Best of the City 2014: Food
81 Harbord St., 416-477-2361
In a narrow white room, chef-owner Yasu Ouchi delivers glistening sushi, one piece at a time, to 10 guests seated at a marble-topped bar. Yasu is the city’s first sushi-only omakase restaurant, and as at other tasting menu–driven spots, you give yourself over to the chef’s whims. Ouchi and his one sous bring Jiro-like fanaticism to the 20-course experience, offering fresh cuts of fish and shellfish draped over perfectly seasoned rice. One night he served up a plump scallop lightly torched for sweetness and dressed with yuzu vinaigrette, then mackerel with pickled radish and scallion, then salty, foie gras–like monkfish liver with a julienne of shiso leaf. And on and on and on. Seatings at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., reservations a must. $80 per person.
1450 Yonge St., 416-962-4825
The old-fashioned shakes at this midtown burger shop are the real deal because of their deliciously excessive ice cream-to-milk ratio (95:5, if you must know). The flavour spectrum veers from the traditional (strawberry, banana) to the aberrant (salted buttermilk, bacon and fudge), but our hands-down favourite is the bourbon vanilla shake, a classic amped up with Madagascar vanilla and bourbon syrup. Flecked with enough freshly scraped beans to make the shake crunch a little with every sip, it leaves a creamy, slightly floral taste lingering on the tongue. $5.65.
176 Dupont St., 647-748-3287
Walk behind Rose and Sons, through a narrow laneway, and you’re engulfed in a cloud of intoxicating charcoal smoke. Chef Anthony Rose and his crew slow-smoke ribs, wings and rabbit over a firepit of fruit wood, and serve the meat with classic sides like pork and beans and potato salad. Diners sit in an open-air mess hall of barnboard and picnic tables; in the winter, it’s transformed into a fully heated cabin lit by candles and strewn with blankets.
922 Queen St. W., 416-535-0404
Just about every semi-ambitious chef puts octopus on the menu these days (it takes some talent to tenderize the mollusk’s tough muscle fibres), but the best is Luis Valenzuela’s paella negra con pulpo at Carmen. He uses the stock from his simmered octopus to cook the bomba rice and adds squid ink. He then stirs in grilled chorizo, garlic scapes and snap peas, and tops it all with springy, caramelized octopus pieces. The dish arrives in a big paella pan and is meant for four, but you’ll want it all for yourself. $46.
130 Dundas St. W., 416-492-5292
Frozen draft, which is beer topped with an icy foam, has been big in Japan for years. It’s finally making its way to Toronto izakayas, like Don Don near Yonge-Dundas Square. There’s special technology needed to perfectly froth a pint of Sapporo—something like a slushie machine that’s able to whip the head into an ice cream–like spiral without deflating the suds below. Its defining characteristic? It’s freaking cold, coming out of the freezer at about -5˚C, and stays that way thanks to the whipped-up head, which acts like a cap. Unbelievably refreshing on a blazing hot summer day. $8.
107 King St. E., 416-603-8009
Fourteen years and many executive chef gigs ago, Claudio Aprile dreamed up his signature chocolate bar—a compact slab of crunchy corn cereal coated in smooth Valrhona chocolate. He’s been tinkering with the recipe ever since, dressing it up with caramelized peanuts, black cherries and, once, a delicate sheath of edible gold leaf. The latest incarnation is his best so far. Aprile tops the bar with huckleberry sorbet and a confit of kumquat to cut the chocolatey richness, and a charred marshmallow for the bitter hit of burnt sugar, all served over a berry salad. $10.
13 Baldwin St., 416-792-8858
Yik Sin and Elissa Pham make frozen custards from an aged egg-yolk base in delightfully weird mash-ups like avocado-banana and whiskey–green tea. There’s also puckery soursop, intense Vietnamese coffee, and even durian, that spiky fruit with the famed funky scent (when frozen, it’s got a chicken broth–like flavour). But the must-order is a briny-sweet sticky-rice gelato with a fragrant hint of coconut milk that’s paddled into a house-made, nori-inflected waffle cone. $4.
The buzzy takeout coffee bar at Bar Buca (75 Portland St., 416-599-2822) offers the masterful caffé bombon—a shot of Manuel espresso stirred with dulce de leche ($3). At Sense Appeal Coffee Roasters (96 Spadina Ave., 416-203-0023), we love the Turkish latte—cardamom and cinnamon mixed with cane sugar and topped with espresso and steamed milk ($4.50). And Te Aro (983 Queen St. E., 416-465-2006) has fizzy, cold-brew coffee on tap ($4) for a totally refreshing, almost fruity, summertime drink.
