Six years ago, when I first worked on this annual ranking, it was a struggle to find 10 new and notable restaurants to write about. Now, there seem to be 10 great spots opening every month. We have fancy chefs running diners and street-food chefs preparing plates fit for royalty. We’re drinking hard cocktails in food halls and eating home cooking at train stations. And trendy vegan establishments have practically colonized Parkdale. Some of this year’s openings were greeted with controversy: one restaurant was accused of cultural appropriation, another lambasted for serving seal tartare—both made my list. What’s not in dispute: our bottomless appetite. Here are my recommendations for where to eat in 2018.
Before Skippa, the restaurant I’d dream about most often was Sushi Kaji. In a strip mall on the Queensway, it was like a secret lair known only to the omakase cult. Five years ago, the intimidating Mitsuhiro Kaji took on a new apprentice: a skinny white guy, always a step to Kaji’s side. Soon that guy was slicing fish, forming jewel-like pieces of sushi with a quick twist of the hand and presenting them to you across the sushi bar. He spent his off-hours practising his moves at home in front of a mirror. Your customers, Kaji told him, can never see you hesitate.
Last summer, that guy, Ian Robinson, opened Skippa on an anonymous block of Harbord near Ossington. Robinson told me he chose the location because he wanted his first restaurant to be a destination. Like Kaji, he’s happiest on his own, operating at his own speed.
He spent his 20s running marathons, and it was during a race across the Sahara, the 2012 Marathon des Sables, that he decided he would quit studying economics at York and spend his life doing something that made him truly happy—cooking. He landed a kitchen assistant gig at the then new and already trendy Grand Electric, and worked his way up to junior sous-chef in his first year. In his spare time, he ate his way through the city’s sushi restaurants, feeding an abiding interest in all things Japanese. That’s when he met Kaji.
Skippa was his ultimate plan. Robinson conceived it, in every detail, as a place to showcase the food he loves. His sister, Kati, is the general manager. An immense table constructed from the trunk of a sugar maple dominates the centre of the room, but the best seats are right at the sushi bar for a close-up view of Robinson and his sous-chefs. And when every extra millisecond threatens the fragile marriage of rice and fish, it’s best to sit closest to the source of the exquisite omakase offerings: octopus from Morocco on a thumb of rice hiding a burst of wasabi; New Zealand red sea bream with shiso; Boston fluke dotted with fermented scotch bonnet dressing; and another piece of sea bream, oilier and sweeter, its flavours magnified by preserved lemon.
Robinson’s talents extend beyond sushi: he grills black maitake mushrooms with thyme, then tosses them with mizuna leaves in a miso sauce, for an extraordinary salad that tastes of char and the wilderness. He marinates mackerel for 24 hours in soy, mirin and sugar, and sprinkles it with toasted sesame. His pickle plate, best snacked on with sake, consists of sticks of quick-pickled cuke, carrots dyed with beet juice, and persimmon glazed with plum and filled with three types of mushroom. My favourite dish is a simple mound of steamed rice in a bath of dashi flecked with sesame and seaweed. In the centre of the bowl is a water lily, its petals sculpted from sea bream sashimi.
From the kitchen pass to your inboxThanks for signing up!
Sign up to get The Dish, a weekly helping of restaurant news and reviews, served with a side of hot gossipNow, check your inbox to complete your subscription
We won't ever use your email address for anything else
Want even more Toronto Life? Follow us on social media.
Word is getting out about what Robinson is doing. Masaki Hashimoto, the revered kaiseki chef, came one night. Kaji himself has been there four times, to sample his former pupil’s work. He approves.
Three floors up, Patrick Kriss’s Alo is the toughest reservation in town; your best hope is to get on a wait-list and cross your fingers for a cancellation. So, there was a ripple of excitement at the news that he’d be opening a second location, a no-reservations diner in a narrow space on the ground floor. It’s only slightly easier to get in—I’ve stopped by mid-week, minutes after the door unlocks, to find a full house and a two-hour wait. But it’s worth it.
