By Mark Pupo | Photography by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott |
An odd thing happened over the past year: one after another, some of my favourite restaurants closed up shop and reopened as something new. It wasn’t that they were flops—the owners or chefs had decided they wanted to change course, go back to their roots or simply chase their bliss. This has worked out well for the hungry public. The class of 2019 has originality and heart to spare in every wood-fired steak, meticulously arrayed seafood plate, rustic bowl of pasta and glass of low-intervention wine. Here’s a tour of the most exciting new restaurants right now.
My top crush only exists because of a double sacrifice. David Chang killed off Daishō and Shōtō last year, saying their time had come. I was floored: they were the best special-occasion spots, especially Daishō, with its outsized pig roasts and a soaring room that made every night feel big and fun. I went there for birthdays and, once, for New Year’s Eve. It’s where our friends took us after our city hall wedding. This felt personal.
But Kōjin lives up to its predecessors—and has even started to eclipse them. It’s an only-in-Toronto original that takes its name from the Japanese fire god and is built around a crackling wood grill, the cook’s tool of the moment. Kōjin has the same Momofuku-group polish but no steamed pork buns, no kimchee and not much else that people associate with Chang. Instead, it’s fully the vision of head chef Paula Navarrete. She was born in Colombia, moved here when she was 17, chopped her way through the starry kitchens of Colborne Lane and North 44, and entered Chang’s universe as a member of the founding team at Momofuku Noodle Bar downstairs. More recently, as Daishō head chef she convinced Chang to replace it with a steak house that’s so much better than any other steak house around.
I love Kōjin’s blend of moody, gentlemen’s club millwork and shelves of grandma gewgaws and potted plants; its all-hits list of small-outfit wines; and how it always seems to be playing something from the greatest weirdo album of all time, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. But mostly, I love the cooking. One of Navarrete’s best inventions is a griddled flatbread that’s a crispy-chewy cross between the common English muffin and the arepas of her Colombian childhood, made with grains from a pioneer-era mill in Simcoe County. You snip them with a pair of ornamental scissors and load pieces with fatty butter or even-fattier Niagara ham and pickled sour cherries or, my go-to, a hot, gooey mess of melted brie, caramelized onions and prime rib served in a mini cast-iron pan.
She forgoes the steak house Caesar for a salad of bitter endive and escarole with sweet-tart segments of Cara Cara orange and mandarin, tossed in a poppy seed dressing with shavings of Mountainoak gouda and Marcona almonds. Dinner is a series of such surprises: the brightness of house-made chive oil and pickled red onions in a crudo of tender B.C. shrimp; the bergamot in a cup of earl grey–infused chicken-bone broth; the butteriness of a charred cabbage broth poured around grilled trout; and the whipped, airy lightness of Tita’s Mash, an irresistible skillet of cheese curds, gouda and potatoes that puts other steak house spuds to shame.
What finally sets Kōjin apart from—and far above—the competition is what isn’t on the menu: a dizzying selection of steaks. At some point, steak houses entered into a bovine arms race, competing to have the most esoteric and pricy cuts of Wagyu from around the world. Navarrete offers three superb options: a rib-eye, a strip loin and a butcher’s steak—plus a few nightly off-menu cuts—all from Ontario Hereford-Angus cattle. They’re cut in-house and aged for a month or more, the chops exquisitely marbled and intimidatingly thick. After grilling, they’re dusted with Montreal steak spice and finished with marrow butter. Most nights, you’ll spot Navarrete against a backdrop of sparks and flames, the one true fire goddess.
My next favourite new restaurant wouldn’t exist either if Chang hadn’t closed Daishō and Shōtō. Former Shōtō chefs Peter Jensen and Jed Smith, along with Jensen’s wife, Ann Kim, opened this spot last fall on a drab stretch of Lansdowne. (Jensen was also part of the opening team at Grey Gardens.) The trio didn’t spend a fortune on design—the bar is painted beadboard, the floor lino, and decoration consists of an LP stand and a jungle of potted plants. That and the low-key location frees Donna’s to be a little weird, a little improvisational and not worry too much about answering to investors with a mass-appeal burger.
