Fast-casual and upscale, meaty and vegan, raucous and restrained — high tides raised all ships in Toronto's dining scene this year
This year offered finer dining options than Souk. More adventurous ones, too. But when it comes to the all-important flavour-to-dollars-spent ratio, Diana Sideris and Rony Goraichy’s take-away in Corktown easily takes the crown. Goraichy has years of honing Lebanese classics under his belt at Tabule, but at the modern, airy Souk, the service-counter model makes for a more approachable atmosphere – not to mention a significant price cut. That leaves diners free to chow down on spiced lentil rice with tender pulled chicken or buttery, garlicky fried halloumi sandwiches, stock up on to-die-for fresh pitas and dips for the fridge… and then zip right back for shakshuka and cardamom lattes the next morning. Of all the banner spots that opened this year, this is the only one that’s kept me coming back breakfast, lunch and dinner. Come to think of it, I’ll probably do all of those here this weekend.
494 Front East, 416-583-5914, tabule.ca. Read more about Souk Tabule here.
Imanishi Japanese Kitchen on Dundas West. Nagoya style ramen
Shori Imanishi wanted to make the kind of Japanese food he would scarf for lunch at Tokyo’s mom-and-pop shops or during long nights out with friends at the izakaya. Imanishi’s excellent snack plates go great with a comically large Sapporo or five: frothy, salty corn tempura, sweet ginger-and-garlic-glazed wings, and a love-it-or-hate-it (I fall into the former camp) bowl of soul-warming ramen speckled with ground pork and chicken and infused with ginger and chili.
1330 Dundas West, 416-706-4225, imanishi.ca. Read more about Imanishi here.
Earlier this year, Victor Barry’s Harbord kitchen, formerly uppest-of-the-upmarket Italian trattoria Splendido, retired the champagne cart and lobster-foie-truffle tasting menus. Dressed down is a good look for Barry, who’s now packing in a far broader customer base – couples on dates, parents with toddlers, multi-generational birthday dinners – drawn by the chef’s knack for updated classics, in which bitterness (dandelions, rapini, radicchio) and butteriness (ricotta, brown butter, burrata) are locked in a tango. Of particular note are the pizzas, which feature gorgeously blistered, burnished crusts (these pies rival Roberta’s in Williamsburg, and I don’t make that comparison lightly).
88 Harbord, 416-929-7788, pianopianotherestaurant.com
Pull up a chair (if you can find one) in Doug Penfold’s walk-in-closet-sized bistro, and you’ll get dinner and a show: The former Cava chef performs death-defying feats of cookery, turning out ethereal versions of French staples with just an oven, a sous vide and couple of induction burners at his disposal. Mains like the sunny saffron-hued ttoro (fish stew) and melt-in-your-mouth whitefish en papillote impress, as does the neatly choreographed service. One last thing about that tiny room: the scent wafting from the apple tart with Calvados sabayon will make forgoing dessert nigh-on impossible.
90 Yorkville, 416-428-6641, chabrolrestaurant.com
Confession time: I was a bit skeptical before stepping into chef Jeff Kang’s new spot. Why was it named after the Latin word for dog? Was it, like so many other West Queen West openings in recent memory, a “resto-lounge” more keen on parting visitors from their dough than turning out great cuisine? Did we really need another pricey “modern Canadian” spot where each menu item reads like a grocery list? And then I was presented with a so-fresh, so-clean albacore carpaccio with peppery shisho and papery rounds of fermented daikon, earthy and fragrant mushroom ravioli in brodo and a smoky, creamy poached sablefish with roasted cabbage that would move any chowder lover to tears, and I promptly shut my mouth (or, more accurately: I kept it occupied with food). Canis, I was a fool to doubt you.
746 Queen West, 416-203-3317, canisrestaurant.com
So many vegan eateries either go granola or force deep-fried slabs of tofu to stand in for wings, fish and chips and southern-fried chicken. And then there’s this sophisticated Yorkville boîte (a nearly unrecognizable reno of Pangaea), where chef David Lee puts veggies forward and keeps the ingredient manipulations to a minimum, but doesn’t skimp on flavour or creativity. (Check the young coconut ceviche.) By taking his cues from a plethora of international cuisines, as well as what’s seasonally available, the chef keeps things fresh for his many, many repeat customers, not all of whom have sworn off milk or meat. This cheese fanatic would happily eat Planta’s vegan queso dip any day of the week.
1221 Bay, 647-348-7000, plantatoronto.com. Read more about Planta here.
A meatwave swept the city this summer as a handful of joints influenced by bare-bones Central Texas BBQ fired up their smokers. They’re all special in their own right, but Kensington Market’s J&J has a certain Southern slacker magic to it. The dining room is what your grandma’s kitchen would look like after your dirtbag uncle moved back in, and pitmasters Jon Lucas and Jay Moore run the place with the right amount of sass and shit-talk. But their serious chef credentials – ever heard of Momofuku or the Harbord Room? – show up on the on the plate, or rather the plastic cafeteria tray, in succulent butter-basted smoked turkey, singed smoked cabbage, juicy house-made sausages and addictive potato chip/pretzel/marshmallow squares.
193 Baldwin, 647-351-4227, jandjbarbque.com. Read more about J&J here.
Platito Filipino restaurant in Baldwin Village. BBQ pork skewers
The rise in profile of Filipino food was one of Toronto’s most exciting culinary developments this year, and though Queen West’s inventive Lamesa is considered to be at the vanguard, the party-ready Platito feels less cerebral and more celebratory. Chef Karlo Cunanan’s menu goes in big on crowd-pleasing elements (tropical cocktails, bar snacks like french fries topped with sizzling sisig, a fluffy ube waffle with fried chicken at brunch), but his peanutty kare-kare stew, sweet BBQ pork skewers and grilled pork belly uphold the country’s culinary tradition perfectly.
35 Baldwin, 647-347-0135, platitotoronto.com. Read more about Platito here.
Your Yorkville dining options are as follows: old money, new money or pub grub (shout-out to Hemingway’s and the Pilot). Thank goodness for Nicki Laborie’s unpretentious, inexpensive, girly-like-a-sarcastic-rom-com cocktail bar and its relaxed Mediterranean menu. Chef Omar Ma has fun with the region’s flavours, layering lamb shank into a savoury baklava or piling roasted brussels sprouts onto a halloumi pintxo. You don’t have to bring your gal pals, but let’s be real – there’s no way you could eat through a Dutch-ovenful of mouth-watering shellfish-stuffed cataplana by yourself. (Or is there?)
158 Cumberland, 647-748-4464, barreyna.com. Read more about Bar Reyna here.
Just when you think you’ve seen every mathematically possible fusion combination, chef Paul Kim unveils an incredibly thoughtful merging of Korean and French cuisines. Kim is from Seoul but studied at the Cordon Bleu, and ably uses French techniques to accent Korean flavour profiles at his new spot just off of College. Recent examples (Kim changes his menu frequently) -include a flavourful, piquant mackerel done en papillote with kimchi and bok choy, or a dish of tender seared beef slices nestled on bitter creamed winter greens. Even dishes that don’t entirely wow (meh dumplings in Kim’s duck done two ways) shine somewhere else on the plate (holy wow, the duck breast – and those cauliflower and -persimmon purees)! We expect big things to come from Kim.
50 Clinton, 416-551-1550, domatoronto.com