Aloette is a mini-Alo only insofar as the menu will never leave you bored. The kitchen is led by the former Alo sous-chef Matthew Betsch, who brings an uncommon intensity—of flavour, of thinking, of fun—to every dish. Otherwise, it’s a very different place, the unfussy bistro cousin to Alo’s white-linens-and-wine-pairings refinement.
Unfussy but terrifically delicious: I’ve had lusciously meaty Burgundy snails in a bowl of Puy lentils, greens and a squirt of lemon; scallop sashimi served on mini-tostadas with crema, diced apple and jalapeño; pulled lamb shoulder, at once crispy, fatty and tender, tossed in a salad of Israeli couscous, slices of orange, chili, ras el hanout, yogurt dressing, and big leaves of mint and basil. Just like upstairs, there’s a bread course worth gushing about: toasted slices of cheese bread made with aged cheddar and potato dough, with a spread of brown butter mixed with toasted yeast—toast upon toast upon toast.
The talk of the town, however, is Betsch’s burger. Naturally, it’s no ordinary chuck patty, given added oomph from aged beef fat, and topped with fried cheese and pickled vidalia onions, the bun house-made, the side of fries double-crisped. After having to wait so long for a table, you’ll savour every bite.
Certain people, myself included, will sometimes impatiently fork through an entire dinner with eyes on the dessert menu. I’d like to believe we’re not permanent kids but connoisseurs of the artistry that goes into sweet things. I first noticed the pastry chef Cori Osborne creating mind-boggling desserts at Alo. Now she’s riffing on classic pâtisserie at Bacchanal.
The two standouts are her slice of spiced baba au rhum topped with a wave of white chocolate ganache, mini-cubes of pineapple and micro basil; and her sugar-dusted Paris-Brest, the finest doughnut known to humankind, two choux layers sandwiching praline cream studded with flakes of feuilletine. For all the work put into them, they’re not unduly precious—you don’t feel guilty taking up a fork.
I’m just as impressed by the rest of the menu—chef Luke Donato preps a first-rate choucroute with a white sausage stuffed with veal and another stuffed with foie gras; petal-thin slices of hamachi crudo and pebbles of cuke, dressed with a lemon emulsion; and a grand slab of two-months-aged côte de boeuf.
The room is a beauty, too, with its cognac banquettes and walls dressed in a toile depicting Toronto’s unsung icons—raccoons, Honest Ed’s and the Zanzibar. (There’s far stranger wallpaper in the bathrooms—I’ll let you see for yourself.) But for all of Bacchanal’s wonderfulness, once you encounter an artist like Osborne, the thing that matters most is what comes last.
Oakville has nice steak houses and trattorias, but nothing like Hexagon. It’s another world, with a floating space-age fireplace, backlit agate wall and menacing hexagon-shaped light fixtures.
The cooking is ambitious tweezer cuisine—finicky dishes assembled by steady hands. I recommend going for the carte blanche menu, which runs to a dozen-plus dishes and might include a tartare of beef and shaved beet that gets its heat and crunch from crushed wasabi peas; a charred curl of tender octopus, which you slice and dip in emulsions of almond, avocado and chili; and, the stunner plate, a petit-four of foie gras mousse encircled by pearls of hazelnut crémeaux and wearing a hat of edible flowers. The desserts are gimmicky, like a white chocolate shell, suspended on a string, that you smash like a piñata.
At the time of my last visit, the chef was 26-year-old Sean MacDonald. His backer, an Oakville restaurateur named Artur Koczur, plucked him out of Calgary to run the kind of gadget-packed kitchen of which every chef dreams. Buzz built about the precocious guy who cooks like he’s on a much bigger stage. He began hosting special events with notable chefs visiting from New York, Barcelona and London, and collaborations with Toronto stars like the kitchen team at Canis. Sure enough, MacDonald has since left Hexagon to break out on his own. The kitchen is now run by his exec sous chef, Rafa Covarrubias, a fellow Albertan expat, and the steady hands responsible for many of those pretty plates. Oakville is lucky to have him.
