Where to Eat 2015: our ranking of Toronto’s 10 best—actually, make that 20 best—new restaurants
It’s official: Toronto has too many great restaurants. Trying to keep track of every new omakase sushi savant, unmarked bar run by a star chef and game-changing nouveau Asian fusion debut by a pop-up prodigy is tougher than an overdone T-bone. This year, the sheer number of excellent new restaurants persuaded me to expand my usual top 10 to a top 20—and it’s by no means exhaustive. These are the places I want to visit again and again. Just give me a minute to catch my breath.
#1: Buca Yorkville
The original Buca on King West, a favourite of Jamie Oliver and everyone else, is still one of the city’s best restaurants, and Bar Buca, Rob Gentile’s laid-back location a short walk away, has become my favourite stop for a late-night porchetta sandwich. At Buca Yorkville, his grand new restaurant on the ground floor of the Four Seasons condo tower, Gentile focuses on top-notch fish and seafood. He installed a special seafood dry-curing unit in the kitchen to make “salami” of octopus, scallop, swordfish or tuna blood combined with pork fat. I love how the servers wheel over a brass and walnut cart laden with your selection of the day’s catch (perhaps baked branzino), cover the fish with a cloth and crack open a carapace of salt, then present the deboned fillets to the table with the seriousness of a devotional offering. Everything is perfect—the pages of fantastic Italian wines, the elegant Carrara marble bar that doubles as a breakfast pastry counter for hotel guests, the handsome servers in their bespoke caramel leather aprons and the care that went into designing the acoustics so that even when the room is full of excited diners, your friends are never drowned out in a roar.
Jay Carter studied at the best cooking school in town: Susur Lee’s kitchen. He worked with the master for 10 years, then left to become exec chef at the storied Centro. Last summer he finally struck out on his own, taking over the lease of a narrow bar on Queen West. He cooks from a modest open kitchen at the back, assisted by a sous-chef and a kitchen porter. His starting menu was an inspired distillation of Nordic trends, a little Canuck and plenty of Susur. Dinner starts with a warm loaf of naturally fermented whole grain bread with a bracingly sour fresh cheese and shallot spread, followed by a plate of smoked trout with cream and pops of roe, followed by a variation on stracciatella: poached eggs in an earthy jerusalem artichoke broth strewn with lightly pickled cabbage, trumpet mushrooms, and a pine nut, sunflower seed and black sesame granola. Another night I tried what’s now my favourite salad of all time, a combination of musky ripe persimmon, sprouted lentils and crisp baby spinach, sweetened by a few drops of almond oil. Carter cooks like a guy with a thousand clever ideas, finally let loose to do exactly what he wants.
There are only 13 seats in this narrow, gleaming white room: 11 at the counter, plus a table for two by the window. Couples on dates tend to choose the latter, but when it comes to omakase sushi, in which every passing second robs a piece of nigiri of its fragile harmonies of taste and texture, you want to be at the counter to consume it the precise moment it’s been sliced. Before opening Yasu, the chef Yasuhisa Ouchi ran Nigiri-Ya, a takeout counter in Leaside, and worked at the Melbourne outpost of Nobu. He’s Toronto’s newest Jiro Ono, tracking down the freshest seafood, fussing over the consistency and temperature of his rice, and hosting only two seatings a night (three on weekends). He presents each nigiri on an individual cut-glass tray, the morsels as glossy and ornately composed as an art nouveau brooch, and takes you on a world tour: Sri Lankan tuna, Japanese striped jack, Greek sea bream, Scottish ocean trout, British Columbian uni. The night ends with a traditional slice of flan-like tamago and a green tea panna cotta.
