Editor’s Letter: Red meat and the return of the tasting menu

Editor’s Letter: Red meat and the return of the tasting menu

Our annual search for the city’s best new restaurants always reveals something large-scale and fascinating about the way we eat now. This year is all about small plates and steak

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Our search for the best new restaurants doesn’t really begin inasmuch as it never really stops. All year, we crank out stories on every possible platform about the best openings, the most gifted chefs, the most sonically superior listening bars and more. The entire effort is led by Rebecca Fleming, our food and drink editor, who is, in short, on it. Whenever I get a tip about a new opening and send it her way, she invariably responds, “Yep—I’ve already got someone covering it.” Well, fine. I’ll show myself out.

This year, I asked her for some intel ahead of our annual Best New Restaurants issue. And it wasn’t just for reservation purposes: something large-scale and fascinating always emerges about what we eat, how we consume it or how it’s made. Remember molecular gastronomy and its attendant foams and gels? For a while, dining out became all about white-glove service—until hyper-casual was suddenly in: artisanal tacos, picnic tables, paper napkins. Ramen blew in like a storm across the Pacific. Later, the pandemic meant bottle shops and takeout everything; as lockdown lifted, it was sit-down everything but with a side of trepidation.

So what’s big this year? Lots. The first is the surprising preponderance of red meat. We all read eulogies to the cooked bovine and predictions about how its role would be subsumed by plant-based this, Impossible Burger that. Yet it’s apparent from our list that those obituaries were premature, which seems counterintuitive given the state of our arteries and planet. So I called up Andrew Oliver, the proprietor of Aera (No. 7 on the list), the panoramic steak-centric restaurant atop the Well, for answers. He confirmed the ­thesis—some 30 per cent of Aera’s business is red meat—and explained that, while people still adore a good steak, what’s changed is how we consume it. Smaller portions and non-traditional cuts are in, as is moderation. We’ll stick with fish, chicken or veg during the week, then double down on beef come Saturday.

Photo by Ashley van der Laan

Charles Khabouth agreed. His downtown American brasserie, Daphne (No. 18), serves up sensational steaks open-fired over wood and charcoal (the exhaust system alone cost $250,000). He added that the setting plays a role too. The traditional steakhouse evokes leather banquettes, dark carpeting and low lighting. In his words, very male. At Daphne, by contrast, he created a “bright, sexy room” that appeals to all diners. Meat makes up 25 to 30 per cent of Daphne’s business, he says, and is equally popular with patrons of all genders.

The other prominent trend of 2024 is the return of tasting menus. Of the 20 restaurants on the list, six feature them: Takja BBQ (No. 3), St. Thomas Restaurant and Wine Bar (No. 4), Savor (No. 5), DaNico (No. 6), And/Ore (No. 11) and Bar Goa (No. 17). And this year’s No. 1, Mhel, is all about small plates. So what gives? I put the question to Young Hoon Ji, the chef of Mhel, a one-room restaurant in Bloorcourt. He and his wife, Seung-min Yi, concoct transcendent Japanese and Korean bar food with tender loving care. He said he ultimately wants to serve the food he likes to eat. And he added that if diners are going out less overall, when they do splurge, they prefer a multi-stop voyage to a non-stop flight. It made a lot of sense. Struck by Ji’s comments, I thought about sharing his brainwave with Rebecca, but I stopped myself. Almost certainly, she’d already know.

Malcolm Johnston is the editor of Toronto Life. He can be reached via email at editor@torontolife.com.