Are we mellowing out, Toronto? As this food-conscious town grows ever more consumed with what it eats, it seems like our diners are growing up. We’re finally ditching the bacon, BBQ and burgers of the past few years to chow down seafood. (Our new hyper-indulgent vice: pizza – quadruple the dough, please.) Bro-y bourbon bar taco joints are giving way to spots that import their atmosphere and recipes directly from Mexico. French refinement is gaining on snack bar revelry (with one successful joint juggling both of those at once), while trendy, sexed-up Italian is seeing a revival – hello, date night. And, intriguingly, some of the hottest names on diners’ lips are just spots where you can get a great sandwich and bring it back to your desk. Here’s what T.O.’s hottest kitchens are cooking.
For last year’s Restaurant Guide, click here.
RACA CAFÉ & BAR
It’s tough to talk about Ivana Raca’s new spot (pronounce it “raw-tsa”) without doing a resumé rundown first: started in kitchens at 17 at Mark McEwan’s North 44 became saucier there at 20 (the first woman to hold that particular gig) got promoted to head chef at McEwan at 24. After 10 years of grinding away in Toronto kitchens, she split for Australia, toured Asia and landed back in town to open her first restaurant at 29.
Nearly a year after opening day, the spot’s hit its stride. Raca runs a tight ship from her tiny open kitchen, presiding over a mostly female staff. Though her Parkdale dining room borrows its serene look from her Indonesian travels – lots of weatherbeaten wood and Buddhas – Raca isn’t exactly what you’d call Zen. Just check her recent appearance on Chopped Canada, where she delivered a culinary smackdown – and plenty of trash talk – to her three opponents, including Antler’s Michael Hunter. She’s driven and precise, and her menu is built on the exacting French technique that helped her excel under McEwan’s tutelage.
Take, for example, her confit tomato dish ($18): a painterly plate of still-warm skinless tomatoes, caramelized and juicy, with smears of pale burrata, a few stray basil leaves, hints of balsamic vinegar and pesto, plus pine nuts and fans of pink watermelon radish for colour and crunch. It’s what every Caprese salad wants to be when it grows up.
Hang on to some of the bread course when you get it, by the way – Raca’s in-house baker makes magic in the small kitchen, producing still-hot slices, glossy on the outside and chewy on the inside, saturated with good -olive oil and sea salt and perfect for swiping up stray sauce.
And speaking of sauce, you see hints of Raca’s old post at North 44 in mains like her unearthly beef short ribs ($36), piping hot and fork-tender with a slip of fat running through, soaked in a gorgeous mushroom cream sauce.
After years heading up Splendido, Victor Barry decided to downshift. Last fall, he announced his plans to spend more time with his family, closed up the Harbord fine-dining destination and reopened it several months later as the flirtier Piano Piano. Out front, the staid white edifice has been painted with a riot of roses. Inside, they’ve chucked the perfectly tucked white tablecloths for bistro sets, and poppy floral oilcloth serves as wallpaper.
Barry wanted the place to be “the Italian restaurant you always wished was just around the corner.” Though the high-low balance is still being worked out – the prices might be higher than you’d expect from the naked-looking tables and the goofy soundtrack of Mambo Italiano and Scenes From An Italian Restaurant – his menu of pastas, pizzas and assaggini nicely balances a sense of exploration with a red-sauce soul.
Burrata toast ($16) is the sort of dish that changes with every bite, thanks to multiple ingredients: bread crowned with burrata that’s whippy in the centre but chewy at the edges fresh, acidic fennel in vinaigrette fragrant rosemary and deep, dark hazelnuts a marmalade-like date-espresso concoction that I would happily spread on my toast every morning.
There’s a great deconstructed take on Caesar salad ($17) and a selection of solid pizzas built on thin, puffy crusts (all $22).
