Comfort foods are the dishes we turn to when we want to reboot sense memories of happier times. Twenty years ago, that meant Kraft Dinner, Wonderbread and Twinkies. We still crave feel-good foods, but today that comfort comes in more diverse flavours.
Chip truck operators probably can’t believe that Hogtown bistro Bouchon (38 Wellington East, at Church, 416-862-2675) puts foie gras on its pricey poutine.
David Chrystian has brought back his significantly cheaper deluxe duck-liver-free interpretation at the Drake (1150 Queen West, at Beaconsfield, 416-531-0429) while Jamie Kennedy of the eponymous Wine Bar (9 Church, at Front, 416-362-5586) reinvents the Quebecois junk food by way of Algeria, topping his famous fries with spicy merguez sausage, Pecorino cheese and lamb jus.
But leave it to South Riverdale spoon Dangerous Dan’s (714 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-463-7310) to get it chip-truck correct – chunky frozen McCain fries, beefy gravy and fresh squeaky cheese curds. If it don’t squeak, it ain’t poutine.
Mac ’n’ cheese
Whole Foods sells Elaina Asselin’s classic mac ’n’ cheese.
Though Lobby gilds the lily by crowning its rendition with an incongruous slice of foie gras, Clafouti’s (915 Queen West, at Strachan, 416-603-1935) less expensive mac ’n’ cheese offers retro squares of noodly pasta doused in cream and smooth melted cheddar.
Supermarkets for the super-rich Pusateri (57 Yorkville, at Bay, 416-785-9100) and Whole Foods (87 Avenue Road, at Lowther, 416-944-0500) both make dependable takes, but former Roxborough and Ellipsis chef Elaina Asselin’s nuke-able takeout at Foods gets the nod over her competitor’s instruction-free casserole.
Those with lighter wallets will want to check out Master’s Buffeteria (310 Bloor West, at Madison, 416-924-7651) and its timelessly perfect cafeteria-style marriage of pasta and cheddar.
At Ultra, chef Paul Boehmer adds lobster to his luxe mashed potatoes.
When chef-of-the-moment Paul Boehmer of Ultra (314 Queen West, at Peter, 416-263-0330) does comfort, he goes as over the top as the swank supper club’s decor.
Plated alongside ginger-glazed and black-peppercorn-crusted sushi-grade tuna, his swoonsome lobster-rich Yukon Gold mash comes pooled with divinely decadent lobster bisque. Uptown stake-house Transilvania (2579 Yonge, at Briar Hill, 416-932-9915) sides its Dracula Platter with waves of fabulous mittel-European mash ladled with creamy mushroom garlic gravy. Funky Cuban cantina Julie’s (202 Dovercourt, at Argyle, 416-532-7397) checks in with Papa Rellena, mashed spud baseballs stuffed with savoury ground beef ’n’ olive lightly kicked with gentle salsa.
Once considered déclassé – only the poor eat them, darling – lamb and veal shank are now appearing on trendy menus all over town. Isam Kaisi of that anonymous Annex boîte with only an address (93 Harbord, at Robert, 416-922-5914) slow-braises his Arabic-accented lamb shank and plates it with smoky mounds of roasted fareki (wheat kernels) and a contrasting puddle of honeyed yogurt. Little House of Kebabs’ (357 Yonge, at Elm, 416-595-9988) more straightforward Middle Eastern lamb shank is a steal at eight bucks, while Tom Cruise blows his wad when he’s in town on La Bruschetta’s (1317 St. Clair West, at St. Clarens, 416-656-8622) heavenly veal osso buco – pierced bone in Italian – complete with marvellous marrow. But the sultan of shanks is Debu Saha of Biryani House (25 Wellesley East, at Yonge, 416-927-9340), whose northern Indian translation features ambrosial fork-tender lamb in spice-tacular creamy korma garnished with just-roasted almond, maraschino cherry and silver edible foil.
Retro diner dish
Though some may balk, Toronto Filipinos can’t get enough of home-style culinary hybrids like sautéed canned corned beef cornsilog and spaghetti with sliced hot dog wieners. Though they’ll find both at Retro Manilla (584 Parliament, at Wellesley, 416-323-9707), a tiny just-opened Cabbagetown take-away, there’s plenty more here to satisfy anyone looking for first-rate home cooking.
