Best of the City 2012: Toronto’s top tacos, brunch, pampering service, pickling classes and more

Best of the City 2012: Toronto’s top tacos, brunch, pampering service, pickling classes and more

Best of the City, Best of the City 2012

88 Harbord St., 416-929-7788
Even if a diner wheezed up to Splendido’s Harbord Street door in a beat-up Chevette, sporting a mullet, ripped jeans and 27 piercings, the valet would park the jalopy as though it were a gleaming Rolls Phantom and the host would usher him inside as though he were a Rosedale scion. Splendido’s service, which operates at a one-server-to-four-guest ratio, is planned and practised with military diligence—every afternoon the valet, host, bartender and sommelier, three captain waiters, three midfield waiters, three busboys and two floor managers run training drills—but executed with balletic grace. After being seated at one of the linen-topped tables, customers will have water within 30 seconds and cocktails within five minutes. The canapé (beet juice with champagne-and-horseradish foam, for example) follows, then freshly baked bread. Entrées always arrive at the exact same time, eliminating the awkward “No, you start” back-and-forth. And ladies are treated with uncommon chivalry—chairs pulled out, coats helped on, purses placed on tableside stools. It’s a wonderfully anachronistic experience that beats the hell out of half-hearted service from untucked hipsters who play Angry Birds between courses.

488 Wellington St. W., 416-979-1990
The chef’s table at Marben combines the thrill of voyeurism with the exclusivity of the best dinner party in town. There’s room for five diners to perch at a prep counter in the kitchen, where line cooks bark out orders, a rotund dishwasher precariously stacks charcuterie boards and chef Alex White prepares a multi-course meal—as many dishes as you have room for—with the mastery of a culinary improv artist. Guests can request a few items from Marben’s fastidiously local menu, like the juicy, pink Ontario beef burger, but inevitably end up surrendering control and eating whatever the chef slides across the counter: warm sourdough, creamy pig’s head croquettes or tender pork loin with house kimchee. When the kitchen slows down around 11 p.m., the staff’s faces relax into smiles, the bartender delivers a tray of digestifs and everyone toasts to a successful evening. $60–$100 per person.

Paramount Butcher Shop
4646 Heritage Hills Blvd., Mississauga, 905-890-1700
Mohamad Fakih, the owner of Paramount, the GTA shawarma chain, was inspired by gourmet stores like Pusateri’s and Cumbrae’s to open his own 3,400-square-foot halal butcher in Mississauga. (Hazel McCallion stops in for pasture-raised chickens.) His staff greet customers with complimentary Turkish coffee and offer a fanatical level of expertise. Fakih visits every farm supplier to ensure slaughter practices adhere to halal edicts, and hires multilingual staff to provide service in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu. The windowed dry-aging room shows off sides of beef, cooks prepare meat to order on a grill in the open kitchen, and customers peer into the deli case full of freshly prepped food like smoky baba ghanouj.

999 Eglinton Ave. W., 416-787-2221
To Mexican food fiends, guacamole is simple but sacred. Chef Jose Hadad treats the plump, crocodile-skinned avocados with due respect, mashing them lightly by hand and mixing in freshly squeezed lemon juice, red onion, salsa verde and finely chopped cilantro. He then spoons the chunky concoction onto a plate slicked with chili oil and tops it with daintily diced red peppers. The result is rich, citrusy and kicked with heat—everything good guacamole should be. $8.

Porchetta and Co.
825 Dundas St. W., 647-352-6611
The summer’s best sandwich is a Cajun-Asian-Italian mash-up on a Wonder Bread hot dog bun. The roll is slathered with sriracha- and togarashi-infused mayon­naise, making a perfect, pillowy cradle for a plump soft-shell crab. Coated in panko crumbs, then deep-fried for one hot minute, the crustacean is crisp on the outside and briny on the inside, piled with crunchy carrot-and-cabbage coleslaw, then scattered with chewy prosciutto bits. Some 200 po’ boys are offered on Saturdays, and they often sell out in a matter of hours: aficionados check Twitter (@PorchettaAndCo) so as not to miss out. $12.

Maselli Supermarket
906 Danforth Ave., 416-465-7901
Donato Macina’s fiery preserved chilies contain little more than hot peppers and sunflower oil—an impossibly simple recipe for the sweet, floral and intensely spicy flavours captured in each flaming vermilion shred. The Pugliese peppers are available at the St. Lawrence Market for $12, but savvy shoppers head to Maselli, an Italian deli on the Danforth, to grab a jar for $10, which leaves money to spring for a jar of smoky roasted artichoke hearts as well.