The restaurant’s sign, a squiggle of blue neon, tells you exactly what you’ll find inside: a breezy, all-white room with pots of aloe vera, a mural possibly cribbed from a Björk dream, and tables of millennial couples with statement eyewear and facial hair. It’s only saved from painfully overwrought trendiness by the menu, which is grounded in honest Cal-Ital cooking.
Chef Craig Harding and his co-owner and wife, interior designer Alexandra Hutchison, also run the neighbouring family-style Italian restaurant Campagnolo. At La Palma, the food is lighter, more vibrant and aggressively seasonal, like a salad of late-summer corn and lentils with Ontario goat cheese and chickpeas; deep-fried, ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms; flatbread-like pizzas strewn with treviso, taleggio and figs; and even seasonal drinks, like a limited-run ale from downtown brewer Burdock that had been aged for a year with cab franc grape skins.
There are heartier options, too, like thin Miami ribs coated with a sugary coffee rub, and a “100 layer” lasagna built with noodles, béchamel, a hefty bolognese, and deliciously bubbling and charred mozzarella.
Reservations book up weeks ahead—it’s so popular, the restaurant uses two reservations systems, one for planned bookings and another, Dinr, for tables that become available same-day. It makes me long for the days, not that long ago, when the only option was to call to make a reservation with a real person. One saving grace: there’s a takeout counter where you can order most of the menu, plus an array of pastries, like jam-filled bombolone. You won’t be able to sit beside the spacey mural during your dinner, but that’s not a total loss.
At the end of 2017, chef Rob Bragagnolo opened Campo Food Hall, which is a slightly grandiose title for what is, by day, a takeout counter and juice bar with some shelves stocking Spanish imports. The real story is at the rear, where he runs Labora—an apt name, since you get a full view of Bragagnolo and his staff labouring over tapas in the open kitchen.
The menu emphasizes seafood, and one night included a terrific slider of calamari and pickled pepper, which Bragagnolo lifted from Bodega 1900, a Barcelona vermouth bar run by his hero, the star chef Albert Adrià. No less excellent were grilled octopus with crisped threads of potato, and a row of cold-smoked mackerel slices standing like soldiers at attention, each paired with a dot of blood orange marmalade.
I also loved a whole eggplant roasted until it was like pudding, its sugariness jolted higher by a sauce of almonds and dates. The star one night was a giant red Spanish prawn, split then grilled and anointed simply with a few drops of olive oil. The best chefs know when to let a shrimp speak for itself.
Nuit Regular built her empire of Thai restaurants with soporific bowls of khao soi. At Kiin, she’s dabbling in Royal Thai—a rarefied style of cooking that shares some of the hyper-finickiness of Japanese kaiseki. Everything is so daintily pretty, you’ll fight the urge to leave it untouched on the plate.
Start with the platter of thoong thong, mha hor, chor ladda and rhoom: four single bites that combine the bright, contrasting flavours of pickled turnip, peanut paste, lemongrass, fried shrimp and gelatinous rice dyed with bright blue tea from the poetic-sounding butterfly pea. A grilled whole sea bream, flesh kept moist with a sea-salt crust, gets pulled apart and wrapped in leaves of baby gem lettuce with Thai basil, pickled shallots and ginger.
A slow-braised beef short rib, the bone rising out of an intoxicating sauce of tamarind and pearl onions, reminds me of an upmarket rendition of that famous khao soi. At the back, hanging above the tufted emerald-green banquette, is a collection of vintage portraits of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family. They’d be pleased by Regular’s tabletop pageantry.