Gotta feel for Nick Liu. The young chef left the Niagara Street Café in 2012 and, for two long years, held a series of pop-up dinners, swearing he was about to unveil his own place. When it finally happened last fall, he was nearly crushed under an avalanche of hype. But he prevailed: DaiLo was an instant hit. It’s a beauty of a restaurant, a sly take on a vintage tea house with cozy teal booths behind -filigreed screens. Liu went beyond his formerly gimmicky gourmet riffs on fast food and tapped into his Hakka roots. My favourite dish on his menu sounds like a crime against fruit but is one of the most exciting innovations of the year: hot watermelon. He dredges cubes in cornstarch, deep-fries them to a crisp, and serves them with diced -pickled watermelon rind and a salty tuft of pork floss. The watermelon dissolves on the tongue, its sweetness and acidity blooming with the heat. I could also rave about his crispy whole trout or his tart green papaya and spicy ground pork salad or his grilled curried quail, but it’s that plate of hot melon I’m craving.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Boralia—yet another trendy restaurant on Ossington. But it easily won me over. It’s run by a young couple who recently moved from B.C.: Evelyn Wu Morris, who manages the front of house with plucky charm, and Wayne Morris, her chef husband. Instead of the naked Edison bulbs and subway tile of so many new restaurants, there’s a moody forest mural and a cedar trellis that runs across the ceiling, evoking a Vancouver Island boathouse. The room has personality, as does Morris’s cooking. He’s inspired by historical Canadian recipes, like pigeon pie, with a crust more buttery than any pioneer ever imagined. He toys with Anglo-Indian kedgeree, adding fresh-popped rice cracker and curry mayo to candy-pink smoked whitefish. The highlight one night was a casserole of dense salt cod quenelles, their marine flavour ratcheted up by a bisque-like velouté and tender lobes of lobster. A history lesson has never left me so happy.
The wonder of Charles Khabouth isn’t that he runs so many nightclubs and restaurants, and opens a new spot nearly every month; it’s that he does so with such exacting standards. With Byblos, he anticipated the city’s Middleterranean obsession, converting two floors of an unremarkable historic warehouse into a lounge of low-slung booths for sharing rosewater-scented punch and a contemporary dining room that hums with excitement. The principal reason? An endless parade of hand-painted platters of deliciousness. Plump, paprika-dusted Marcona almonds, dumplings stuffed with smoked eggplant, molasses-sticky lamb ribs, neat bundles of vine leaf–wrapped branzino, basmati rice bejewelled with barberries, and on and on. Byblos has surpassed trendiness and become a city fixture. I’ve returned several times, often just for a snack and a cocktail before a show at the TIFF Lightbox. And I always order the brik cigar—a brittle pastry filled with a fig purée and caramel. It’s light but rich, savoury but sweet, and, like Khabouth, it never gets tired.
#7: Flor de Sal
Anyone nostalgic for the Corner House’s creaky, sunflower-yellow rooms and old-fashioned gastronomy is in for a shock. Cristina Da Costa, the new owner, gutted the midtown cottage, converting it into something like an over-decorated condo showroom of frou-frou mirrors, marble slab fireplaces and vases of nodding orchids everywhere you look. It’s rare to encounter such ostentation in Toronto restaurants these days, but it’s an apt setting for chef Roberto Fracchioni’s high-roller surf and turf menu. Cooking is his second career—he used to be a civil engineer—and he brings to it the love of a true calling. At Flor de Sal, I was wowed by the herbal crab and celery root soup, by the sophisticated cognac and brown butter glaze coating a plate of lobster and gnocchi, and by the sharp red wine mignonette that came with first-rate East Coast oysters. The star of the night was a hefty Azores fish called cantaro, which Fracchioni grilled whole with fragrant lemon and chili, stuffing the cavity with couscous, fennel and garlicky braised rapini. Whole fish are back on menus all over town, but this one was the most moist, delicate and memorable to date.
#8: Bar Fancy
The name is wink-wink. There are no frilly drinks on offer—only bar rail, draft and decent wines for $11 a glass. Grandma-style potted plants block the front window (the entrance is down the side alley), the servers wear old tees and Jays caps, and if you want to sit, grab a folding chair. What’s fancy is the pedigree: the bar is a spinoff of Chantecler, the cultishly popular Parkdale restaurant with a tasting menu of rice-smoked duck breast, seaweed powder–dusted sidestripe shrimp and other innovative delights. Head chef Jonathan Poon conceived Bar Fancy as a casual hangout with an evolving menu of snacks available until last call. The options are relatively cheap and served on melamine, but they’re always excellent, especially the fried chicken, its fantastically crispy coating laced with coriander and chilies. Mid-week, I’ll drop by and make a meal of a half-dozen oysters with Vietnamese fish sauce for dressing and oozing devils-on-horseback. It’s the ideal not-quite-a-restaurant for when you’re not quite in the mood to commit to a full dinner out.
