Winterlicious 2012: our food editor whittles the monster list down to a manageable 11

Winterlicious 2012: our food editor whittles the monster list down to a manageable 11

The spectacular view from c5 (Image: Suzanne Long) 

It might be hard to believe, but Winterlicious celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. That’s right: it’s been a whole decade of commoners storming the fine dining gates, not to mention mutual bile and suspicion between restaurateurs and diners. And yet, the annual prix fixe event keeps growing. In its inaugural year, only 35 restaurants participated. This year, there are 175 on the roster, making it tougher than ever to choose where to spend your hard-earned $25 or $35 or $45. So we narrowed the choices down, first to 61 Toronto Life–approved spots and now to just 11 of the best. Because we’re slaves to trends, we focused the list this year on the new and improved—places that recently opened, overhauled or changed chefs—and because we like a bargain as much as anyone, we looked for the spots that offer the very best bang for the buck, which is, after all, what Winterlicious is all about. Start making your reservations now (unless you don’t have an AmEx card, in which case you can wait until Thursday like the rest of us).

Aria
Read our review | See the menu
Open for just under a year near the ACC, Aria has been impressing diners with its spectacular room and accomplished Italian cooking (the place is run by the owners of Noce). It’s one of the most expensive Toronto restaurants to open in a while, which makes both the $25 lunch menu and the $45 dinner menus good deals. The glamorous room is worthy of a dinner date (even if it’s of the cheap Winterlicious variety). The courses offered this year balance the rustic (pasta e fagioli, bean soup with house-made tubetti) and the refined (seared beef tenderloin medallions with roasted salsify and garlic-date jus). Such desserts as gelato and tiramisu sound uninspired on the page, but they’re made by Steve Song*, one of the best pastry chefs in the city, so there’s hope.
See all our picks for downtown south »
* Steve Song is no longer Aria’s pastry chef. He’s been replaced by Melanie Harris. Torontolife.com regrets the error.

c5
Read our review | See the menu
The Winterlicious lunch menu at c5 might read like a cafeteria carte (creamy cauliflower soup, pot pie, panna cotta), but here are two good reasons to pay $25 for it. 1) Corbin Tomaszeski, the super-smiley, curly-haired chef from Restaurant Makeover and Dinner Party Wars, has taken over the kitchen, and early reports say his food is well-executed, if not as innovative as that of his predecessor, Ted Corrado. (Bonus: if you’re a Food Network junkie, your lunch will also be accompanied by that ineffable thrill of proximity to quasi-celebrity chefery.) 2) The view from c5’s jagged corner of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is fabulous, even in the dead of winter when the city is 98 shades of grey and brown.
See all our picks for downtown north »

Didier
Read our review | See the menu
With all the casual pseudo-bistros that opened this year, it’s heartening to visit a real throwback to a more polished era of French dining, with wood-panelled walls, white linens and fresh flowers. Didier Leroy, one of the best French chefs in Toronto, knows how to put together a table d’hôte. The $25 lunch menu offers classics like salade niçoise, steak tartare and apple tarte tatin, but the dinner menu best captures the chef’s roots with traditional dishes like his famous oeufs en cocotte bergère (two soft, steam-poached eggs with minced lamb in little ramekins) and duck confit cassoulet. It’s $45, which is good value, considering the mains alone usually cost over $30.
See all our picks for uptown »

Embrujo Flamenco
Read our review | See the menu
This tiny, candlelit restaurant on the Danforth, owned by three sisters from Barcelona, serves hearty Spanish tapas accompanied by flamenco shows a few nights a week. The $25 dinner menu is the most affordable option on the Winterlicious roster, and you get to choose three sharing plates, plus dessert. The options sound as cozy as the room: gypsy-style stew, Spanish meatloaf, chorizo with sautéed peppers and onions, and cinnamon-licked leche frita (fried vanilla pudding, a traditional Spanish sweet).
See all our east end picks »

Estiatorio Volos
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Last summer, restaurateur Bob Antoniou handed over Mediterra, his Financial District seafood restaurant, to his son, Andreas, who gave the spot a welcome makeover. The formerly bland space now exudes a sort of classy Aegean holiday vibe, with distressed wood, white stucco walls and giant vases that look like they’ve been pilfered from Greek ruins. And unlike so many half-assedly “Mediterranean” chain restaurants, the menu here is full-on Hellenic—moussaka, soutzoukakia, spetzofai, baklava—made with more thought and sophistication than at any other Greek restaurant in the city. The best picks on the $35 dinner menu are the most traditional: dolmades to start, followed by the exohiko, a phyllo pocket stuffed with slow-braised lamb, feta and kefalotyri cheese, and honey-drizzled baklava to finish.
See all our picks for downtown south »