Agave y Aguacate
35 Baldwin St., 647-748-6448
When chef Francisco Alejandri closed his cultish stall in Kensington Market in 2011, we didn’t think we could survive without his trademark ceviche verde. Thankfully, it’s back on the menu at his Baldwin Village cantina. Alejandri marinates Lake Erie whitefish in lime juice until it’s eye-poppingly sour, tosses it in a cilantro-habañero-mint paste, and offsets the spicy tang with rich chunks of avocado and sweet tomatillo. It’s as light, creamy and tart as we remember. $16.
This Toronto outfit’s neatly packaged meal kits come stocked with all the ingredients necessary to make a proper dinner and cost less than $13 per serving—about the same as a delivery order. Each week, the staff delivers boxes packed with fresh veggies, vac-sealed meats, spices and two to four recipes. One week’s options might include cauliflower and scallop risotto, a curried-tofu stir-fry, and pan-seared pork chops with rhubarb and sour cherry chutney. The recipes are all triple-tested before being slotted into rotation, and it shows: convenience aside, the dishes are consistently delicious. Best of all, you pay by the week (min. $60 for two meals for two people) and can cancel anytime.
1627 Dupont St., 416-561-9114
The Junction hot spot gambles on small-lot stuff rarely seen at the LCBO to introduce diners to under-the-radar gems. Norman Hardie 2012 pinot noir ($16/glass) is an excellent match for chef Alexander Molitz’s crispy trout. Other must-tries include Tawse gewurztraminer ($10/glass), Kew Vineyards marsanne ($10/glass) and Stanners State chardonnay ($12/glass) among whites; Leaning Post merlot ($80/bottle), Lailey Impromptu ($100/bottle) and 13th Street gamay reserve ($13/glass) among reds—all excellent Ontario wines that are almost impossible to find outside the wineries. There are about 30 changing selections in all, half by the glass, and the list is pricy—but there’s no better place to explore our terroir.
This End Up
1454 Dundas St. W., 647-347-8700
The haute junk food trend has landed, and of all the grease-packed options Toronto chefs could co-opt, it’s the Big Mac that has inspired a slew of gourmet takes. Enzo Pizza is doing a Big Mac pie, Nick Liu makes a steamed bun incarnation at GwaiLo, and Oddseoul swaps out the bun for challah toast and special sauce for kimchee hollandaise. But our fave is This End Up’s straightforward riff on the iconic burger. Chef-owner Adam Urquhart drapes two four-ounce, grill-charred patties with processed cheese, and layers of shredded iceberg, sweet onions, dill pickle and tangy special sauce inside a sesame bun. Bite into this juicy stack and you’ll be thankful for the catch-all metal tray it’s served on. $14.
928 Dundas St. W., 416-551-8854
Raw pork—commonly eaten in Europe—gets a bad rap in North America, mostly due to outdated fears of trichinosis. Which is unfortunate, because when done right, it puts beef carpaccio to shame. Black Hoof chef Jesse Grasso takes supremely marbled Berkshire pork and lightly sears it before slicing it tissue-thin and daubing with pine nuts, pickled onions and seasonal greens. One bite proves that it’s the city’s most rewarding edible dare. $15.
50 Clinton St., 416-792-6002
Earlier this year, Scott and Lindsay Selland closed their high-concept, low-country restaurant Acadia and reopened as something more kid friendly (they have two of their own). Now it’s the kind of place where no one bats an eye when Junior drops yet another sauce-soaked meatball, but Mom and Dad can enjoy excellent cocktails (including $6 draft negronis) and Italian-American classics like crispy breaded veal sandwiches ($9) or stuffed calamari perfumed with long-simmered, zesty marinara ($14).
Kitten and the Bear
1574 Queen St. W., 647-926-9711
Finally, a reason to bring your mom to Parkdale: this tiny tea room on an otherwise mangy strip of Queen West. Sophie Kaftal makes small-batch jams, jellies and marmalades in flavours like balsam fir–plum and apricot–sea buckthorn berry. The preserves are best sampled in a Dowager Countess–worthy tea service ($7), which includes three spreads, fluffy buttermilk scones, clotted cream from Ontario cows and, of course, your choice of Sloane loose-leaf tea. Pastel twin-sets encouraged.