The Top Food Trends and Who Does Them Best: Seafood
Last year’s lobster roll craze has escalated into a full-blown love affair with fresh platters of tentacles, claws and other watery delights
There’s only so much red meat a person can consume. I’m happy to announce that Toronto, for too many years a city resigned to High Liner fish sticks, has turned a pescetarian corner. Quality seafood stores like Hooked and De La Mer are multiplying, and we’re no longer ashamed to serve a locally caught perch at a dinner party. For a few months there, it seemed like every elegant restaurant had a rainbow trout from Kolapore Springs on the menu.
And then, almost overnight, chefs began opening places that not only serve seafood, but revel in it. The first was Geoff Hopgood, the former Hoof Café chef who unveiled Hopgood’s Foodliner two years ago on Roncesvalles. I expected his Maritime restaurant concept to die fast, but it has thrived, serving flown-in-that-morning whole roasted lobsters with hazelnut butter, towers of snow crab, and the sweetest tiny Digby scallops. I last ate there in early January, typically a time when Toronto restaurateurs lock the door and take a vacation, and the place was as manic as a Walmart on Black Friday, with a lineup at the door, servers delivering rounds of Propeller IPA and hot crab dip, and Measha Brueggergosman knocking back oysters at the bar.
After Hopgood’s came Catch on St. Clair West, where the kitchen ladles caviar on a plate strewn with roasted potatoes and striped beets, deep-fries plump smelt and steams a pile of clams in a pale but deeply savoury tomato broth. The restaurant’s octopus dish, in a year when so many cooks are experimenting with the difficult-to-master creature, was especially memorable: lightly cooked in its own brine, it came in a jam jar perched on a fancy vintage silver dish. The tentacles were luscious and meaty, and tasted only faintly of the sea, and it didn’t take long for us to empty the jar.
The flashiest entrant in the fish market is The Chase, the two-part restaurant in a newly refurbished 19th-century downtown office building. The ground-floor section is nice for a lunch of oysters (they typically have a dozen varieties on hand), garlicky snails on toast and an overflowing, buttery lobster roll with a side of house-made dill chips. The menu at the more formal upstairs restaurant includes sharing platters of caviar and cured salmon, harissa-spiced grilled octopus (it’s everywhere!), and a whole halibut as big as our table served with a brown butter sauce. It’s a big-night-out kind of place—all crystal chandeliers, bevelled mirror walls and valet parking—and Bay Street’s latest hangout (on weeknights, a pack of Wolf of Wall Street types are usually braying by the bar).
It isn’t strictly necessary to take out a line of credit to enjoy seafood delicacies. At Fishbar, on Ossington, where they make peel-and-eat shrimp and a gooey mac and cheese with lobster, the seafood party never stops. Same goes for Rock Lobster, which now has two locations (on Ossington and on Queen West), where they serve plenty of the namesake crustacean (a whole lobster with potatoes and creamed spinach goes for a reasonable $39) as well as towers of oysters, snow crab and shrimp. My favourite spot to drop in for a plate of oysters is Geraldine, on Queen West, a fairly convincing recreation of a Roaring Twenties cocktail lounge that serves smoked sardines and coquilles Saint-Jacques alongside a sazerac with a jolt of absinthe. The restaurant’s raw bar overflows with claws and shells—a seafood aficionado’s dream.
Sweeter than the tiger variety and wild-caught in B.C., it comes with ricotta gnocchi at The Chase, with speckled trout and red clover at Daishō, and in a bacon-studded risotto at Bymark.
The salty, ostentatious roe accompany steak tartare at Ici, Digby scallops and shrimp at Hopgood’s Foodliner, and a seafood platter at The Chase. At Splendido, it’s the star of brunch, in a traditional plate of blinis and crème fraîche.
The spider-legged marvel from icy Maritime waters gets dipped in butter at Hopgood’s and in cocktail sauce at Rock Lobster, stuffed in a California roll at Kingyo, and tossed with squid ink pasta at Woodlot.
These B.C.-farmed beauties invaded the raw bars at The Chase, Geraldine, Fishbar and Starfish, and come doused with XO sauce at Chantecler. They’re as tender as Kumamotos but teeny-tiny, the Shirley Temples of oysters.
The flesh of this tasty flapper, raised at a sustainable hatchery near Collingwood, is a distinctive bright red. It’s smoked and served with hummus at Richmond Station, roasted and served with apples at Daishō, and served pan-seared with a brussels sprout fondue at Café Boulud.