140 O’Connor Dr., 416-425-2177
Mother-daughter team Ann and Michelle Marsolais have perfected the art of smoking salmon. Their three-day process begins with sustainable fish flown in from New Brunswick. They cure the coral-coloured fish in sugar and salt for 24 hours, firming up the flesh, then load it into a hickory-fuelled cold smoker, which preserves the delicate flavours, instead of bludgeoning them with heat smoke. After 12 hours, the pristine fish is deep scarlet and buttery with just a whisper of hickory. Don’t even think about debasing it with cream cheese and a bagel. $35 per pound.

145 King St. W., 416-861-9977
Liquid lunches of the no-questions-asked, expense account variety might be a dying breed, but you wouldn’t know it walking past Modus’s suits-and-sunglasses-filled patio on a sunny day. Chef Bruce Woods’ refined Italian food is ably peddled by lightning-fast floor staff who happily expound on the relative oakiness of chardonnay from Niagara and Prince Edward County. The lobster tagliatelle ($28) epitomizes the luxe lunch: jet-black squid ink pasta topped with an embarrassingly big mound of soft, sweet lobster.

888 Queen St. E., 416-828-1861
Even the most accomplished home cooks have mangled a fish with shoddy knife skills. At Kristin Donovan’s virtuous Leslie­ville fish shop, she teaches the basics—gutting, filleting, shucking or grilling, depending on the evening’s theme—to classes of 10 to 12 ($60–$65). Donovan, who trained at Stratford Chefs School and cooked at Avalon during its heyday, shares ingeniously simple tips (remove fish from the fridge 20 minutes before cooking) and geeks out with explanations of sustainable fishing practices. Then students prep their own piscivore meals, which they enjoy together at a candlelit counter. They leave with Donovan’s recipes waiting in their inboxes.

Hopgood’s Foodliner
325 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-533-2723
Every night at Roncesvalles’ Maritime-inspired restaurant, diners consume hundreds of Triscuits alongside Tupperware party–style crab dip ($15), made with a recipe from chef Geoff Hopgood’s mother. He mixes mayonnaise and cream cheese with tangy green onions and sweet shreds of P.E.I. rock crab, then bakes the works under a light, crispy panko-Parmesan crust. He originally planned to make the crackers in-house, but decided against it when he realized he’d be making them round the clock. The sturdy Triscuits are a happy shortcut, perfectly engineered to hold the hot, unctuous dip in their salty criss-crosses.


1690 Queen St. W., 416-533-2552
The breakfast options from this Aboriginal-by-way-of-classic-gastronomy kitchen are straight-up decadent: duck confit with bread pudding, or dill-flecked crêpes under a dollop of crème fraîche. It’s the eggs Benedict ($15), though, that’s more gilded than a Trump tower. Nutty-sweet brown butter hollandaise smothers a silky pair of soft-poached eggs. Each sits on top of a Red Fife tea biscuit, also rich and slightly sweet—but for the side of mustard greens, you’d easily mistake the dish for dessert.

Grand Electric
1330 Queen St. W., 416-627-3459
When Public Enemy comes on the vintage record player, with Flavor Flav scratchily shouting, “Don’t believe the hype,” it’s almost an inside joke. The Parkdale taco shack is, after all, one of the most buzzed-about restaurants to open this year. Thing is, Grand Electric really is that good. Bourbon-based drinks make the hours-long wait fun (instead of frustrating), and the pig tail tacos ($3.50 each) are an excellent reward. A soft corn tortilla holds a heroic hunk of tail that falls apart into lusciously fatty shreds in your mouth. It’s topped with pickled red onions, avocado-tomatillo salsa and a squirt of fresh lime that cuts through all the porky richness.

705 Mount Pleasant Rd., 647-430-7004
For foodies with DIY impulses, pickling is mandatory. Culinarium’s three-hour-long pickling party ($100) is a good place to start. An expert instructor takes a group of 10 students through the process of turning an ordinary cucumber into a pickle that could accompany the finest of deli sandwiches. Newbie picklers learn everything there is to know about brining, canning and avoiding botulism—and at the end, they can take home the day’s spoils, which will keep until the apocalypse and make great hostess gifts.

By Denise Balkissoon, Ariel Brewster, Andrew D’Cruz, Bronwen Jervis, Emily Landau, Signe Langford, Jason McBride, Mark Pupo, Peter Saltsman and Courtney Shea | Photographs: Keriwa by Emma McIntyre; pickles by Christopher Stevenson