Things sometimes get uneven – on one visit, an otherwise great bowl of springy spaghettoni with mussels, oysters and guanciale ($16/$24) is sunk by a heavy slick of oil shaded with hints of burnt garlic. But a plate of super-smooth cheese agnolotti ($16/$24) – smothered in a stellar, ultra-bright Bolognese sauce – quickly renders all of that a distant memory.
Even if you don’t hang out in the Junction, there’s a good chance you’ve had Honest Weight’s seafood before. In the year and a half since it opened, John Bil and Victoria Bazan’s eatery/fishmonger’s has begun supplying local restaurants (including Chabrol and Ufficio) with responsibly sourced seafood.
What’s in the case at their cozy shop – which, remarkably, contains not a single perceptible whiff of that trademark fish-shop funk – changes daily. On a recent trip, for example, there was Winnipeg pickerel, BC halibut, Ontario shrimp and trout, organic PEI salmon and littleneck clams from Massachusetts.
You can get it all wrapped up to go to cook at home, or you can opt for their signature dish – whatever you want out of that case, pan-fried up with a seasonal veg and starch for a flat $28. That day they sold me on the halibut, which showed up meaty and buttery on top of a bed of broccoli rabe and smashed potatoes.
The rest of the menu, written on chalkboards at the bar, is kept tight and seasonally oriented. The ethereal clam chowder ($12) is the furthest thing from the usual gelatinous business it’s a bowl of lightly frothed, steaming-hot cream over tiny diced potatoes and plenty of honest-to-goodness clams. For something more filling, go for their take on the okonomiyaki, a Japanese seafood pancake ($16). A thin crepe comes loaded with big hunks of salmon, cabbage, Japa-nese yam, strips of bacon, a drizzle of kewpie mayo and a blanket of bonito flakes that quiver and curl from the heat as the dish is set on the table.
We thought Toronto was about ready to say “no mas” to more taco joints, but that was before chef Daniel Roe came along last winter and poured a lifetime of memories of Mexico City taco stands into Campechano. Under a red-and-turquoise mural depicting some of the country’s national symbols, Roe doles out a tight selection of true-blue Mexican specialties on pressed-and-grilled-to-order tortillas (a laborious but appreciated extra step). There’s sweet-and-tangy shrimp and pineapple ($5), smoky steak and peppers ($4.75), and quesadillas as they serve ’em down south: giant taco-like beasts oozing with specially imported Oaxaca cheese (about $6.50).
Part of the line that springs eternally outside Seven Lives has migrated up the road to Torteria San Cosme, Arturo Anhalt’s riotously cheerful and colourful recreation of the Mexican torta stand experience. Big, beefy sandwiches built on Mexican telera rolls (painstakingly custom-prepared by Blackbird Bakery Co.) are the biggest draw, with a jar of house-made pickles ready to tart up your triple-meat Cubano ($12) or breaded-chicken Milanese ($10.75). But if by some act of God you can eat anything else after that, don’t sleep on the snacks: thick-cut kettle chips ($3) cooked up fresh and doused with vinegary hot sauce, lime juice and a sprinkle of chile pequeño, or still-warm churros with a cup of slow-burning Mexican hot chocolate for dunking ($6.50).
To steal a phrase from Steam Whistle, former Marben exec-chef Rob Bragagnolo does two things really, really well at his new fast-casual concept, headquartered at Adelaide and Peter. There’s lean roasted porchetta zhooshed up with piquant, northern-Italian-inspired apricot mostarda ($7.99) and rosemary, and slow-roasted, free-range chicken doused in bold roasted-lemon mayonnaise and even bolder tomato tapenade ($8.49). You can get both of them piled and pressed on fluffy focaccia, or heaped on hearty smashed potatoes if a sandwich just won’t cut the mustard (er, the mostarda).
It’s a simple formula for success, and one that has been working like gangbusters from day one, when Brag-agnolo debuted his sammies at Taste Of Toronto 2015 and did 1,000 servings in a single day. Along with Flock’s Cory Vitiello, he’s proving that increasingly quality-conscious Toronto diners want even their speedy lunch-hour takeout to be made with consideration and soul (and, of course, a chef’s seal of approval doesn’t hurt).