Fabbrica
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Toronto now has so many rustic Italian restaurants, the city should really launch a separate, “Nonnalicious” event. Of the recent onslaught, Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica is the most stylish and crowd-pleasing (and hence, the most expensive). Chef Rob LeClair luxes up the usual pappardelle and wood-fired pizzas with rich ingredients like gooey golden egg yolks, truffle, loads of cream and burrata. The $20 lunch deal offers the most basic items from the regular menu—margherita pizza, prosciutto panini—so skip it and go for the $35 dinner when the big, Fellini-inspired room is at its most boisterous. The menu includes polenta—which in the past has been awesomely buttery—with short ribs, striped bass with cracked olives and cured tomatoes (the kitchen has a good track record with simple fish dishes) and chocolate torta with almond brittle for dessert.
See all our picks for uptown »

Lucien
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Last fall, Guy Rawlings and Grant van Gameren, two Dundas West chefs (previously at Brockton General and The Black Hoof, respectively) signed up to redesign the menu at this four-year-old sophisti-Goth room (leather-covered walls, faux iron filigree) near St. Lawrence Market (van Gameren has since moved on to Enoteca Sociale). Scot Woods’s complicated food has been replaced with more comforting, affordable dishes influenced by the new chefs’ love of meat. The homey $35 dinner menu (there’s no lunch option) includes matzo ball soup to start, Ontario chicken with stewed cranberry beans, sauerkraut and something called swag, and one of the most interesting-looking dessert menus in this year’s Winterlicious crop: fried custard with oats and sour cream, citrus sherbet with charred orange and meringue, or a foie gras–cherry ice milkshake (no, really).
See all our picks for downtown south »

Luma
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The TIFF Bell Lightbox restaurant’s massive, airy dining room and continental menu feel a little corporate—not unlike most of the other new Oliver and Bonacini restaurants—but sticking to a well-tested formula means the staff can maintain a high level of food and service quality throughout the mayhem of Winterlicious (not a factor to be underestimated). The lunch ($20) and dinner ($35) menus are more or less the same, so save $15 and go at noon. Start with the citrus-cured tuna with chili, ginger and clementine, follow it with the roasted chicken on semolina with mushrooms, thyme and pancetta (chef Jason Bangerter has been known to do magical things with plain old poultry) and finish with the hedonistic-sounding chocolate bread and butter pudding.
See all our picks for downtown south »

Maléna
Read our review | See the menuA couple of years ago, when David Minicucci and Sam Kalogiros (the owners of L’Unità) opened their second Av and Dav hot spot, the focus was on Ionian seafood and the execution was spotty. Last October, Matthew Sullivan (a former stagiaire at The Fat Duck in London and Gramercy Tavern in New York) took over, pushing the menu toward modern Italian food and vastly improving it (Sullivan has since left the restaurant, but planned the Winterlicious menus back in November). There’s no lunch deal, which is just as well, because dinner ($35) is the best for spotting socialites and business tycoons. If the starter sardine crostini is anything like the version at L’Unità, it’s bound to get raves. The braised Ontario rabbit with baked yogurt polenta sounds fantastic, as does the tagliatelle puttanesca with charred octopus. The warm chocolate cake with roasted eggplant and white chocolate could be either an intriguing alternative to the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake or a total disaster. Either way, we applaud the effort.
See all our picks for downtown north »

Pangaea
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Pangaea ends up in Winterlicious pretty much every year (in fact, it was one of the original 35), which is a good thing—the place is reliably excellent. The posh Yorkville room is always filled with Toronto establishment types swirling their wine with great gravity, and the service is unflaggingly gracious. Best of all for Winterlicious penny pinchers: the sustainable seafood entrées usually run at around $40, making the $35 dinner prix fixe an excellent opportunity to try the fine dining institution. There aren’t as many seafood options as there might be, but the ones that are there sound good: panko-crusted fried Humboldt squid, an haute version of the lowbrow pub favourite, followed by scallop paella with clams, mussels, calamari and chorizo. Bread pudding is trendy right now, and we’d bet pastry chef Colen Quinn’s pumpkin version is top-notch, served with rum-caramel sauce and cranberry compote.
See all our picks for downtown north »

Zucca
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Sixteen years before rustic Italian restaurants started showing up on every corner, this uptown favourite was serving some of the best hand-cranked pastas in the city (with better service than most of the new kids of the block can muster). The $35 dinner menu includes a creative winter salad of oranges, sweet onions, medjool dates, pomegranates and endive. For the main course, while Cumbrae’s steak with duck fat–roasted potatoes sounds suitably umami-laden, chef Andrew Milne-Allan’s fresh pastas really do deserve the hype, so one of you should order the pappardelle with lamb ragu and share the two. For dessert, the lemon curd, semolina and ricotta torta, which Milne-Allan has been making for years, is a sure thing.
See all our picks for uptown »