Thai empires are at war. Two years ago, Monte Wan, who owns the line-up-for-hours Adelaide West phenomenon Khao San Road, parted ways with Nuit Regular, the chef behind the three Sukhothai restaurants. Early last summer, Regular opened Pai, a restaurant specializing in northern Thai street food, on Duncan. Wan in turn opened Nana, near Trinity Bellwoods. The city’s Thai food nuts tend to pick sides. I prefer Nana—partly because it’s more intimate than Regular’s chaotic warehouses, but mostly because it’s more fun. Wan, his long hair twisted into a topknot, meets you at the door and becomes friends with everyone in the room. I’m a big fan of his chicken laab, which swaps out the usual fine-ground meat for deep-fried breaded chunks, like gourmet morsels of KFC. His khao soi, a curry with egg noodles, rates above Regular’s for the rich depth of the broth and the crispiness of its deep-fried chicken cutlet. The dish that sums the place up is an irreverent variation on pad Thai that he calls pad mama, a tangled heap of thin noodles and scored sections of hotdog that, in the heat of the pan, open into garish pink blossoms. It’s deliciously greasy, a little ridiculous and the winner of this round.
Mondays used to be dull before Adrian Niman came along. He and his business partner, Brent McClenahan, run a trendy catering company called the Food Dudes. Rasa is where he does his serious cooking—ambitious variations on gastropub fare, like sticky spareribs studded with crushed corn nuts, gnudi in a walnut pesto, and cheddar-stuffed jalapeño poppers wrapped in serrano ham. He’s a whiz with foams, emulsions and assorted kitchen stunts. His solution for the first night of the week, the slowest at any restaurant, is to invite indie bands to play stripped-down sets, and to offer $5 drinks and a $35 tasting menu. It’s a warm, low-key scene, with cooks from neighbouring restaurants passing through, Annex families crowded around their favourite tables and the band performing the occasional request, which earns a whoop from the room.
#11: Los Colibris
Elia Herrera is an anomaly: a real-deal chef running a Mexican restaurant that’s button-down sophisticated, nary a hipster graffiti wall in sight. She previously oversaw desserts at Canoe and Mistura, and at her new place directs a pastry chef’s hyperfocus upon tortillas (handmade through the day), queso fundido (gooey cheese studded with a smoky chorizo), and chilies en nogada (a charred poblano stuffed with cumin- and cinnamon-scented pork and smothered in a ground walnut and cream sauce). Even guacamole, that potluck groaner, gets bedazzled with pomegranate seeds and surrounded by a pinwheel of stacked nachos—the prettiest dip in town.
An Argentine restaurant is only as good as its meat. Some of the city’s finest is slow-roasted, braised and charred to perfection in a custom-designed cookhouse in the yard behind this Brockton Village spot. Chef Kanida Chey and his helpers begin each day chopping logs for a pit grill, over which they hang suckling pig, lamb leg, Mennonite chicken and fat-streaked accordions of ribs. It’s rustic gaucho fare, but the restaurant is refined, just two rows of marble tables, a small bar and the glow of the sun setting on the parkette across the street. As word has travelled, there seem to be more South American expats making it their go-to, chattering over long dinners, ecstatic over a taste of home.
There’s a Japanese colony growing on Harbord’s gourmet row. Tetsuya Shimizu studied kaiseki in Japan and worked as a sous-chef at Yours Truly, the Ossington molecular gastronomy outfit that closed last year. When J. P. Challet moved Ici Bistro to the Windsor Arms, Shimizu took over the premises and opened Yunaghi, where he experiments within the framework of a traditional kaiseki menu. The standouts are raw hamachi steeped in a dashi tea, chawanmushi divided between squid ink custard and a sweet corn purée, and a zany and surprisingly delicious plate of white asparagus spears with bacon-flavoured powder and tofu creamed with grana padano, plus shards of an almond gelatin “glass.” The room is as serene as a remote mountain temple, everyone in a reverent blissed-out hush.
