Eastern Promises: hearty, meaty, carb-heavy Eastern European food is Toronto’s next big comfort cuisine
In the ’60s, Toronto had a bustling Eastern European food scene. Polish, Hungarian and German immigrants opened up humble cafés and grocery stores along Schnitzel Row (the stretch of Bloor between Spadina and Bathurst), in Kensington Market and on Roncesvalles Avenue, servicing mostly the expat community, and a few WASPs who fancied themselves adventurous for ordering fried chicken livers or cabbage rolls. By the ’80s, much of that first wave of Eastern Europeans had retired to the suburbs, taking their goulash and spaetzle with them (RIP Hungarian Goulash Party Tavern). The remaining downtown restaurants, like The Prague on Queen West, have turned into haunts for hungover students scarfing cheap smoked salmon palacinky or doughy pierogies.
For the longest time, Eastern European food didn’t seem likely to make a comeback. The city’s culinary establishment largely dismissed the stick-to-your-ribs peasant food as uninspired and bland. Over the last year, however, those attitudes have changed.
The fetishization of all things home-cooked and heritage has conditioned diners to embrace heavy foods. In many of the city’s top restaurants, chefs have replaced dainty portions with hunks of meat, served family style on wooden slabs. They’re at pains to ensure pastas and breads—knobby and misshapen—bear the marks of the hands that made them. They charge handsomely for soups their grandmothers could’ve whipped up for pennies with offcuts and root vegetables. For a while, rustic Italian cooking has defined this culinary zeitgeist in Toronto, but now that every imaginable iteration of the Neapolitan pizza has been played out, chefs are looking east for the next fancified comfort cuisine.
At Keriwa in Parkdale, for example, chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe fuses his Ukrainian wife’s recipe for pierogies with Aboriginal ingredients. He stuffs the dumplings with bison pemmican and tops them with juniper berry crème fraîche. The result is gamey yet light. Last year, he also did a caraway-tinged sweet-and-sour borscht, and he’s currently tinkering with bison kielbasa and sauerkraut for his brunch menu. At Stock, the bastion of capitalism on the 31st floor of the Trump tower, chef Todd Clarmo spikes his chili-chicken soup with chewy Russian pelmeni (like miniature pierogies). Chef Geoff Kitt at The Westerly, a proto-French bistro on Roncesvalles, tops his hoisin du Puy lentils with sweet potato strudel. And chef David Haman at Woodlot on Palmerston makes spectacular cabbage rolls, wrapping savoy leaves around threads of braised duck, prunes, chestnuts and wild rice. They will ruin diners’ taste for the soggy steam tray versions forever.
On the more casual end of the dining spectrum, a few restaurateurs are evoking Eastern Europe somewhat literally. Wvrst Sausage Hall and Other Wonders opened last summer on King West in the glossy warehouse-like space that used to be Conviction, Marc Thuet’s reality series restaurant. The 4,000-square-foot space has all the hallmarks of an Oktoberfest tavern—communal tables, gigantic glass beer steins and red-checked paper cones for fries. If you squint and ignore the indie rock soundtrack, you can almost imagine yourself in a pub on the banks of the Danube. But when the music shifts to dubstep, visions of dirndl-clad wenches morph back into the King West reality of skinny-jeaned busboys and faux-bronzed beauties.
Wvrst’s owner, Aldo Lanzillotta, whose father lived in Munich and taught him to enjoy what he calls “post-war eating” (sausages, cheese and bread), set out to create a modern Bavarian beer hall with a menu of 20 artisanal sausages, 16 beers on tap and counter service. In under a year, he’s sold over 60,000 bangers. Currywurst, a German street food invented after WWII by a woman who traded with British soldiers for ketchup and curry powder, is a sloppy mix of sliced veal-pork bratwurst and curry-laced tomato sauce (it’s best with a side order of duck fat fries). It’s straight-up delicious and fun to eat. It embodies Wrsvt’s slick brand of trendified tradition.
The opening of Wvrst was quickly followed by Hrvati’s in the fall. Allen Beloberaj, an Aussie expat with Croatian parents, converted the ground floor of a narrow Koreatown Victorian into a Croatian bar. He hired Brenda Bent (Susur Lee’s wife) to design the room. A 14-foot wood slab table dominates the space, which can get downright claustrophobic on Friday nights when it’s jammed with U of T students and profs. Portraits of the owner’s Croatian ancestors adorn the reclaimed wood walls, and a blackboard lists 46 beer options, including Croatian lagers like Ožujsko and Karlovacko. (Disappointingly, the shelf of ornate beer steins is strictly decorative.) Hey Meatball’s Rodney Bowers created the menu, channelling old-world Croatian pub food with gut-busting authenticity. It gives short shrift to vegetables (unless they’re pickled or fried) and includes enough meat to make a vegan fear the apocalypse.
Cevapi, listed on the menu as Croatia’s unofficial national dish, brings finger-sized pork and beef sausages flecked with parsley, paprika and a staggering amount of garlic, stacked like kindling on a wooden platter. They come with mounds of pickled onion, sour cream, matchstick fries and warm lepinje, the springy Balkan equivalent of pita bread. The platter nails the Croatian trifecta of salty, spicy and briny, but the heaping portions of meat- and grease-laden carbs sit like a brick. The rest of the entrées—thick goulash with buttery egg noodles, for instance—are equally heavy. It’s good beer-sop fare, designed to fill bellies cheaply, but it should be shared.
The best modern Eastern European food conjures nostalgic comforts without being weighed down by them. Tom Brodi* at Toca, the Ritz-Carlton’s year-old restaurant, has peppered his Canadiana menu with Hungarian dishes: sweet-and-sour cabbage, nokedli (spaeztle), lángos (flat bread akin to the beaver tail) and palacsinta (crêpes). Brodi worked in Italian and French kitchens and helped invent Oliver and Bonacini’s signature Canadian cuisine during his decade at Canoe, but Toca was his first opportunity to channel his own heritage onto a menu.
His grandmother used to own Country Style, the Hungarian diner in the Annex, and he grew up speaking the language. There were chickens in the family’s Bloor and Palmerston backyard and homemade blood sausage from his cousin’s pig farm hanging in the basement, and three times a year Brodi’s grandfather would make tarhonya, a roasted egg pasta.
Although he doesn’t plan to turn Toca into a Hungarian restaurant, Brodi gets a kick out of playing around with his ethnicity—a spirit that’s evident in his lángos. He adds mashed potatoes to his grandmother’s dough recipe to make the bread, which he deep-fries to a golden crisp. Instead of piling it with sour cream and cheese, as is common in Hungarian restaurants, he tops the crust with delicate New Brunswick smoked salmon, a tangle of arugula and watercress and a drizzle of sour cream. It’s a beautiful, contemporary, totally bastardized take on the classic lángos. Sometimes authenticity is overrated.
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* N.B.: After our June issue went to press, Tom Brodi announced he was leaving Toca.