This time last year, the future looked awfully grim. We braced for restaurant closures and recessionary menus, but 2009 was surprising. Though we lost some good places (Perigee, Truffles, Alice’s and Gamelle, in particular), and mac-and-cheese quickly wore out its welcome, it was an exciting time to dine out. Anxious restaurateurs dropped corkage fees and slashed wine markups, while chefs cooked up imaginative prix fixe menus. It suited our mood as well as our wallets: these days, Torontonians want informality. We’re still hungry for local produce and nose-to-tail dining, chefs are once again finding inspiration in Italy and Japan, and the city is finally beginning to develop a serious cocktail culture. Most encouraging of all is the number of new restaurants opening. Here, the best of the vintage.
794079 County Rd. 124, Singhampton, 705-445-2748
Michael Stadtländer has always played by his own rules—it’s one reason why he is Canada’s most revered and influential chef. No surprise, then, that his unique new restaurant draws people two hours north of the city. It took him two years to turn a dull building on Singhampton’s main street into a handmade fantasy space, covering twisting tree roots with glittering mosaic and smoothing the walls with clay from the pond at nearby Eigensinn Farm, his home and principal restaurant. The result is part Gaudí, part Dr. Seuss—and entirely Stadtländer. Such creative control, coupled with a mystery tasting menu of small dishes and obsessive seasonality, reminds me of Japan’s kaiseki tradition. But these days, there’s almost nothing Asian about his cooking. Most of the ingredients are familiar from past dinners at Eigensinn Farm, sourced from the property or from neighbours, though here the treatment is simpler, at times radically so. I found a small slice of slow-smoked ham on a piece of bread brilliantly minimalist; my wife thought it was just cheeky. The chef’s technical mastery and mature vision turn mundane ideas into serious art: for example, an impeccable fat-fringed pork chop with crackling and morsels of the pig’s kidney needs no more than a selection of red, yellow and orange heirloom carrots. Working in the granite-lined open kitchen, chatting with guests, Stadtländer seems happy and relaxed, joking that he finally has the wine list he could never have at the farm. Haisai may not offer the deep magic of a feast in the forest at Eigensinn, but it has a liquor licence, it’s much more accessible, and dinner is half the price. Any chance to taste Stadtländer’s food should be seized—but hurry. Come May, he’ll be sharing Haisai’s kitchen with a co-chef, easing back the menu to lunch, a four-course dinner and barbecue, and spending most evenings at Eigensinn.
Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, 6 Garamond Ct. (at Wynford Dr.), 905-670-5559
I love Masaki Hashimoto’s new restaurant for its defiant resistance to the dumbed-down spirit of the times. Refined, expensive, formal, it requires attentive good manners. And while locavores mutter and frown, Hashimoto insists on flying in every ingredient from Japan—part of his ongoing mission to provide Canada with an authentic, Kyoto-style kaiseki experience. To this end, he has built an exquisitely serene space for no more than 10 customers at a time, preparing a set menu of many miniature dishes that culminates in the centuries-old ritual of the tea ceremony, conducted by his son, Kei. Every detail of the evening is precisely calibrated, from the position of each bowl on its lacquered tray to the serving temperature of the superb teas and sakes. The food is equally meticulous. Morsels of tilefish hide in a cloud of steamed and mashed turnip that seems to float over a clear broth thickened with starch from the kuzu vine and stirred with yellow chrysanthemum petals. You have to concentrate to catch the textural harmonies of shaved, pressed fish roe layered with the gummy crunch of raw mountain potato. Hashimoto photographs and records the dishes guests receive to ensure they will never be offered the same thing twice. Toronto foodies have lucked out: no one else in North America is attempting this kind of restaurant.
88 Harbord St.
(at Spadina), 416-929-7788
I admit it—I miss the old Splendido. Toronto needs one or two restaurants of genuine grandeur and sophistication. I love the new version, too. Front-of-house veteran Carlo Catallo and chef Victor Barry are now the owners, and they reopened last summer with a contemporary flourish. The sky blue paint and the shelves of preserves on the rear wall say it all: Splendido redux is lighter, brighter and more relaxed, and the kitchen is determinedly in tune with the local harvest, which isn’t to say the place has suddenly turned hillbilly rustic. There are still truffles grated over the butter-poached lobster risotto, but the foie gras parfait is now mitigated with chicken livers, and juicy rabbit meat and sleek chanterelles become part of a hearty dish of pappardelle—no luxurious bells or whistles, just wonderfully rich flavours. Catallo pairs it perfectly with a hearty Piedmontese barbaresco, a reminder that he’s one of the city’s most accomplished sommeliers. There’s a breezy mood in the dining room, and it’s good to see the bar so busy again, as it used to be in the old days—a lively scene to anchor Harbord Street’s eastern reaches.
19 Mercer St. (at John St.), 416-599-7246
You have to admire the audacity of the Rubino brothers—they never fail to zoom ahead of the zeitgeist. At a time when cozy bistros are the norm, they offer large-scale glamour in Rain’s old space. Preconceptions should be left by the boulder at the door: the menu may read as conventional Japanese, but the execution is very much Guy Rubino’s own—intricate and contemporary. The only concessions to the economy are the surprisingly reasonable prices and the use of cheaper cuts, such as wagyu flatiron steak, which arrives slathered in bone marrow and sweetened with dots of orange and tangerine jelly. The imagination behind Robert Gonsalves’s desserts is dazzling: I can’t think of another pastry chef who would serve vanilla-poached beets with miso meringue and edamame ice cream. Comfortable sofas and a stunning bar built from a single slab of wood make the lounge a great spot for sipping molecular cocktails and grazing on avant-garde sashimi.