#14: Mr. Flamingo
When I’ve had my fill of the fried chicken at Bar Fancy, I hightail it a couple of blocks north to this other cool new bar-restaurant hybrid. Chef Fan Zhang, a disciple of the nouveau Asian fusion pioneered by DaiLo’s Nick Liu (they cooked together at the Niagara Street Café), serves small plates like baked oysters loaded with lobster -hollandaise, pickled celery and tobiko; roasted golden beets with silken, à la minute burrata; and shimeji mushroom risotto. The cooking is great, but the even bigger draw is the cocktails. Bartender Dan Tavares is a whiz at fizzes and flips, those creamy drinks that are super-trendy once more. My weakness is the Fugazi Sour, a bourbon-citrus concoction laced with walnut bitters, sweetened with a few drops of orgeat syrup and capped with a cloud of egg white foam. It comes in a vintage patterned glass, for the full retro immersion.
Last year, my top restaurant was The Chase, the decadent downtown aerie that brought glitz back to the core. The owners, Steven Salm and Michael Kimel, have since opened the pricy sandwich spot Little Fin, and Colette, which replaced Scarpetta in the Thompson Hotel. They went overboard modelling Colette on a posh Saint-Tropez bistro, all monogrammed china, Louis XV bergère and marble checkerboard underfoot. The effect is stuffy, but the kitchen, overseen by The Chase’s Michael Steh, doesn’t screw around when it comes to towering soufflé, lobster vichyssoise and crispy frog legs (currently experiencing a revival all around town). Steh gets his hands on the best seafood, which is why I head here for snow crab, mussels and clams in a steaming broth of tarragon and chablis.
Susur Lee spent his entire career running from traditional Chinese food, determined to be worshipped as a master of invention. Then he turns around and opens a dim sum restaurant. No surprise, he makes some of the best char siu, har gow and beef bao around. And there are many Susur touches, like the five-spiced foie gras and leek-cranberry relish that come with Peking duck, the flower petals strewn across crispy squid, and the peppery yuzu-sake cocktails. The best seats are at the bar facing the glassed-in kitchen, where a troop of cooks work surrounded by bowls of dragon fruit and sesame balls. Quite often, you’ll spy the ponytailed master himself.
The view from the surrounding office towers into this 31st-floor restaurant in the Trump Hotel must be distracting. At night, it’s a Vegas-style club with theme parties, bottle service, micro-skirted beauties and randy brokers. Midday it’s another story: tables of Brooks Brothers suits, quiet talk of serious deals, prevailing calm. It’s the best time to appreciate the stellar menu, which is overseen by the Oliver and Bonacini group’s exec chef Anthony Walsh and takes you on a culinary tour of the U.S.: chowder with sassafras, an andouille sausage jambalaya, and a gorgeous salad of tuna sashimi, macadamia nuts, nori and puckery pineapple.
#18: Fat Pasha
Somehow, against all odds, chopped liver is the hippest thing around, in no small measure because of Anthony Rose, the chef behind Dupont’s Big Crow and Rose and Sons. A few blocks west, he opened Fat Pasha, his version of an Israeli restaurant where the freshness of the hummus is as serious a matter as the bite of the pickles. The portions, as at Rose’s other establishments, are humongous, the kind of cooking to put meat on your bones. His smoked fish is now on the menu at Schmaltz Appetizing, a takeout he opened around the corner on Howland.
The movie director Ivan Reitman owns a condo in the Festival Tower and wanted somewhere nice to eat, so he flew up his favourite chef, the venerable New York farm-to-table guy Jonathan Waxman, and pulled back the curtain on a two-storey, 280-seat restaurant named after his Californian home. The place is a lot like Reitman’s movies—flashy, goofy and shamelessly crowd-pleasing. The menu includes Waxman’s famous roast chicken with a caper salsa verde, possibly the finest cluck in town, and daily fresh pastas in simple but perfect sauces, sometimes no more than a slick of butter and a handful of parmesan. For dessert there’s even a riposte to Ghostbusters’ city-stomping terror: a baked Alaska under a drift of charred marshmallow.
I wouldn’t have thought it wise to mess with chow mein until I had Craig Wong’s bastardized version with churrasco-roasted jerk chicken, the spice heat rocketing through the crisped noodles. Like Nick Liu and Fan Zhang, he’s one of a new cohort of chefs, many from the burbs, who are light years past “ethnic” food. He’s chasing the flavours of his youth, pairing pierogi-style pot stickers with kimchee-flavoured sour cream, burgers with Chinese pineapple buns, steak with oyster sauce, and battered green beans with shreds of nori. It’s a delicious and totally Toronto mash-up.