That 1950’s cliché Chicken à la King comes in marvellous coconut milk gravy tossed with pineapple chunks, while Lumpiang Shanghai miniature eggrolls – delicious deep-fried wonton wrappers – come loaded with fishy minced shrimp. For dessert, don’t miss Retro’s super-inexpensive loaf-sized crème caramel flan or custardy crushed pineapple pie complete with a latticed crust even Martha Stewart would approve.
Mention baked beans and most people conjure up something out of a can on toast. But Phil Nyman of Phil’s Original BBQ (838 College, at Ossington, 416-532-8161) raises the lowly legume to art form with his awesome molasses-streaked black beans. Rich with tender pulled pork and caramelized onion, they work perfectly with Phil’s equally amazing Kansas City-style ribs or as a stand-alone meal.
Coyote Willie’s (689 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-778-4578) sweet and chili-fired Tex-Mex baked pintos get stoked with chunks of chorizo, while Greek taverna Zorba’s (681 Danforth, at Pape, 416-406-1212) bakes its slow-cooked garlicky gigantes lima beans in dill-addled tomato sauce. File under weird: New Kee Hong Vegetarian Healthy Food (396 Spadina, at Nassau, 416-596-1576) sells its vegan baked soy beans next to a rack of barbecued pork on meat hooks. Nice.
Want to know why Jamie Kennedy’s Wine Bar (9 Church, at Front, 416-362-5586) is still the hottest dinner ticket in town?
Could it be seven-dollar plates of bistro-inspired inventions like braised oxtail in gorgeous wine-infused jus crowned with wilted leek and salty marrow-slathered crisps? Throughout the Caribbean, oxtail is a special-occasion dish, and no one does it better locally than Island Thyme (872 Bathurst, at London, 416-538-9729). Chef Marcia Carby’s secret? Quality beef, lima beans and thyme. At Peruvian Mi Tierra (828 St. Clair West, at Oakwood, 416-654-8868), Sancocho, tender bone-on oxtail with halved potatoes, stringy cassava and salted pozole, explodes with the house’s harmless-looking but incendiary hot sauce.
James Wong serves up soothing congee at Pho Hung.
Popular throughout China and South-east Asia, congee – aka jook – is a soothing breakfast of very boiled rice. It acts as a digestive aid, helping to counter the effects of the previous day’s often spicy dinner. For example, to retaliate against its fiery Beijing-style street food, Chinese Traditional Buns (536 Dundas West, at Kensington, 416-299-9011) offers a stripped-down northern version as bare-bones as its decor, plain millet congee. A smooth mush thickened with soya milk, hoisin and peanut-butter-like sesame paste, the gruel at House of Gourmet (484 Dundas West, at Spadina, 416-217-0167) comes served with Ovaltine. Pho Hung (350 Spadina, at St. Andrew, 416-593-4274, and 200 Bloor West, at Avenue Road, 416-963-5080) does jook Vietnamese-style. Topped with raw sprouts and juiced with lime wedges, Hung’s soupy combination congee features a kitchen sink of chopped seafood garnished with raw chopped scallion. Who needs Pepto-Bismol?
Under a poster for Tampopo, the cult Japanese flick about slurpable soup, budget-minded students inhale stomach-soothing bowls of miso-brothed ramen topped with nutritious nori and thickly sliced roast pork at Konnichiwa (31 Baldwin, at Henry, 416-593-8538). Sure beats a cup of the three-packs-for-a-buck stuff back at the dorm.
Besides its awesome Cantonese egg-noodle-in-soup combos topped with house-barbecued duck and vibrant green veggies, King’s Noodle (296 Spadina, at Dundas West, 416-598-1817) offers a fascinating streetside view of its cook slinging pasta from pot to plate in the front window.
Up the avenue, Miss Saigon (394 Spadina, at Nassau, 416-597-9333) serves a DIY Vietnamese hot pot featuring two boiling broths, a huge tangle of lo-mein-style pasta and a heap of aromatic greens. The new downtown Pusateri’s (57 Yorkville, at Bay, 416-785-9100) has the perfect gift for a cold-suffering friend – old-school chicken noodle soup, a grease-free soul-warming stock brimming with boneless chunks of poultry and bowtie farfalle.