Here’s what I love about Estia: the dreamy mellowness of house-made halloumi and roasted grapes; the daily haul of Mediterranean fish, roasted in a wood-burning oven and served on a porcelain platter with a patchwork of pickled caper leaves and gremolata; lamb chops, kissed with char and slathered with tzatziki; and how, as if we were in a family-run Greek tavern in a fishing town, nearly every dish is paired with floral olive oil.
I also love the ridiculously oversized wedding cake of a chandelier, a hanger-on from when this space was the steak house NAO—run by the same restaurateurs, Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth. And I can’t help but enjoy the free entertainment of Yorkville silliness, like how patrons, in the name of specialist diets, customize orders so they barely resemble the original, or the collection of middle-aged guys at the bar with unlit cigars waiting in their breast pockets, or the push for a prime seat on a patio that overlooks the six stop-and-go lanes of Avenue Road.
Doug Penfold doesn’t holiday; he goes on gastro tours, eating his way through countries in the name of research. It was on his annual visit to Spain that he took a side trip to Morocco, and promptly fell hard for slow-simmered tagines of goat or seafood, kofta fragrant with paprika, and semolina pan breads smeared with sweet pastes made of ground nuts and honey.
They’re all on the menu at Atlas, named after the mountain range, along with buttery phyllo packets stuffed with mixed mushrooms; bright salads of fennel, feta and quinoa; and pretty little roulades and tarts that are decidedly French but take their flavour cues—dates, pistachios, rosewater—from north Africa. The room is intimate, only 24 seats, and the servers are warm and meticulous. They’ll remember you after your first visit—and they expect you’ll be back.
Only Victor Barry, who had the gall to turn the revered Splendido into the family-style Italian restaurant Piano Piano, would replace Cory Vitiello’s shuttered Harbord Room, which defined this city’s gastropub scene of game and craft ales, with a bistro so very pink and giddy it could be Holly Golightly’s closet.
It’s impossible to be a grump here. Several tables are set for side-by-side canoodling, and everyone sips champagne cocktails or on-tap rosé while deciding between French classics: cheat on your diet with the beefy onion soup under an oozing cap of gruyère, the three foie gras options (seared, a parfait, with beef tenderloin) or save yourself for a slice of coffee-scented opera cake. Luxury is Barry’s default mode. There’s even a Barry-fied burger slicked with remoulade on a house-made milk bun.
General Assembly is the sort of place where you can throw an impromptu birthday party, meet a first date or, in my case, take the family confident there’ll be enough hubbub to preoccupy a toddler through the witching hour. The source of the excitement is an incredible pie, the base a sweet and yeasty dough that emerges from gas-fired Acunto Neapolitan ovens with a crust holding steady between chewy and charred.
My go-to is the Sergeant Pepe, a white pizza topped with parmesan, mozza and taleggio that shines special attention on the crust. Chef Cale Elliott-Armstrong developed his recipes with Anthony Falco, a pizza guru formerly of the much-worshipped Roberta’s in Brooklyn, and the hired gun paid off: there’s fierce competition for Toronto’s best pizza, and, at the moment, GA holds the title.
Toronto’s Best New Restaurants: Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen
Janet Zuccarini owns four Italian restaurants and is a partner in two of the city’s best Thai restaurants (including No. 7, Kiin). She’s a powerhouse. But when she announced she was opening Chubby’s across the street from her Gusto 101 and implied that it’d be the first amazing Jamaican restaurant in the city, she got flak for not knowing the scene and, worse, for cultural appropriation.
The storm quieted by the time she opened late last year, possibly because the finished spot is truly amazing. Chef de cuisine Donavon Campbell grills jerk chicken and pork on a firepit—they’re licked with scotch bonnet, and the heat builds with each bite. There’s also ferocious heat in his goat and chicken curries, his pepper shrimp and even his hand-pressed Jamaican patties. You’ll need a few bottles of Red Stripe or, better yet, the house rum punch—so popular, it’s on tap.