With a couple of decades of cooking experience at Guu, Kingyo and some Tokyo kitchens under their belts, it’s fair to say Daisuke Gomyo and Sori Imanishi know their Japanese snacks. Earlier this year, they parlayed their long-running pop-up at Churchill into a permanent space, taking over a Portuguese sports bar just down the street on Dundas West. The spare room, decked out (ha) with skateboards and art mags, mimics the no-fuss family restaurants the duo loved back in Tokyo, while the menu presents faithful replicas of their country’s favourite drunk foods: ginger-glazed chicken wings sprinkled with sesame seeds ($7.50) rich, burnt-orange Nagoya ramen laced with ground pork and ginger ($9.80) and fluffy, salty corn fritters ($6.50).
The jewel box-like Chabrol is about the size of your average coffee shop, which is precisely what it was until Cava’s Doug Penfold got his hands on it. The owners of the adjacent La Boutique Noire were renovating and called upon Penfold and business partner Niall McCotter to transform the adjacent space, located down a narrow walkway several steps off the Yorkville drag. (As the weather warms, a patio will handily double the 20 seats inside.)
It’s become a picture-perfect little bistro, where Penfold pulls off laborious feats of French cookery made doubly impressive given the fact that he’s only working with an oven, a sous-vide, a couple of induction burners and a postage stamp of counter space.
If it wasn’t all playing out just feet away from your seat, you’d never be able to divine the occasionally frantic pace of cooking or the jury-rigged kitchen from what’s on the plate. You’d just see the choreographed grace with which your mains arrive on the table, where servers pour richly saffron-hued, Pernod-laced broth over seasonal seafood for the “ttoro” ($29) – a regional French colloquialism for bouillabaisse, our server informs us – or snip open a parchment-paper package full of wonderfully buttery whitefish and broccoli rabe with gilded scissors.
Sides and starters also impress – an autumnal gratin of escarole and celeriac ($12), roasted to a gentle sweetness, or the puy lentils with roasted beet and smoky whipped parsnip ($12). But you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t go for desserts like the tart made from stacked rounds of puff pastry and apple, smothered tableside in boozy apple-brandy sabayon ($13). It’s worth ordering just for the unbelievable smell that fills that tiny room.
Diners, BBQ, Middle Eastern food, deli counters – Anthony Rose has them all on lock. But until this year, there was nothing in his roster (with the possible exception of Fat Pasha) that constituted an old-school, wine-and-dine date-night spot.
Enter Bar Begonia, which turned what was possibly Toronto’s unsexiest structure (once a baby-brutalist tourist-trap bar called Nite-Caps by the Castle) into a wine-red, candlelit room oozing with intimacy. That, by the way, extends to the kitchen – the space is wide open, so you can belly up to the bar and peer over the counter to watch chef Trista Sheen at work, lovingly hand-separating egg yolks for steak tartare ($14, and wonderful, by the way) served with some robust gaufrette chips.
Dishes, drinks and hours easily disappear into one another here. The cocktail menu is soaked in liberal amounts of absinthe, Calvados and pastis, plus some unusual left turns like pineapple-whiskey-IPA blends. Food-wise, there’s a long list of French plates, most of them snacky and shareable: cheeses and charcuterie, bistro-style frites ($7), sampling platters of trout and vegetables avec aioli for dipping ($13), three different iterations of foie gras. Another personal favourite: mild sardines layered with a swipe of aioli, a sprinkle of chili and a frizzy mess of green herbs on a slice of olive oil-soaked miche ($7). Just make sure you’ve both partaken before you go in for the kiss.