Ayse Aydemir’s dumplings delight at Anatolia.
To most Americans, dumplings are those nearly inedible boiled lumps found on top of Grandma’s Sunday dinner chicken stew. Toronto has more adventurous taste. Little Tibet (712 Queen West, at Manning, 416-306-1896) specializes in its national dish, momo – bland-on-bland steamed or fried pot-stickers stuffed with ground beef or minced veggies.
Chopan Kebab House (798 Danforth, at Woodycrest, 416-778-1200) tops its spinach mantu (think Afghan ravioli) with smooth warm yogurt and optonal incendiary chili-green hot sauce.
Similarily, Anatolia’s (5112 Dundas West, at Kipling, 416-207-0596) Turkish minced beef manti dumplings come sauced with both yogurt and hot clarified butter. Fans of the predictable rate Prague Deli’s (638 Queen West, at Tecumseth, 416-504-5787) pierogies, familiar pasta pillows replete with reassuring cheddar.
Made from top-quality ground pork and veal, the garlicky parmesan-laced meatballs at Tavola Calda (671 College, 416-536-8328) come traditionally twinned with spaghetti. Etobicoke’s Brar Sweets (2646 Islington, at Albion, 416-745-4449) makes an Indo-style meatless ball – chickpea kofta in spice-laden cream. Over in East Chinatown, Saigon sub shop Rose Café (324 Broadview, at Gerrard East, 416-406-9906) creates a truly multiculti meatball sandwich, lemongrass-scented Xiu Mai, on flaky Parisian rolls.
Made with day-old leftovers, bread pudding is like the blues – simple on the surface, subtly explosive within. In contrast to its fiery jerks and spice-packed patties, Patty King’s (187 Baldwin, at Kensington, 416-977-3191) Jamaican version finds a deceptively calm cube laced with undercurrents of Caribbean spice.
Mary Lanzillotto of long-running Tavola Calda (671 College, at Beatrice, 416-536-8328) gives her flan-like budin de pan ($2) global Italian and Argentine spicings. And a soaking of vermouth. Using an old family recipe, Patricia Morales of Mexitaco (828 Bloor West, at Shaw, 416-537-6693) recreates a Mexican flan that’s more dense, sweet bread pudding than plain ol’ custard.
New kid Le Gourmand (438 Richmond West, at Spadina, 416-504-4494) offers a Gallic twist – melt-in-the-mouth banana and random dark chocolate chips. Pass the milk!
Debu Saha’s Biryani House adds almond cream to its paneer dish.
A popular Punjabi staple, matar paneer – green peas and soft cheese in gravy – turns up on Toronto northern Indian restaurant menus all over town. Jodhpore Club (33 Baldwin, at Henry, 416-598-2502) keeps it mellow, with buttery cheese in a pea-scattered nutty pink sauce, while Trimurti (265 Queen West, at Duncan, 416-645-0286) duplicates the dish but triples the heat. P.K. Singh’s Dhaba (309 King West, at John, 416-740-6622) ups the pea-to-paneer ratio, resulting in lots of glorious sauce to sop with his first-rate tandoor-baked naan.
At Debu Saha’s Biryani House’s (25 Wellesley East, at Yonge, 416-927-9340) paneer is as ornate as the over-the-top chandeliers that light his second floor dining room. Dubbed Raspberry Paneer, it features the usual cheese-pea combo but raises the stakes with a knockout almond cream studded with curry leaf and a garnish of fried onion thread, cherry tomato and black grape.
Edward Levesque, idiosyncratic cook, Edward Levesque’s Kitchen
"Roast chicken! It’s easy to prep – course sea salt, fresh chopped herbs, butter rub and a lemon made hole-y stuffed up the arse – and the cooking instructions are a no-brainer: 350° till it’s golden brown. And the leftovers make a great salad or sandwich."
Susur Lee, ascetic owner/chef, Susur (601 King West, at Portland, 416-603-2205)