The best steak I’ve had in the past year, no contest, was a grass-fed strip loin aged for 72 days and grilled over crackling hardwood. The first millimetres tasted of campfire, the next few of blue-cheese funk, the core of smoked ham. Even though I was splitting the cut with a friend, we got beat at the halfway mark.
The steak was a special at this Argentine-inspired restaurant, which opened without fanfare this winter and quietly revealed its greatness. Julian Iliopoulos, the chef and co-owner, was chef de cuisine at Cava. He brought with him an instinct for precisely executed, sharable small plates, like empanadas stuffed with smoked ricotta, fragile “churros” of deep-fried puffed potato, and sheets of taleggio draped over pan-fried hen of the woods mushrooms and leek-flavoured gnocchi. That grill gets a workout, infusing smokiness into squid, short ribs and, no minor revelation, a cross-section of cabbage, brushed with pesto and polka-dotted with yellow pearls of cured egg yolk. As for the strip loin, we fought over the doggy bag.
The best appetizer in town is made of edible blooms, lightly macerated woodland berries and a drift of whipped cream that tastes unlike any whipped cream you’ve had before—more floral, almost citrusy. It’s an original distillation of ephemeral, peak-season produce. And that mystery ingredient in the whipped cream? Rose hips.
Rose hips, along with milk pods, cattail hearts, and game like elk and venison, demonstrate how personal Kū-Kŭm Kitchen is for chef Joseph Shawana. Like passionate chefs everywhere, he’s cooking what he knows. Yet what brought him the most notoriety and national attention this past year was a protest, and an ensuing counter-protest, over seal meat, which he sources from the commercial hunt in Quebec and Newfoundland, his way of honouring Inuit culture. Whatever his motivation, I vouch that seal tartare, mixed with quail egg and smeared on a slice of bannock, is delicious.
Michael Kim was born in Seoul and raised in Vancouver, and studied classic French cooking at New York’s International Culinary Center—one of the best places to do so outside France.
The low-budget, handyman interior of this, his first solo showing, belies the worldliness and polish of what he delivers to your table: lettuce wraps of grilled flatiron with nori, fermented soybean paste and citrusy yuzo kosho; a mapo tofu of silken soybean cubes, the slow-build fire of Sichuan sausage and a tangle of garlic shoots; brioche-like beignets that get their sweetness from a roll in a powder of wheat grass and carob; and, my top pick, Parisian-style choux gnocchi, tossed in a nutty sauce of soybean paste–braised oxtail.
One night, I started with a plate of peppery baby radishes dipped in salty cultured butter. It was dead simple, a snack from childhood, upgraded with an ingenious dusting of finely chopped dried seaweed. By the way, there’s a story to the restaurant’s name: looking to his family for suggestions, he went with his kid nephew’s.
Grant van Gameren now has four restaurants and two bars, each unique, though all sharing a current of electricity—and, in most cases, lots of cured meat—that’s uniquely his. This Parkdale spot is his interpretation of an eastern European tavern—you wouldn’t guess from the name, a leftover from the last tenant.
On the menu is an exhaustive index of sausages (heavenly kielbasa), schnitzel (paper-thin, crispy), pretzels the size of your head (warm, salty), cabbage rolls (oniony, saucy) and, in a nod to his principally hipster clientele, a paprika-dusted corn dog (delicious). This is hearty, gut-busting food, complemented by local craft brews and a long list of obscure eastern European liquors and liqueurs, all offered by the shot.
Leemo han, chef-proprietor of the effortlessly cool Korean-Japanese late-night hangouts OddSeoul and Hanmoto, saw this rundown Little Italy semi and immediately envisioned a dusky, lantern-lit bar serving sneakily powerful, frothy cocktails and Vietnamese-style barbecue from a charcoal backyard grill.
