Just Opened: we review seven of the city’s new restaurants
Hotel comforts, inhalable grilled cheese and epically hot servers
550 Wellington St. W., 416-640-7778
Set within the glamour of the Thompson Hotel, this something-for-everyone, 24-hour diner comes across like a yokel cousin at a society wedding. The decor is bafflingly incoherent: velvet damask and cheap faux-wood tables, Cuban floor tiles and smoked mirror accents. The food is inoffensive: a caesar salad that meets the dictionary definition but only just (dried parmesan crumbs, flavourless croutons), hand-cut fries, a $29 sandwich called “obscenely large muffaletta,” strawberry pie that’s lost somewhere between the flaccid crust and red glaze.
The buttermilk fried chicken and double-battered onion rings are both good bets; “iceberg wedge,” smothered in mild blue cheese–buttermilk dressing, is refreshingly simple.
1320 Queen St. W., 647-342-3959
Is it a sign of our maturity or folly as a food city that we can now choose between restaurants that specialize in grilled cheese? A bit of both, probably, although a bite or two of the freshly prepared and properly gooey “gourmet” versions at this sweet new Parkdale shop quickly renders the question moot. No one’s mother ever made grilled cheese like this: well-ripened brie with cherry tomatoes and garlic-goosed pesto on marble rye, for instance, or inhalable emmenthal and ham. They do three hale and hearty soups every day, too, like the vegetable one that’s as nutritious as a CSA basket, with al dente zucchini dice, creamy white and black beans, tiny cauliflower florets and hunks of sweet tomato. And in case you’re worried the place is too hyper-specialized, there’s frozen yogurt and Ed’s Real Scoop ice cream for dessert. Unlicensed. Cash only.
REAL SPORTS BAR AND GRILL
15 York St., 416-815-7325
The only two things you really need to know about Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s enormous new bar next to the ACC is that it has 199 televisions (one of which, at 32 feet, is the largest high-definition indoor screen in North America), and that the servers, shrink-wrapped in low-cut black mini-dresses, are epically, unforgettably, almost impossibly hot. If those facts don’t entice you, executive chef Tony Glitz’s sprawling and relatively inventive (for a sports bar) menu just might. Though he flubs a few of the more innovative dishes (greasy, one-note cheeseburger spring rolls; chicken wings that have an odd sand-dune texture), Glitz aces the basics with the sort of finesse his parent company’s hockey team could only dream of. Fish and chips brings a dinner plate–size fillet of haddock that’s as delicious as any other in the city (and only $15), with crisp, flavourful fries and a coleslaw that’s chopped, perfectly, by a kitchen hand with ninja skills. There are lighter dishes, such as a green curry plate and ambitious-sounding salads—the seared tuna “Napolean,” or the “fairway greens,” which comes with radishes, cucumber and a champagne vinaigrette. But ordering those would probably preclude indulging in the 67-ounce steak, which comes with a pound each of fries and slaw. You probably guessed this already, but it’s free if you can eat it all in an hour, and costs double if you’re rooting for the Habs. On tap, there are 36 high-priced beers. Mains $13–$34.
Continental/ Out of Town
Every now and then, a new restaurant hits every note spot on. Husband and wife co-owners chef Fraser Macfarlane and chef Georgina Mitropoulos, who met while working together at Scaramouche, clearly have the restaurateur gene. The years they spent working under such perfectionist-tyrants as Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White also helped hone their skills. From the greeting at the door to the food on the plate, there is no hesitation, no jitters and no hiccups—well, at least none we can see. The couple, who ran Saving Thyme, an Ancaster-based catering company, completely renovated this rambling, two-storey Victorian house, just around the corner from Dundas’s main drag. The pared-down aesthetic is enlivened with splashes of colour courtesy of paintings on loan from the Art Gallery of Hamilton. A simple purity is found on the menu, too. Elegantly thin green beans snap between teeth as if they were plucked from the vine only hours earlier, and pillowy ricotta and herb gnocchi with wild mushrooms, peas and favas is edible summer. One fat sea scallop and curls of calamari are grilled to wobbly perfection and encircled with bright herb oil. Arctic char and lobster pot-au-feu is a rich and decadent mélange of crispy-skinned char, fat chunks of ever-so-slightly overcooked lobster (OK, there’s one slight hiccup), spring vegetables, herbs, and creamy béarnaise sauce, which demands a spoon. Desserts are creative. In a trio of treats, crème brûlée is refreshing, with an essence of Clementine; Christmasy gingerbread is enriched with orange syrup; and smooth house-made vanilla ice cream is studded with warming cubes of candied ginger. Service is swift, professional and small-town friendly. Brunch and lunch menus are equally elegant, and on Thursday afternoons a stroll around the nearby farmers’ market will help burn off that great grilled flatiron steak frites. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Mains $28–$39. 16 Sydenham St., Dundas, 905-628-7800.
