The Year in Dining: our chief critic dishes on the city’s big food trends

The Year in Dining: our chief critic dishes on the city’s big food trends

Crostino with egg from Brockton General; Cheese from Enoteca Sociale; Bitter greens got some love; Beau's craft beer from Zócalo; Porchetta and Co.'s sandwich  

You get two questions over and over when you’re a restaurant critic. The first one, “Where should I eat?” isn’t so hard to answer. But the second one, “What the hell is going on with the city’s restaurants these days?” has been a stumper of late. Fine dining, which we’d all thought was dead and gone, looked mighty lively this past year, with three new big-ticket entrants (Scarpetta, Luma and Quatrefoil). And yet eating well in Toronto also became cheaper than ever, with budget-friendly and, in many cases, hugely accomplished new spots—like Queen Margherita (left) and Enoteca Sociale—opening up all over town. Toronto’s restaurants went through more than a great recession in the past few years: thanks to changing tastes and a new generation of food-obsessed diners showing their spending power, restaurant-land is smack in the middle of a great reset. So what the hell is going on? A bit of everything, really. And, for the most part, it tastes extremely good.

It felt like each week brought another closing this year, yet enterprising chefs with bold ideas challenged every notion of what it means to run a restaurant. Toronto saw the rise of the chef-run, micro-focused restaurant, with Porchetta and Co., the excellent pork sandwich shop, and Ruby Watchco, where Lynn Crawford and Lora Kirk, who once wowed high-rolling diners at Truffles (RIP), slung veal scallopini and chocolate cupcakes from an ever-changing, take-it-or-leave-it menu. At Brockton General (left), the butcher’s paper carte gave a choice of just two or three hot (mostly delicious) things. Chef Guy Rawlings even did away with such frills as kitchen staff, as did Nathan Isberg at Atlantic down the street, single-handing the stoves most nights instead. Drake BBQ meantime, set up last fall as a pop-up shop—management intended to shut it down come spring but has reconsidered, given the shop’s popularity.

Restaurants in search of cheap rents and hungry patrons colonized grotty, underserved retail strips, setting up on Dundas West (almost too many to count), on a forgotten block of Harbord Street (Ici), and on farthest, barren-est Queen Street East (The Burger’s Priest). An ever-so-slightly-upscale squatter camp aesthetic defined design. Isberg budgeted just $600 for decor at Atlantic (and the place looked as though he spent every penny). Zócalo in the Junction Triangle, Campagnolo on Dundas West and Brockton General (left) all felt unwaveringly DIY, and at Beast, the owners did little more than slap weirdly bestial oil paintings of a pheasant-man and a deer-woman on the walls.

The few places that did splash out looked all the more lush by contrast. Giannone Petricone Associates’ campy Roman Holiday–inspired work on Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica was by far the best of the year. Giannone also introduced the glass-walled trophy walk-in refrigerator to the city, at both Fabbrica and La Bettola di Terroni. Though I shuddered for the poor kitchen grunts tasked with keeping their contents primped, the fridges were undeniably impressive, particularly at La Bettola, where you saw the day’s produce and meat chilling as you walked through the front doors.

The $40 entrée made a comeback. Fabbrica tried to sneak around the figure by selling mains and sides separately. Luma and Scarpetta also featured mains in the $40-plus category—a development far less extortionate than some faux-populist types would have you believe (some dishes just cost more to prepare). I had more sympathy for diners who watched in horror as bread became the new bottled water. Maléna, the Aegean-inspired fish spot in Yorkville, charged $12 for grilled flatbread and olives, while Fabbrica billed $3 an order (and was forced to climb down after hearing from furious customers; most of the Fabbrica menu was repriced after a few weeks).

What we got on our plates continued to evolve. At the outset of the recession a few years ago, diners flocked to humble, filling foods made with simple ingredients: burgers, steak frites, deep-fried mac and cheese. The oozy, creamy, soft-cooked egg joined the mix this year; I had it on polenta, fish, hamburgers, salads and pasta, plus stuffed inside ravioli that burst with the prod of a fork. And traditional Italian cooking—the ur-comfort cuisine—turned up on every second street corner. If you didn’t see spaghetti carbonara on at least five menus this past year, you need to get out more.

Extreme double-down heaviness became the year’s most regrettable trend—not only in fast food, but also at otherwise excellent restaurants, where I’m guessing the chefs confused that disgustingly full feeling with value. Woodlot and The Burger’s Priest in particular took portion sizes to extremes—The Vatican City, from the latter’s secret menu (left), matched two cheeseburger patties with a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches (I’d complain more loudly, but it was rapturously tasty—and my mouth is still full). Mercifully, many chefs also embraced bitter greens like chard, kale, puntarella and treviso, although almost never on the menus that most desperately needed a hit of green.

New places started spending money in areas we’d almost forgotten about. Fabbrica, Luma and Scarpetta all hired pastry chefs, for example, a breed that bordered on extinction in the late oughties, while Woodlot and Frank’s Kitchen made extraordinarily good house-made bread. The Enomatic wine dispenser (left), the best thing to happen to by-the-glass wine, continued its dramatic slide down-market, to Real Sports and Enoteca Sociale (among others), where the $8,000 machines were put to excellent use. At least a dozen new places featured serious, craft-made beers on their menus, a gesture to the humility of the times, perhaps, but also a long-overdue recognition that great brew often pairs as well as wine with good food. Restaurateurs even began paying coffee a modicum of respect, nowhere more than at Beast, where Sam James, of the eponymous house of java arch-geekery, curated a list of excellent joes.

Cocktails continued their ascent in both price (they nudged ever nearer the $20 mark) and quality. Campagnolo’s caesar, made with tomato water, cilantro, lime and red pepper–infused vodka, was the year’s best. The most ubiquitous cocktail was the very tasty, very intoxicating sazerac (left), made with Peychaud’s bitters, a sugar cube, rye, absinthe and a lemon peel. And fabulous Italian bitters like Amaro Nonino and Ramazotti were everywhere, as well as the decidedly unfabulous Fernet-Branca, which tastes like Dettol and goat saliva—not even the liqueur’s most ardent fans actually like it.

After a couple of years of tumult and turnover, it might finally be safe for restaurateurs to take risks again. Some of the city’s best chefs (young and old) are starting to whisper about new projects, and four new fine-dining rooms are set to launch in the coming months—crucial in any city that hopes to generate new ideas and train new chefs. The year was challenging and unpredictable, but it felt like a fresh start, too, and isn’t that a good thing? Every city needs a reset now and then.

(Images: Porchetta sandwich, Origin chandelier by Ryan Szulc; Brockton General by Lorne Bridgman; Carbonara by Alessandrozocc/IStock; Greens by Ockra/IStock; sazerac, burger and soft-cooked egg by Kevin Meikle; Bread by Renée Suen)

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(Images: Ryan Szulc)