There are no reservations, and no matter when I’ve shown up, whether for an after-work drink with colleagues or just before last call, there’s a line to get in. It’s worth it for the short ribs, covered in sugary char, and the beef sandwich that you dunk in a bowl of pho broth. After a few Pink Ladies (gin, raspberry syrup, egg white), you’ll be planning your next backpacking trip to Vietnam.
Toronto’s Best New Restaurants: BlueBlood Steakhouse
At this unabashedly ostentatious restaurant in Casa Loma, you could be seated in the oak-panelled room with antler chandeliers the size of electric cars, or in the cavern-like area with cowhide-covered circular banquettes and a moose head looming high above the champagne- and cognac-stocked bar. My pick is the third option, a comparatively modest in-between space referred to as the Parlour, with its handful of tables and its walls hung with four Warhols—including one of a heifer whose expression seems resigned to the fact that you’ll be savouring a sampler of three types of Wagyu, or perhaps a 40-ounce porterhouse, dry-aged for a month until it’s slightly funky, and served with an array of globe-hopping salts. There are luxe frills aplenty, and the sticker price to match, but we only live once.
Elias Salazar earned a cult following in 2016 with a pop-up of flashy modern Peruvian cooking at the Queen West bar Rush Lane. At his first restaurant, taking over a midtown corner previously held by the seafood restaurant Catch, he’s serving skewers of beef heart in a paste of Incan aji panca chilies (like a milder chipotle); ceviche marinated in a “tiger’s milk” of lime and fish juice, onions and chilies; and seafood fried rice topped with bites of butter-poached scallop, aji amarillo-pisco butter and béchamel. Potatoes, the national food of Peru, appear everywhere, and are elevated to godlike status in an elaborate tower of whipped yukon golds, pulled chicken, avocado, yuzu mayo and botija olive purée. Most nights, at the bar that takes up a big part of the modest room, a crowd of Lima expats knock back fanciful, pisco-based cocktails—it’s the liveliest party in midtown.
Nearly every restaurant, from prim bistros to hard-core vegan establishments, has a signature burger. One of the best is Mark Cutrara’s. He first gained fame at the now-defunct Cowbell, his Parkdale nose-to-tail restaurant. He’s now the chef of this airplane hangar of a brewpub at the base of a new condo tower, and the menu includes—wait for it—the Cowbell Burger. He ages his chuck, and smokes his own bacon and cheese. It comes with bread-and-butter pickles, tomato and bibb lettuce, but no truffle butter or edible gold or what have you, and it’s perfection. There’s more to the place—premium pub food, like airy buffalo ricotta cakes, duck prosciutto and smoked chicken wings with a house hot sauce—but there’s nothing better than a burger and a pint.
Does a takeout window, hidden down a residential side street, past a set of recycling bins, with only a chalkboard for a sign and a three-item menu, count as a great place to eat? I say yes, if what’s handed out that window is one of the city’s best breakfast sandwiches. A decent such sandwich is oddly elusive in Toronto: they’re either uninspired or over-the-top Instagram bait, with a dozen layers that may or may not include foie gras. At this offshoot of Dundas West restaurant the Federal, a pair of cooks, working at a flat-top, keep matters restrained and get it exactly right: brushing a plush English muffin with aïoli, smothering scrambled eggs with a mild cheddar, and hitting it home with bacon, slices of pickle and a slash of habanero hot sauce. It’s incredibly satisfying, only $6, and they serve it all day alongside a version with a burger, and a meatless sandwich with mushrooms and hummus. If you’re asking why you should hike across town just for a breakfast sandwich, then I’m sorry to say you’ll never understand.
