: hot, fluffy cornbread rounds with grass-fed honey butter, and Tita’s Mash cheese-and-potato skillet that’s a take on a Navarrete family recipe. 

Read our profile of Momofuku Kojin here.

190 University, at Adelaide, 647-253-6225, kojin.momofuku.com

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2. ALOBAR YORKVILLE

It’s hard to find fault in Patrick Kriss’s latest, a tucked-away lounge hidden in the heart of Yorkville. Not surprising, given that Kriss has become one of the country’s most celebrated chefs for his work at tasting menu spot Alo. But the kinks were worked out of the new spot long before it even existed: the Yorkville offshoot was created as a way to give the bar at Alo, which boasts its own à la carte food program, a little more real estate. That’s great news for the denizens of Bloor St., who now can enjoy an ever-changing menu that puts jaw-droppingly fresh seafood, charcoal-grilled meats, playful veggie dishes and a top-flight cocktail program centre stage – all without needing to make resos two months out.

Read our full profile of Alobar Yorkville here.

162 Cumberland, at Avenue, 416-961-1222, alobaryorkville.com

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3. IL COVO

The deceptively Old World look of this Little Italy tavern might make you think you’re in for straw casks of vino rosso and checkered tablecloths. But behind those Game Of Thrones-y front doors, chef Ryan Campbell, formerly of Bar Buca, is offering a uniquely modern spin on Italian cooking, scattering B.C. oysters with saffron-lemon pearls (and serving them on a cloud of dry ice) or dunking a shrimp sandwich in pools of lemon aioli and caviar. Still, he treats the classics with care and respect, offering up note-perfect seafood linguini and a ricotta dish that’s as pretty as a fresco and as comforting as Nonna-style tortellini in broth on a cold day.

Read our full profile of Il Covo here.

585 College, at Clinton, 416-530-7585, ilcovo.ca

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4. GOOD HOMBRES

With his hands already full slinging tacos at one of Toronto’s best-regarded Mexican eateries, Campechano chef Daniel Roe found himself being swept off his feet by wholesale demand for the shop’s hand-pressed tortillas. His solution: lease a new storefront a few blocks north, bring in a mammoth tortilla machine directly from Mexico – and then start selling a few new tacos while he was at it. But though the tortillas and masa are the true raison d’être at Good Hombres, the tacos are so good you’d never, ever mistake them for an afterthought – particularly the beefy one-two punch of the carne asada and bistec, both flame-kissed and dressed with the freshest of salsas. And if we’re being real here, at $3.75 per taco, I can actually visit more than once every six months.

Read our full profile of Good Hombres here.

374 Bathurst, at Nassau, 416-862-0425

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5. SARA

With a half-dozen restaurants and a successful catering enterprise, the Food Dudes have amassed a considerable brain trust, much of which was called in to create the concept, menu and layout of Sara. But this ain’t a case of too many cooks: The tiny two-floor spot is a seamless, serene foil to Rasa, all blonde wood and marble, the only artwork the slashes and dashes of colour atop the spare ceramic plates. The portions and pricing underscore Sara’s stated goal of being a special-occasion spot – but those plates, like a squid-ink dumpling with bold herbed scallop filling and hearty hunks of crab, an addictive vegan chopped salad and a mini Reuben stuffed with honest to goodness Waygu pastrami, will make any night one to remember.

Read our full profile of Sara here.

98 Portland, at Adelaide, 416-985-5721, sara.restaurant

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6. CITY BETTY

Any associations between farm-to-table and Portlandia-esque pretension will instantly drain away upon pulling up a booth at this homey “seven-season” Danforth kitchen. There’s been a changing of the guard in the kitchen, with Amber Farrell taking over from founding chef Alex Molitz, but the streamlined, hands-off approach to ingredients and the homey-yet-knowledgeable service haven’t wavered. Neither has the quality of the menu, which, at present, includes a dish of vinegary-sweet baby onions with meaty mushrooms and grilled bread, plus a shockingly light and juicy fried chicken, served with tender kale and peach hot sauce on a bed of cheesy grits that just might change the way you look at the battered bird forever.

Read more about City Betty in our Best New Restaurants 2018 guide.

1352 Danforth, at Linnsmore, 647-271-3949, citybetty.com

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7. GIULIETTA

Whatever void was left on College by the closure of Bestellen last year, Giulietta more than fills. Bestellen chef Rob Rossi’s new venture, a collaboration with L’Unita’s David Minicucci, is a sleek, intimate Italian spot with walls upholstered in grey wool and low ceilings meant to facilitate close conversations over an amaro supplied from the rolling cart. The food is as fine as you’d expect from any date night spot worth its salt (grilled octopus with white beans and herbed olive oil is a showstopper) but the kitchen doesn’t shy away from taking liberties with some classic Italian flavour combos, like a delightfully left-field radicchio salad with Gorgonzola, apples and hazelnuts.

Read our full profile of Giulietta here.

972 College, at Rusholme, 416-964-0606, giu.ca

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8. QUETZAL

Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Guajardo approached Grant van Gameren about their upscale Mexican concept back in 2015, and the build took so long the trio were able to open two more restaurants (El Rey and Rosalinda) in the meantime. But Quetzal was worth the wait. The central feature is a massive fire pit that spans the length of the kitchen. Not only does it turn the restaurant into a unique sensory experience – the gorgeous campfire scent in the air, the warmth at the back bar (and the complimentary spritz bottles of cold water), the undulating ceiling peppered with vents – but since it’s the sole source of heat within the kitchen, it lends a distinct smoky signature to the menu. Though the ceviches and masa-based dishes are worthy, under no circumstances should carnivores skip the sausage plate, a Holy Trinity of orange-ginger, clove and cilantro that could single-handedly earn Quetzal its spot on this list.

Read our full profile of Quetzal here.

419 College, at Bathurst, 647-347-3663, quetzaltoronto.com

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9. SoSo Food Club

The people behind SoSo started out as club promoters, then proprietors of a fast-casual takeout shop (Otto’s Berlin Doner), then a raucous beer bar (Otto’s Bierhalle). Now with SoSo, they’ve come full circle, opening a scene-y Miami-by-way-of-Beijing joint swathed in teal velvet and lit with enough pastel neon to re-enact Hotline Bling. A place like this could coast on looks and cred alone. Instead, they recruited Jasper Hu to create a just-revised-enough slate of mainland Chinese dishes, including roulade-ified mouth-watering chicken, tear-inducing lamb noodles and killer braised pork belly with a seasoned egg. We henceforth upgrade them from SoSo to darn good. (Look, I’m only human.)

Read our full profile of SoSo Food Club here.

1166 Dundas West, at Ossington, 416-519-6661, sosofood.club

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10. BB’S DINER

From the above, you can probably gauge that 2018 was a year of expanding empires – established restaurateurs reinventing themselves or toying with new, big-ticket concepts. But BB’s is the kind of underdog spot that makes this town such an interesting place to eat: a bunch of young guns seeing their own histories under-represented in the culinary scene and banding together to create something that feels true to them. In this case, it’s a Filipino breakfast joint painted in beachy melon pink and furnished with the cream of Craigslist, with a menu of classics like bangus and longanisa, plus fried chicken and a righteous smoked eggplant dish topped with rosti and aioli. (Finally, a Filipino restaurant where vegetarians can party, too.) Our brunch and Filipino food scenes are both richer for their presence, and also, their Instagram captions are an absolute delight.

Read more about BB’s Diner in our Toronto’s Best Brunch 2018 guide.

76 Lippincott, at College, facebook.com/bbsdinerto

food@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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