Best of the City 2010: 14 picks for the top food in Toronto
Owl of Minerva
700 Bloor St. W., 416-538-3030
The trendy Asian cuisine of the moment is at its most authentic when portions are big, salty-sweet and cheap. The $20 combo deal at this 24-hour spot brings one entrée, five domestic beers and a bottle opener. The onslaught of complimentary pan chan—soy beans both sweet and crunchy, mild kimchee, vinegary cucumbers and a block of tofu sauced with Korean chilies—is merely a prelude to a hefty bowl of wickedly addictive hot and sour pork.
2359 Queen St. E., 416-907-9663
As the ranks of the wheat intolerant swell, a flood of gluten-free goodies has hit the market. Baking without traditional ingredients, however, requires a special kind of alchemy, and most gluten-free breads are near inedible—either Sahara dry and crumbly, or gummy and hockey puck dense. That’s why the breads from Yoshi’s Sweets are a revelation. Using a combination of seeds, bean and grape skin flours, Barry Horn makes six types, including a romano bean bread that could pass for wheat and a slightly sweet white bean with grape skin loaf that’s an ideal partner for raspberry jam. The crusts are crusty, the insides are fluffy, and, wonder of wonders, the loaves are delicious even without being toasted. The biggest compliment: non-celiacs willingly eat it, too. From $8.50 a loaf.
Dish to eat on a dare
418 Dundas St. W., 416-977-3909
Rousong looks a little like candy floss, but that’s where the similarities end. A staple garnish in Chinese cooking, it’s made by braising pork tenderloin in soy sauce and sugar; the softened meat is pulled, strained, oven-dried and wok-fried until it becomes lighter and fluffier than pork has any right to be. At Asian Legend, rousong is served as part of a dish called Glutinous Rice Roll, which involves wrapping it in fried bread that’s in turn enclosed in an omelette and a layer of sticky rice. The entire thing is served, for mysterious reasons, in a plastic bag. One bite and the cottony fibres begin to dissolve, their sweet, salty porkiness takes hold, and you realize that the molecular gastronomy guys have nothing on Chinese line cooks. $5.
Brick Street Bakery
55 Mill St., Bldg. 45A, 416-214-4949
The humble date square—a specialty of this Distillery baker—proves that an old-fashioned Canadian recipe, perfectly executed, can rival ritzier confections. Rich, vanilla-infused date filling between two buttery layers of dense oatmeal crumble forms a brilliantly sticky sandwich, best enjoyed with an espresso (Balzac’s is a few doors down) or a scoop of vanilla gelato (Soma is around the corner). $3.
298 Eglinton Ave. W., 416-674-2642
(plus one other location)
Seafood is the last frontier of high-minded foodies. Few fishmongers lose sleep over sustainability; not only is it difficult to keep track of what’s endangered, it’s also hard to make a profit without threatened cod, monkfish and bluefin tuna. Leave it to the Healthy Butcher to fill the void with a certified guilt-free selection of aquatic edibles, some farmed, some wild, from across the country. The thrice-weekly catch usually includes Arctic char, steelhead trout, tilapia and whitefish. The crispy skin and juicy white flesh of fresh Lake Huron pickerel is the real catch: sautéed in butter and olive oil, it ticks off all the ethical boxes without compromising quality. From $4 for a pickerel fillet.
416-553-7126, Monday at Sorauren Farmers’ Market, Sorauren Park; Tuesday at Trinity Bellwoods Market, Trinity Bellwoods Park
Matchbox Gardens takes the 100-mile rule seriously: they grow their seedlings in greenhouses at Downsview Park and have a three-acre plot in Brampton. The company’s focus on heirloom greens means they always have wonderfully peculiar lettuces with tongue-tying names. The pick of the bunch is Italienischer, a rare oak leaf variety that grows like a weed. Each massive bunch contains dozens of long (up to 30 centimetres), curly leaves that spike out in all directions. It combines the crunch of romaine, the slight bitterness of a dandelion green and the mild sweetness of butter lettuce. When dressed with a simple olive oil vinaigrette, it makes the quintessential summer-fresh salad. In season July to September. $2.50 per bunch.
