Best new restaurants 2010: James Chatto names five honourable mentions
Toronto Life‘s annual ranking of the city’s 10 best new restaurants is in our April issue, on newsstands now. Despite the lacklustre economy, it’s been a banner year for eating out. Here, James Chatto picks five more new restaurants are worth lining up for.
At a time when the King West restaurant scene is suffering (Crush under new management, Marc Thuet heading to B.C. to reprise Conviction, Susur busy elsewhere), Buca brings new energy to the strip. The location—up an alley, then down into the basement boiler room of a vintage industrial building—is coolly chic, and the hard decor of steel girders and open brick makes chef Rob Gentile’s artisanal Italian menu seem all the more warm and inviting. There’s no need to be fussy, just pick a bargain-priced bottle of southern Italian red and load up the table with dishes. House-cured salumi and lardo is an obvious choice, especially if Gentile’s salsiccine is part of the collation. Simple dishes are the most pleasing: braised artichoke with mint, salt and good olive oil; and a moist trout fillet stuffed with salty herbs. Fried pig ear and eel are far less challenging than they sound. Communal tables and brittle acoustics contribute to a party vibe that even downtown club-goers find hard to resist.
Buca, 604 King St. W. (at Portland St.), 416-865-1600.
12. Ceili Cottage
Last winter, Patrick McMurray flooded the patio to make a skating rink for local children, a gesture that delighted the neighbourhood. Popularity has never been an issue at Ceili Cottage: it’s been packed since it opened, benches crowded elbow-to-elbow in the scruffy front room, regulars thronging the inner bar. Aiming to recreate a genuine Irish pub, McMurray brings in cask-conditioned ale, live Celtic music and a menu that offers a wide array of treats, including mushrooms on toast with melted blue cheese, a hearty mutton stew, and the best sticky toffee pudding in the city. Executive chef Kyle Deming’s Sunday roast turns a normally quiet evening into a boisterous occasion—and there are oysters, of course, though the variety is much greater at Starfish, McMurray’s other, far more sophisticated property. Execution won’t win any Michelin stars at the Cottage, but that’s partly the point: this is a place for a bite and a pint and a great deal of conversation, putting the world to rights.
Ceili Cottage, 1301 Queen St. E. (at Alton Ave.), 416-406-1301.
13. The Stockyards
By now, anyone who loves smokehouse ribs in the North Carolina style will know that Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 5 p.m. are the optimum times to show up at The Stockyards. That’s when Tom Davis takes the sticky, spicy racks out of the smoker out back, where they’ve spent eight hours getting tenderized and infused with the flavours of hickory and apple wood. I’d rather be there on a quiet afternoon, when there’s room on a stool overlooking the industrial kitchen, waiting patiently while the succulent, crisp-skinned chicken bubbles in the deep-fryer, allowing exploration of other treats: tangy, slow-smoked pulled pork in a sandwich, perhaps, and soft smoked trout fillets with raw onion and greens between slices of grilled sourdough. Though most people use the place for takeout, the crisp, golden fries must be eaten in situ (they stiffen on the ride home). Dedicated carnivores should call ahead to find out whether the much-lauded pastrami is available. Vegetarians? This place isn’t for you.
The Stockyards, 699 St. Clair Ave. W. (at Humewood Dr.), 416-658-9666.
For as long as I can remember, Montreal expats have been complaining about Toronto’s lack of a decent deli. Zane Caplansky regularly begged friends to bring him a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s in Montreal whenever they visited. One day (or so the story goes), a friend forgot; in desperation, Caplansky taught himself to cure and smoke his own brisket. Urged on by everyone who tasted it, he started selling his smoked meat sandwiches out of the Monarch Tavern on Clinton until last September, when he grew into new premises at College and Brunswick—close enough to Kensington Market to be meaningful to those with long memories. The brightly lit, slightly scruffy-looking diner feels like it has been around for decades. Caplansky is always there, looking after customers, explaining how each piece of meat is a handmade, hand-cut product—a work of art, you might say. So is the excellent pickled herring—not too sour and with a gorgeously soft texture—and the moist, slow-braised brisket that comes with crispy onions, a sweet, tangy sauce and crisp but heavy latkes. And the smoked meat sandwich? I’d put Zane Caplansky’s up against Schwartz’s any day of the week.
Caplansky’s, 356 College St. (at Brunswick Ave.), 416-500-3852.
15. The Roosevelt Room
One of life’s classic blunders, says Vizzini in The Princess Bride, is “never get involved in a land war in Asia.” Only slightly less well known is “never try to combine a serious restaurant with a nightclub.” The challenges are enormous, and when I had dinner at the Roosevelt Room soon after it opened, I felt few of them had been met. The charming ingenue who served us knew little about the menu, and the pricey wine list was laden with champagne and chardonnays better suited to nightclub bottle service than sommelerie. Dinner tables set out on the dance floor amid the campy glamour of the “art deco” decor seemed like an afterthought. But the food, executed by Anthony Davis (Perigee’s former sous) from chef Trevor Wilkinson’s menu, was surprisingly accomplished. Juicy venison rib chop had a tasty crust from the grill, served with cream-braised leeks and potatoes Dauphine (one of the kitchen’s many retro touches). Crisp-skinned pickerel meunière was perfectly judged, sauced with a lightweight caper butter. Clubland rarely rewards ambition of this kind; I’m keen to see if the chefs can keep up the quality and stay true to their vision without making too many compromises.
The Roosevelt Room, 2 Drummond Pl. (at Adelaide St. W.), 416-599-9000.