This year’s crop of restaurants, from a million-dollar dining room to a brazen burger joint, pushed Toronto’s culinary culture in creative, comforting and blessedly cheap directions. Here, the 10 new spots that are redefining the way we eat, drink and play in the city
Ear-blistering ’70s rock, kitchen pyrotechnics, Godzilla figurines—they’re all part of the magic at Claudio Aprile’s madhouse of a restaurant
The spectacle of the place is almost reason enough to visit: the theatre of young, on-the-make Bay Streeters four deep at the bar in their shirtsleeves; the gastro-groupies and the merely curious milling around the open kitchen; the shouting, sweating (and occasionally Jäger-sipping) cooks who shoot columns of orange flame and liquid nitrogen smoke out over the racket of the room. The design is determinedly unconventional (witness the chandelier made from 1,600 Godzilla monster figures) and the menu a global collection of greatest hits from one of the most original chefs in the city. Claudio Aprile’s vision, executed here by chef de cuisine Steve Gonzales, is fresh, brash, meticulous and beautifully trashy. There’s yuzu-cured ceviche served with liquid nitro’d corn that sends spumes of frozen smoke from diners’ noses; perfect, hyper-sensual creamed spinach—yes, creamed spinach—with a haunting cardamom and walnut subplot; devilled eggs to scandalize the church ladies; and wokked, then deep-fried squid that tastes as lucid and tense as a half-starved stroll through a sweet shop in Southeast Asia. Aprile mortgaged his young family’s home to build this place, a gamble we should all be glad he took. Origin is occasionally maddening (the Black Sabbath cranked to 11; the hurried service), but it’s also brilliant: an unapologetically big-city restaurant in a town that has been pining for a few more. After an evening here, you leave feeling happy, well-fed and grateful, but most of all—and why should this be too much to ask from a restaurant?—you leave feeling a little awed.
Really good olive oil, hand-cranked pasta and a basement full of gloriously stinky cheese
It takes a measure of quiet confidence for a new restaurant to start the first in-house cheese aging program in the province (one of just a handful on the continent)—to build a custom, temperature- and humidity-controlled space jammed with 40 or so types—and then to hide it all in the basement, instead of featuring it out front like a trophy case. Or to painstakingly gut, trim and cure fresh anchovies and make their own pastas daily, yet still offer a Sunday prix fixe for just $35. Eating here, you always find at least a couple of dishes that taste like magic: a bucatini all’amatriciana that’s quite possibly better than any noodle dish you’ve ever had before, or those anchovies with a squib of oil that tastes as fresh as an olive grove, or local raspberries with a panna cotta so creamy that for a moment you can’t imagine you will ever need to eat dessert again. Enoteca Sociale has raised our expectations for casual, inexpensive dining by doing simple, soulful Italian better than most places that charge three times the price. It’s the closest thing Toronto has to a Roman trattoria, but to call it that is to sell the restaurant short. It isn’t a facsimile of anything. In less than a year, Enoteca’s quiet ambition has made it an indispensable part of the city, a rare neighbourhood restaurant that’s in a class entirely its own.
A stunning French restaurant disguised as a mom-and-pop neighbourhood bistro
At a time when so many top chefs aspire to multiple locations, hangar-sized rooms and a life spent as far as possible from the hard grind at the stoves, J. P. Challet has done just the opposite. His wine-savvy bistro, opened with co-owner Jennifer Decorte last October, seats just 24 people, and the chef runs the open kitchen every night. The modern French cooking is inventive and approachable (his Barbadian cod cakes fried thought-bubble light and dipped in Meyer lemon rouille), smartly balanced (the yin and yang of ethereal spice and creamy substance in a silken lobster bisque), precisely textured (a taut black trumpet mushroom croquette with foie gras torchon, orange marmalade and figs), and delicious above all else. Challet’s skill, experience and passion—a word I don’t use lightly—are evident on every plate.
In the middle of nowhere, fine dining makes an improbable and elegant comeback
Sometimes remarkable restaurants pop up in the most unexpected places. Fraser Macfarlane and Georgina Mitropoulos met nearly a decade ago as line cooks at Scaramouche, and bounced between positions in some of England’s best kitchens (she spent six years working for Marco Pierre White, the legendary U.K.-born French chef) before settling down in Mitropoulos’s home town of Dundas, Ontario, a place best known for its annual cactus show and Buskerfest. Their restaurant, set in a newly converted century home, is bright, elegant and comfortably formal, the couple’s cooking a well-timed reminder of how vital and exciting fine dining can be when it’s done absolutely right. Their plates are complex, playful, impeccable: perfectly seared pickerel over tarragon risotto, for instance, or foie gras with slow-burning apple chutney and sugary, glowering gingerbread crumbs. Mitropoulos and Macfarlane say they aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Fair enough. But, like the greatest chefs, they are helping to reinvent what we see and taste in ordinary foods. They make every single element on every plate the most perfect, most idealized rendition of itself; even their simple winter vegetables make you sit up straight and sigh.