The Commodore is docked on the same block as Miss Thing’s, the Cadillac Lounge and Stones’ Place. If the seafood-centric bar and eatery were interested in keeping the area’s kitsch quotient up, they’d be blasting Yacht Rock hits of yesteryear and handing out plastic lobster bibs. I personally would not be opposed – love me some What A Fool Believes – but it’s for the greater good that chef Jon Vettraino and GM Jason Romanoff have taken a far more sophisticated tack.
Under an elegant curved ceiling that (subtly) evokes a ship’s hull, festooned with round glowing lights that (subtly) recall massive barnacles, diners can dive into a menu of carefully considered, labour-intensive dishes that, naturally, put seafood front and centre.
What sounds like one of the most humble dishes on the menu – the shrimp on toast – just might be their biggest standout. Itty-bitty wild shrimp ($13) are doused in brown butter that’s laced with garlic and a touch of anchovy for umami, then piled high onto Blackbird sourdough. Nothing else I’ve tried there quite tops that flavour bomb, but their duck confit dish, which tops a lacy, yolk-yellow Viet-style crepe with plenty of dark duck meat, plus big punches of flavour from kewpie mayo, Trinidadian hot peppers, peanuts and scallions, comes pretty close.
As a matter of fact, even if you haven’t quite got your sea legs, or just don’t feel like diving headfirst into a $55 tower of seasonal seafood or a platter of oysters on a given night, the “turf” side of the equation absolutely deserves its fair share of attention. There’s a quite-good dish of ultra-slow-braised pork cheeks with apples and maple ($13), bavette steak with smooth potato mash ($20), boards of ever-changing house-made charcuterie ($18), and a dish of asparagus swathed in prosciutto and topped with a fried egg that just screams springtime ($14).
In a town full of Bucas, the bar has been set high for trendy Italian. But Ufficio, a stylish, seafood-oriented spot on Dundas West, appears to be holding its own just fine.
A lot of that is thanks to chef Jeffrey Bovis and consulting chef Craig Harding (also of Campagnolo), who created a pescatarian menu with some elegant pan-Mediterranean flourishes. Of course, the modern, low-lit room, tailor-made for splashy date nights, doesn’t hurt. Neither does a cocktail menu featuring zings of amaro and Aperol.
The house starter of choice is an enormous round of soft burrata ($16) scattered with candied pistachios, beets and drizzled olive oil, best paired with long, grill-kissed slices of house-made focaccia ($2/$3). As a side note, I don’t know when gigantic hunks of burrata became Toronto’s hot new food trend I, for one, welcome our new fluffy, gooey overlords.
The portions of pasta plates in most local Italian kitchens are too sparing Italians might treat a pasta as a primo and a meat dish as a secondo, but really, who does that here? But Ufficio beefs up the bowls a little bit in a nod to vegetarian dining habits – and frankly, I was delighted that it took that much longer for me to hit bottom on the mushroom agnolotti ($21), which come drowned in butter and pecorino and laced with shreds of porcini.
On the seafood side, there’s a rotating selection of beautifully presented carpaccio-style dishes (currently featuring swordfish and tuna), or as a main, impressively presented coils of steamed and grilled octopus ($28) on a bed of fingerling potatoes, red pepper romesco and salsa verde.
Here’s a sentence I’ve heard more than once recently: “I’m not really big on deep-dish pizza, but I love Descendant.” In fact, I don’t think I’ve met a single person who’s sunk their teeth into a four-finger-deep slice of Christopher Getchell’s Detroit-style pizza and not been instantly swayed to the dark side (or, more accurately, the deep end). A lot of that is thanks to the crust, proofed over two days and baked in well-oiled pans that sizzle the bottom to a fried golden brown. But Getchell, an alumnus of Pizzeria Libretto and Danforth Pizza House, doesn’t leave the toppings as an afterthought. Pies like the double pepperoni and salty-sweet-spicy Sergeant Peppers ($20 small/$32 large) deliver massive flavour. Little wonder this place used to sell out of pizza almost every night.