1710 Queen St. W. (at Triller Ave.), 416-534-6700
and Wine Bar
The little room just east of Roncesvalles smells like an Italian deli—the sweet, meaty aroma of high-quality salumi—but it looks more like a rec room, with T-shirts on a laundry line and a boar’s head mounted above the door. Add Gio Rana’s blue-collar suburban Italiana to the Black Hoof’s charcuterie obsession and you start to get close to the vibe at Local. What makes it unique is the energy of the two friends from Woodbridge who created it: chef and salumi master Fabio Bondi and host Michael Sangregorio. Their friendly welcome encourages customers to relax, and the tight quarters quickly dissolve notions of privacy. Five minutes after sitting down, you’re talking with the couple at the next table about the ethereal smoked potato gnocchi on a bed of melted taleggio cheese and rapini or listening to somebody rave about the house cocktail made with maple syrup, grapefruit juice and bacon-washed bourbon. The menu and the wine list are comically small, but no one’s complaining—the commitment to quality is palpable.
35 Elm St. (at Bay), 647-347-2712
The Queen and
The heresy of hanging a photograph of Diego Maradona among shots of England’s soccer immortals will have to be forgiven—everything else about Jamieson Kerr’s genteel gastropub brings a smile to an Englishman’s lips. The inventory of pleasures includes cask-conditioned ales, comfortable armchairs for watching rugby in the upstairs lounge and an ambience that seems authentically English without recourse to faux Victoriana. The food’s right, too. Aside from excellent fish and chips, chef Andrew Carter’s menu generally sidesteps the deep-fryer in favour of straightforward, even domestic, cooking. His potted duck and his terrine of smoked ham knuckle, served with tangy piccalilli, remind me of the classic recipes my dad used to make back home in Chelsea. Ditto the subtly spiced lamb vindaloo. Menu aside, this is also a bona fide pub, a great place to sit undisturbed for an hour with a pint, the paper and a scotch egg or two.
94 Ossington Ave.
(at Humbert St.), 416-953-2356
It’s an old-fashioned notion that great service defines a restaurant, but that is certainly the case at this romantically lit, under-furnished Ossington bistro. Adly Gawad, formerly Splendido’s server extraordinaire, brings vast experience and merrily erudite charm as Paramour’s manager. He has also put together an unpretentious but eminently drinkable wine list that perfectly suits the carefully balanced simplicity of chef Laura Malin’s food. For once, meat isn’t the mainstay of the menu. Instead, she might make a moist, chunky pâté out of mushrooms and almonds or turn corn and jalapeños into perfectly fried hush puppies. Fish also gets top billing as a daily crudo or as pan-seared yellow perch fillets with bittersweet tomato and olive confit. Desserts also avoid cliché. A riesling-poached sugar pear with fleur de sel caramel sauce, pine nut biscotti and a dab of whipped cream is pretty well perfect—a good reason to sit back against the overstuffed cushions and linger a little longer, perhaps with a glass of Gawad’s expertly matched icewine.
1055 Yonge St. (at Roxborough St. W.), 416-551-9890
Rosedale’s wealthy but frugal elite has a new favourite rendezvous. The bar and lounge areas are buzzing in the early evening, as is the dining room where they bring their families for dinner. It’s easy to see the appeal. Owner Ed Ho (Globe Bistro) has turned the spacious but infamously cursed premises (seven restaurants in 10 years) around by adding just enough glamour to the black-and-charcoal decor, hiring a courteous and thoroughly savvy staff and then slashing prices to the bone. Chef Kevin McKenna, who trained under Michael Stadtländer, takes the time to source produce from local farmers, breaks down whole animals, wasting nothing, and makes good use of the wood-burning oven in his open kitchen. Roast meats are sold by the ounce, so you can order as little or as much as you want—a lovely idea. Or you can just sit at the bar, nibble one of his pizza-like flatbreads and a couple of snack-sized whitefish fritters—maybe throw in a tangy elk tartare—and watch the beau monde go by.
923 Dundas St. W.
(at Gore Vale Ave.), 416-792-7511
Intended as a holding area and kitchen for the Black Hoof across the street, the busy little room has become so much more. Elbow-to-elbow on bar stools or squeezed around tight-set tables, foodies revel in the city’s most meaty brunch. Head chef Geoff Hopgood slathers his blackboard menu with such truly original dishes as grilled cheese and tongue sandwiches, suckling piglet eggs Benny, and cheddar-gooey grits with pig’s tail. Co-owner Jen Agg’s version of a bloody caesar, made with pink peppercorn vodka, house-made hot sauce and Marmite syrup, is the perfect piquant foil. After dark, candlelight mellows the mood, a new menu of bar snacks and more conventional charcuterie is hung on the wall, and the grazing continues.
398 Church St.
(at McGill St.), 416-977-0999
The Vancouver chain has wowed locals with a convincingly authentic Tokyo pub experience. The gung-ho Japanese staff shouts greetings to new arrivals and serves cool shochu cocktails and Sapporo beer on tap. Ryerson’s Asian students lap it up, causing crazy lineups for the wooden benches and communal tables. It’s worth the agonizing wait. The long menu of authentic and unusual Tokyo tapas begs for exploration: raw, sweet B.C. shrimp; chopped octopus with wasabi; grilled beef tongue with scallions and mustard; salmon tartare and natto (fermented soya beans) to roll into crispy nori; and Japan’s most popular snack—karaage, deep-fried chicken, the meat juicy inside a crunchy, greaseless batter. Guu is noisy, uncomfortable, vibrant and fun. Finally, Toronto gets izakaya.
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