A homey Palmerston spot invents our favourite new culinary genre: lumberjack Canadian
Chef David Haman’s country-in-the-city project has defied categorization since it opened to an instant crush of ravenous customers late last fall. Some noted the wood-burning oven and the handful of pastas on the menu and called it traditional Italian, while others have slotted it under bistro, haute barnyard and urban Canadiana. Woodlot is all of those things. There are pioneer staples like venison and root vegetable pie, wood oven–baked onion soup, died-and-gone-to-carnivore-heaven bone marrow–infused whipped potatoes, and some of the best crusty breads in town. Woodlot also does a separate, category-busting vegetarian menu that is so incomprehensibly tasty that even lardcore-loving swineheads would be remiss not to give it a try. The place is just a warm, honest, unselfconsciously friendly, in-your-face-filling Upper Canadian farmstead joint—one that’s also sort of Italian and happens to serve cipollini and tempeh pie.
A proper French-Italian restaurant flouts norms in club-clogged Little Italy
On first glance at the menu, it’s hard to believe there’s a serious chef in charge. There’s shrimp cocktail, oysters Rockefeller, and chicken supreme—every second offering sounds decades out of style. But chef-owner Frank Parzighar’s genius is in the execution: he packs enough imagination and integrity onto each plate to leave even the most trend-obsessed foodies frothing for more. His bread plate, stacked with focaccia and buttery brioche boules, all made in-house, is the first surprise; the amuse-bouche (on College Street!) quickly follows. The elk loin (not everything here is unfashionable) is expertly seared and comes wrapped in melting foie gras and truffles. There’s also fantastic St. Jacobs pork three ways (Parzighar selects the pigs at the slaughterhouse and butchers them himself). Those oysters, though a cliché, are blanketed under super-fresh spinach and dreamy hollandaise, and just barely baked so they still retain their straight-from-the-salt-chuck tang. They’re classic, but still utterly of the moment—a delicious reminder of why old favourites were just called favourites once.
Queen Margherita Pizza
A 6,000–pound Neapolitan oven turns out soft-centred pies, and sparks the battle for city’s best crust
Pizza geeks will argue into eternity about whether Queen Margherita, the new place across from the Queen East streetcar yard, does better Neapolitan-style pies than the ever-popular Pizzeria Libretto on Ossington Avenue. But why fight, when both are delicious? The pizzas here, baked in a wood-burning oven (of course) by a couple of pros from Salerno, are excellent: firm and smoky and blistered with lightly blackened crustules on the outside, slightly goopy in the centre (as Neapolitans would argue is only proper) with bright, fresh-from-the-garden-tasting tomato sauce and smart, basic toppings. The namesake Margherita pizza, as you might expect, is exquisite, though non-purists should also try the Rocco, loaded with red onion and fennel sausage. As for that raging battle between east and west, each one is like a favourite child to us. But screw it—we’re going to say Queen Margherita, if only by a hair.
Opulent Italian food and a contagiously fun atmosphere in Don Mills
Mark McEwan’s uptown Italian joint is fun, fashionable, expensive, and the most fabulously designed new room of the year. It’s also jammed almost every night, for reasons that are easy to understand. The wine list is esoteric and largely affordable. The food, for the most part, is exceedingly good: butterflied, creamy smelts done fritti-style in golden, crackly batter; puckery-sweet giardinera cipollinis and cauliflower florets; Neapolitan pizzas and sexy-populist stuffed pastas all remind us why people still go out to eat. Fabbrica is the first non-Asian room in the area that’s even close to being worth a special trip. McEwan has always been ahead of the curve, and here he discovered—brace yourselves—that the city doesn’t stop at the southern edge of Eglinton Avenue. That should be obvious, shouldn’t it? Well, now it is.
The Burger’s Priest
City carnivores find the meaning of life in an all-beef patty
Yes, a hamburger joint. Because owner Shant Mardirosian has managed to execute the dead-easy formula that legions of mothers once knew but has nonetheless eluded nearly every other city hamburger shop for the past, oh, 30 years. The Burger’s Priest makes North America’s most beloved food from scratch. They grind their beef in-house in small batches several times daily, hand-form it into loose patties and then cook them to medium, so they’re pink in the middle and juicy beyond belief. Mardirosian uses basic, white-bread buns (no artisanal Red Fife and spring water ciabatta here, thanks), and tops his burgers only with simple condiments (mustard, relish, ketchup) instead of the usual jackass stuff. The cheeseburger is an icon of greasy, sloppy, processed-cheesy perfection; the double cheeseburger, with breaded, deep-fried, cheese-stuffed portobello caps, is an artery-shocking work of art. It’s an unambitious burger shop, but that’s the point. It’s more memorable and more satisfying than nearly any other take-out spot in town.
With a miniscule budget, room and menu, a Dundas West hole in the wall garners big buzz
The menu is obscenely tiny, the service is spotty (but cheerful), the plates are junk-shop china and the only real decor is a torn vintage poster of Portugal’s national soccer team. But no place better exemplifies Toronto’s new straight-from-the-heart and totally DIY breed of restaurant than this little west-end favourite, opened last summer on the super-cheap by plucky, pretty, gabby front-of-house newbies Brie Reid and Pam Thomson, and Guy Rawlings, a young cook with an impressive pedigree (he prepped at WD-50, the culinary madhouse in NYC, and was Cowbell’s chef de cuisine) and the wontons to run a kitchen on his own. Rawlings does simple food well: addictive white bean, garlic and anchovy dip with smoky grilled bread; homemade lamb sausage with charred scallions; pear tatin made with fruit from a neighbour’s backyard tree. The place is cheap and fun and the food’s mostly fantastic. Even the odds-and-sods tableware is cute if you give it a chance.