Mole verde burrito
249 Augusta Ave., 416-977-8226
Jesus Martinez, the Veracruz-born owner of Kensington Market’s newest snack spot, serves the most authentic burrito in these parts. The sublime mole verde is our favourite: refried black beans, sour cream, rice, lettuce and soft shreds of chicken are elevated by a zingy, long-simmered, chili-laden sauce of creamy avocado, citrusy green tomatillos and puréed pumpkin seeds. $5
490 Queen St. W., 416-362-4111
When summer’s swelter takes its toll and serious hydration is required, consider how they do it in Caracas. At Arepa, the easy-going Venezuelan restaurant on Queen West, they use a sugarcane syrup to lend the thirst-quenching citrus sipper a complex, full-bodied sweetness. The sugar cane gives the drink a warm caramel hue, gently rounds off the lemons’ zing and puts cloying white sugar concoctions to shame. $3.
A wedge of Quebec
483 Church St., 416-925-8659
The tangy, musty rind is reminiscent of camembert, and the nutty flavour hints at a Dutch origin, but Le 1608 is as Canadian as poutine. It’s made from the raw milk of rare Vache Canadienne cattle, and named after the year of Quebec City’s founding. When a cheese gets you excited about history, you know it’s good. (Plus, the giddy enthusiasm of the staff at this tiny shop is contagious.) $8 per 100 grams.
Pulled pork sandwich
Paul and Sandy’s Real Barbecue
4925 Dundas St. W., 416-233-7032
Forget the newfangled pulled pork pancakes, pulled pork pizza and pulled pork poutine that dominate Toronto’s menus. To experience true Southern-style pork shoulder, you want someone to smoke the living daylights out of it, douse it in kicky homemade sauce and pile it between two pieces of bread. Paul and Sandy Kocukov leave their pork for 10 to 12 hours in a custom-designed smoker behind their humble Etobicoke storefront. The result? Meat that’s tender, juicy and hickory licked. Call ahead, because they often run out before the day is done. $7 with one side.
Osteria Ciceri e Tria
106 Victoria St., 416-955-0258
Giovanna Alonzi, the chef at the Terroni group’s Osteria Ciceri e Tria, spends a lot of her time travelling in Italy in search of the sorts of rustic recipes that are the foundations of the mini-chain’s formula. Olive Ascolane, from Ascoli Piceno, near the Adriatic coast, has to be her greatest find. Alonzi stuffs large, mild olives with mortadella, pork, beef, pecorino and spices, then rolls them in bread crumbs and deep-fries them to an absurdly delicious golden green. They’re cheesy, meaty and salty little poppers, with a briny olive pucker. And they’re easily the best thing that’s ever happened to the humble fruit. $5.
Rooster Coffee House
479 Broadview Ave., 416-995-1530
When the coffee is as good as it is at this perfect little café, it feels blasphemous to talk about the herbal tea lattes. That is, of course, until you taste a Miami Haze, barista Jay Galbraith’s rosy take on a London Fog. He makes an infusion of nutty almond tea—a magical mix of dried apple, almonds, cinnamon and beetroot from the Trinity Bellwoods tea boutique Tealish—then adds a shot of organic vanilla extract and a cloud of steamed milk. An attention-grabbing pink and with an intoxicatingly fruity smell, this bauble of a beverage easily doubles as a dessert. $4.
481 Church St., 416-923-5600
There are a dozen butchers in town with excellent steaks, but Cumbrae’s Stephen Alexander still puts the most care into his succulent slabs. Alexander works with a loyal handful of Haldimand County farmers who raise Angus and Hereford cattle on red clover and alfalfa for deep flavour, and corn and barley for magnificent marbling. Then he ages his beef for an all-important six weeks. A few minutes on a searing charcoal grill is all it takes to unlock their unctuous juiciness. $25 a pound.
705 Mount Pleasant Rd., 647-430-7004
Every carton arrives from Stoddart’s free-range farm and is like an idiosyncratic collection of Easter eggs. Shells can be rutty or smooth, freckled, reddish or even pale turquoise (spotted on the menu at Nota Bene and Local Kitchen and Wine Bar, they come from rare South American Araucana chickens). On the inside, rich orange yolks and thick whites whip up into an uncommonly fluffy omelette. We also recommend serving them soft-boiled with the shell on for a brunch spread worthy of Martha Stewart. $7 per dozen.