11 best bets for Summerlicious 2011: our chief critic Chris Nuttall-Smith makes his picks

11 best bets for Summerlicious 2011: our chief critic Chris Nuttall-Smith makes his picks

The imported Neapolitan pizza oven at Fabbrica (Image: Karon Liu) 

Now in its ninth season, the city-run ’Licious phenomenon (there are both summer and winter incarnations, in case you’ve been living under a pizza stone all this time) shows no signs of tiring, even if every year it seems to enrage more and more curmudgeonly downtown diners who don’t much like sharing their favorite restaurants with the plebes. Summerlicious succeeds precisely because it makes inaccessible restaurants accessible, even if it’s only for two weeks each July. The big list (there are 150 participating restaurants this year) will never include the hottest, newest, most interesting restaurants in the city—those places don’t typically need the help. It typically does include more than its share of dogs. But there are plenty of places in between: proven, well-run, inviting rooms with committed kitchens. We’ve picked a few of the best.

The Drake
read our review | see the menu
Chef Anthony Rose’s smart, homespun cooking puts the lie to the oft-heard Torontonians-don’t-like-to-eat-in-hotels complaint. The Drake is a glaring exception, at very least. Rose’s Summerlicious lunch menu is a steal at $20: choices include sweet tomato alphabet soup, for instance, followed by fried chicken that’s goosed with cumin and dry mustard, then salted butterscotch for dessert. The $35 dinner is also great value, if slightly less of a deal: the menu choices are the same, save the addition of (the freakishly amazing sounding) roast pig with chipotle-stewed beans and pico de gallo.

Fabbrica
read our review | see the menu
Mark McEwan’s newish uptown Italian place mostly plies the “rustic Italian” canon that threatened, like a 40-storey, hideously anthropomorphized bucatino, to overtake the city last year. It’s well-prepared stuff, though: blistery crusted pizzas from the Neopolitan oven, wickedly creamy pastas and outstanding desserts, all in one of the most inspired spaces in town (witness the unisex handwashing area outside the washrooms: it’s neck-wrenchingly beautiful, but also totally confusing if you want to, oh, wash your hands or find a toilet). Though there’s a good-looking $20 lunch menu, dinner’s when you want to be here. The $35 prix fixe choices include polenta with pork ragoût, risotto with peas and guanciale and a chocolate terrine.

Globe Bistro
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Ed Ho’s growing empire of high-priced, local-focused kitchens started at this two-storey Danforth location. I’ve eaten well here, and the Summerlicious menus look good. Best bets on the $20 lunch menu: the yellow tomato and gin gazpacho with basil jelly, followed by the farmer’s bi bim bap, made with honey mushrooms, Chioggia beets and garlic scape kimchee, and the panna cotta with sea buckthorn coulis. For dinner ($35), I’d try the Wellington County flatiron steak with duck fat frites.

Il Posto
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Though it’s been a few years since I’ve eaten here, this formal, old-fashioned and expensive room off Yorkville Avenue served one of the best grilled whole fish I’ve ever eaten: it was branzino, cooked to translucent with a slight bit of char, and drizzled with peppery, fruity olive oil. The Summerlicious prix fixe choices (lunch, $20, dinner, $35) run from plain-sounding smoked salmon with capers, lemon, onion and oil, to house agnolotti stuffed with zucchini and mascarpone cheese, to a banana-chocolate meringue cake. I’d start with the soup of the day, though, then follow with the daily fish.

L’Unità
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This Avenue Road hub from the guys behind Maléna is nearly always jammed and almost always noisy. Owners David Minicucci and Sam Kalogiros know how to run a room, though—it’s fun and convivial, and L’Unita is beloved for good reason. The new-Italian cooking, though not as good as at downtown’s Buca, is generally well executed, and the $35 Summerlicious dinner menu looks far more inviting that at most places. I’d go for the panzanella salad made with local heirloom tomatoes—yup, it’s almost that season again—and vincotto, followed by the sweet pea and fresh ricotta pasta and, finally, the strawberry conserva with floating lemon meringue and basil oil.

Lai Toh Heen
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The nouvelle-Cantonese cooking at this uptown sibling to the city’s reigning dim-sum king, Lai Wah Heen, is impressive by almost any standard: the flavours are clear, textures poised, presentation glorious and all with western-style service and decor. There’s a dim sum option with the $20 lunch; this is a must. The $35 dinner features a dim sum amuse. Other standouts include a dish of pan-seared foie gras with diced beef tenderloin, orange peel and hot pepper, and a won ton soup that I suspect will taste nothing like the Chinese-Canadian standard.

Mistura
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Chef Massimo Capra’s Yorkville mainstay combines slick, friendly service with luxurious cooking and a high-roller’s dream of a wine list; Summerlicious is a great time for the pikers (and I mean that in the nice way) to check it out. On the $45 dinner menu: zucchini Milanese with stracchino cheese fonduta and roasted sweet onions, plus sautéed B.C. snapper with steamed clams and a white bean and herb salad, and “chocolate salami” with zabaglione. Yes, please!

Pangaea
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Peter Geary and chef Martin Kouprie’s seafood-focused dining room on Bay Street celebrated its 25th 15th anniversary this year, but doesn’t bear many of the usual signs of aging. Summerlicious menu highlights (there’s a $20 lunch version and a $35 option for dinner) include a coconut and cucumber gazpacho with laughing bird shrimp ceviche, squid ink linguine with shellfish and a wild blueberry tart with lemon whipped cream and honey-baked apricots.

Starfish
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Patrick McMurray’s clubby haunt at Adelaide and Jarvis remains one of the country’s best oyster houses; McMurray himself is a champion shucker (with the scars to prove it), and the selection of bivalves here often includes at least a couple things that nobody else can get. There’s good Summerlicious value here: start with the oyster plate (does anybody not start with the oyster plate?), follow with basic moules frites and finish with sticky toffee pudding. And do drink a nice Muscadet with it all. $20 at lunch, $35 for dinner.

The Fifth Grill
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Though its dot com–era apex has long passed, dinner at this power players’ favorite on Richmond Street—and particularly on its gorgeous patio—is still a hoot. The shrimp cocktail is bound to be classic (and good); follow that with the tenderloin (too bad they’re not doing a more interesting cut) with ratatouille and roasted potatoes and then the blueberry-lemon cheesecake. But before all that, be sure start with a cocktail, unwind a little, order a bottle of wine and soak up the great service and the very lovely room. The elevator ride up is an event, by the way: the lift is more than a century old. Be sure to tip the attendant.

Canoe
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No, you probably won’t get a reservation at 8 p.m. on Friday; you’ll be lucky to get one at 6. And yes, I do recommend this standard-bearer every time. The view alone, from the TD Bank Tower’s 54th floor, is worth the $25 price of lunchtime admission. And that goes doubly these days, post-renovation—the place has a new energy that’s got the kitchen here at the top of its game. I’d go for the pan-fried walleye, the bufala mozzarella with honey-glazed walnuts and the pecan tart with Niagara cherries and crème fraiche ice cream at lunchtime. For dinner ($45), the mains are a (deliriously happy) toss-up between pan-roasted pickerel and slow-roasted loin of pork.

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