OLIVER BONACINI CAFÉ GRILL
The corporate restaurant (or restaurant corporation) has taken over the downtown dining scene. Chef-operated establishments have been crowded out of the core by Mark McEwan, SIR Corp. and O&B’s 11 restaurants (and all those cookie-cutter food courts). The latest O&B café is one of the best of the lot. If Canoe serves an executive clientele, then O&B’s newest downtown venture targets those young professionals eager to move on up to that deluxe office (and restaurant) in the sky. The food is casual: pizzas, pastas and sandwiches at lunch, with a handful of Asian and meat dishes at dinner. The grey and white decor is equally unassuming, punctuated only by bold light fixtures (bare bulbs dangling from orange extension cords in the bar area), tin plating, and a surprisingly discreet wall mural of a mushroom’s stem and gills in the main dining room. Uncomplicated dishes—tender grilled calamari taking a final swim in caper-dotted lemonbrown butter, and handmade strozzapreti pasta with shredded lamb shank that’s infused with cinnamon and coriander—dazzle. A goat cheese and chorizo pizza with wisps of micro-basil and pesto satisfies but hardly extends the pizzaiolo’s art. A frustratingly disorganized lunchtime server promises a revelatory butter tart for dessert and eventually delivers goods that live up to the hype. Remarkably affordable wine list with a New World bent includes a dozen bottles under than $40. Mains $12–$30. 33 Yonge St., 647-260-2070.
PARTS AND LABOUR
The list of reasons not to come to this gritty but pretty new bar and restaurant from design firm Castor and the owners of The Social nightclub is long: the communal tables are too wide for comfortable conversation, the music is both aggressive and aggressively loud, the crowd is far cooler than most of us will ever be, and parts of the menu can read less like dinner than a dare. If you can park those reservations, however, you’ll notice that the staff is friendly and mostly competent, and that dinner here can be an excellent time. Chef Matty Matheson’s cooking is solid and occasionally fantastic, particularly when he’s working with meat. His horse tenderloin, served with a fat marrow bone and whipped horseradish crème fraîche, is genius. Fried pig face, done up in croquettes and served with excellent house pickles and gribiche, is a fun if also funny-sounding starter. Desserts harness the tastes of drunken summer nights: an over-the-top peanut butter and banana bread pudding, a candy plate with confected orange peels, excellent burnt honey ice cream that you could eat by the tubful. Horse tongue salad, by contrast, has a pretty mix of mottled greens from the restaurant’s rooftop garden and macerated blueberries with a perfect open pod of peas on top, but the tongue looks grey and pallid and also unfortunately tastes that way. A side of sautéed rapini is far too bitter for eating, and the sea bass carpaccio is too meek and flabby to stand up to the slivers of scallion, onion, lemon and chili oil it’s served with. The wine list needs retooling, the by-the-glass-whites in particular. Cocktails, however, are some of the city’s best. Closed Sunday and Monday. Mains $18–$36. 1566 Queen St. W., 416-588-7750.
Despite a menu with more Italian than English, Quanto Basta caters to North American tastes. Fresh pastas, well past al dente, are served in heaping portions, submerged in a sea of red sauce. But Quanto Basta, which has usurped Le Petit Castor as the casual dining magnet for counts and countesses of Rosedale, is more about the table-hopping scene than the food. Local dignitaries wait at the crowded entrance or sip cocktails at the formerly overflowing Castor until their tables are ready. Flames leap from the open kitchen grill, branding squid and sea bass with black lines (thankfully, seafood is treated with a lighter touch than the noodles). The calamari with chorizo still has bite, and the spigola fillets are nicely moist, simply touched by salt, lemon and flame. Service can be attentive but pushy (beware the upsell). Mains $16–$36. Closed Sunday. 1112 Yonge St., 416-962-3141.
Are old-school bistros the new Firkins? The formula—steak frites, crème brûlée, Piaf belting “Non, je ne regrette rien”—is as predictable in most bistros as “Wasn’t That a Party” is in their faux-Irish counterparts. The execution, nine times out of 10, is every bit as rote. But for some reason, we’re still charmed by fake francophilia. And so this new Yorkville boîte (to borrow another bistroism), with its enormous patio, casual-elegant interior and smiling chef (one of the last in the city to wear an 8-inch toque), will likely find plenty of fans. To be fair, there are far worse places to eat. The octopus salad is nicely tender, tossed with kalamata olives and pine nuts dressed in meyer lemon dressing; the wild mushroom crêpe, complete with crisp asparagus and a nicely balanced deglaze, would do any hotel chef proud. A summer gazpacho, meantime, is Fannie Farmer simple: tomatoes, some peppers, a bit of cucumber, onion, seasoning and oil, blend. It’s fine. The steak in steak frites, by contrast, is as bland and chewy as day-old Dubble Bubble; the fries are good though, especially for sopping up the shallot and red wine jus. Dessert brings a sticky toffee pudding that’s still cold in the middle. Ninety seconds after it’s returned to the kitchen, it’s back, microwave hot now, but feeling like sloppy seconds. Service, by middle-aged waiters in white shirts and bow ties, is professional, if a little perfunctory, and the management isn’t always great with details: doggie bags, for example, are sent out in white plastic Kitchen Catchers, knotted at the top like yesterday’s trash. Closed Sunday. Mains $21–$42. 162 Cumberland St., 416-962-7363.