Victorian-era taverns are the unlikely inspiration for John Sinopoli’s novel chophouse in the recently hipsterized Broadview Hotel. I admire his intent—in a city growing as fast as ours, we don’t look back often enough. I’m also impressed by how he translates that past into something temptingly up-to-date, lavishing a braised rabbit leg with a lavender jus, dressing a buttery slice of toasted brioche with roasted hen of the woods and chanterelle mushrooms, and ratcheting up the tang of venison tartare with house-pickled mustard seeds and the orange yolk of a quail egg. The standout is an elk chop, which, along with the leather-top tables, the hard liquor cocktails and the dimly lit room, is a time machine to a cigar smoke–filled men’s club. You have a choice of sauces for that 14-ounce chop, but don’t bother: salt and pepper are enough to highlight the meatiness. In this particular case, the Victorians had it right.
This tiny corner spot is run by the Tiao family: Mom and Dad work the kitchen with sons Eric (who last cooked at Susur Lee’s now-defunct Bent) and Kevin, while another son, Steven, handles the dining room. The specialty is handmade dumplings, stuffed with pork and chives or mixed veg. They’re best inhaled moments after leaving the frying pan, crisp and perfectly greasy, which is why you’ll rarely see anyone doing takeout from Chop Chop and why the rows of red stools in the window are always taken. The Tiaos also make a mean mapo tofu; bok choy wok-fried Taiwanese-style with barbecue pork; and noodle dishes such as vermicelli with fried egg and baby shrimp with a splash of soy. It’s the kind of Chinese food I crave on a weekly basis, and that I tell myself won’t lead to an early coronary, provided I also get the salad of quick-pickled spears of spicy cuke. Luckily, they’re no punishment.
The first week of the New Year, needing a post-holiday detox, I ended up in Vegandale, the Parkdale blocks where the entrepreneur Hellenic Vincent De Paul has a string of animal-free businesses, including Mythology Diner. Doug McNish, Mythology’s chef and co-owner, creates “wings” from seitan that are seasoned, crisp-fried and coated in a sticky barbecue sauce; garlic bread covered in a bubbling “mozzarella” of cashews and nutritional yeast; and more seitan that replicates a New York strip, complete with grill marks, that “bleeds” a marinade made from red wine, mushroom broth and liquid smoke when sliced. My dessert pick is a lemon curd tart with a torched meringue made from aquafaba (trendy chickpea water). At some point, I forgot about my detox.
It was only a matter of time before Toronto’s growing Syrian population would start to influence our restaurant scene. My favourite spot was opened by Jala Al Soufi and her family last summer on one of the last truly indie stretches of Queen West. Beyond excellent espresso-based coffees and matcha lattes, they really only serve two Syrian specialties: knafeh, warm phyllo mini-pies of akkawi cheese or vegan cashew “cheese” finished with rosewater and crushed nuts; and manakeesh, pillowy flatbreads, smeared with halloumi, labneh, za’atar or spiced beef, baked in the oven and folded into a sandwich. You can get takeout, but it’s better to grab one of the stools at the window and appreciate how fast this little café, with a soundtrack of Arabic pop just discernable above staff shouting orders through the kitchen window and the whir of the espresso machine, has become an essential part of the neighbourhood.
Of all the recent changes to Union Station, the most radical is that it’s become a place where you might go just to eat. There’s a shop selling Brandon Olsen’s delectable CXBO chocolates, a location of Yannick Bigourdan’s Union Chicken, and, coming soon, a branch of sausage and beer hall Wvrst. Where I gravitate most often is the pasta-centric Amano. Bigourdan, who was a partner in Splendido during its heyday and currently runs Carbon Bar on Queen East, is also involved here, which explains the gracious servers, smart wine list, and slick room of marble, subway tile and leather sling seats that fool you into forgetting you’re in the bowels of a transit terminal. The chef and co-owner, Michael Angeloni, is a noodle savant when it comes to both classics (rigatoni with bolognese; farfalle with walnut-arugula pesto) and impieties (campanelle with Dungeness crab and mustard seeds; mezzaluna stuffed with short rib in a jalapeño-spiked jus). They’re planning to expand across town. Along with two new Buca locations and the impending opening of Eataly in Yorkville, it’s good times for pasta.