Instead, they’ve created a menu of reclaimed classics like a smørrebrød of sprats with watercress and curls of horseradish; a Welsh rarebit of kohlrabi, Worcestershire sauce, Guinness and cheddar sauce; sole, oven-cooked on the bone, in a bath of harissa-reddened butter; and a stew of braised duck legs, tomatoes, olives and curly parsley that I could happily eat every night of the week. A great salad is a tough thing to make, especially one as terrific as persimmon and roasted squash tossed with quinoa, fermented chili, lime juice and plenty of cilantro and mint.
They serve a panna cotta in a dollar-store bowl, made deliciously unforgettable by a drizzle of honey-and-apple vinegar and orange marmalade. And they proudly wear their influences—Danish cafés, English hotel restaurants, Thomas Keller and, in a snack of fried chilies and cracked peanuts, the Momofuku paradigm. What they’re ultimately up to is home cooking—but prepared with the inventiveness and care of chefs who’ve worked in some of the best kitchens in the world.
Not just any chef can pull off a wholesale reinvention. In his five years at Bestellen, Rob Rossi was all meat and potatoes. He’d grill rib-eye, shave mountains of charcuterie and roast whole suckling pigs (it was worth making enemies over the last crackling). Now, in the same location, he’s opened an Italian restaurant that’s an elegantly nimble Vespa in a derby of unreliable Fiats. Barnboard, butchery-themed murals and Edison bulbs are out; sculptural, curvy tube lighting, wool-panelled walls and white-shirted waiters pushing bar carts stacked with elusive amaro are in.
Rossi’s cooking is now lighter and more exacting. As at old-school trattorias that do a handful of things exceptionally well, there’s usually pecorino-dusted bites of deep-fried, sausage-encased Castelvetrano olives and a meaty, bone-in pork chop encrusted with toasted fennel seeds that’s even more memorable when dabbed with apricot mostarda. Rossi’s bagna cauda is one crudité plate you won’t want to pass up: there’ll be something green (blanched broccolini spears, cucumber soldiers), something red (bitter endive leaves, peppery radish halves) and a garlic-anchovy dip that’s earthy, sublimely fishy and slicked with a fine olive oil.
The final measure is Rossi’s pasta. It’s worth a look at his Instagram to see a guy who has found his happy place cranking out rustic noodles and hand-forming mechanically precise ravioli. My pick is a tangle of pappardelle, the ribbons retaining just enough bite, coated in an oxtail ragu.
Patrick Kriss could run a hot dog stand and it would make best restaurant lists. Tables at his Alo mother ship are only marginally harder to come by than at Aloette, his take on a diner (if a diner served sea urchin toast and beef carpaccio), and the announcement that he was opening a location in Yorkville was practically met with a tickertape parade.
Kriss’s approach—equal parts eggheaded and sensuous, modern and classically French—works as well, if not better, in these gilded environs. He crowns a foie gras parfait with sour cherry compote and toasted hazelnuts, shaves black truffle on tuna belly tartare and brushes lobster with a house-made XO sauce. Even a humble shrimp and grits (a throwback to his cooking days at the defunct Acadia) gets an upgrade with jumbo black tiger shrimp and Ottawa Valley cheddar.
Alobar ranks as the swishiest drinking hole around, with hand-chipped cubes and strictly premium liquors, plus one of the city’s most intelligent and unpredictable wine lists. By the time it opened in late August, the weather had already turned and the days shortened. I’m looking forward to the hot months ahead when its patio, in a secluded courtyard, will be one of the best spots for people-watching. I’ll be lucky to get a table.
The quieter the restaurant, the more serious the sushi chef. By that standard, Daisuke Izutsu is a pro: no one sitting at the bar, watching him at work, makes more than a peep. At first, I wondered if Yukashi was a theme restaurant with a vow of silence, but then I, too, grew mesmerized by Izutsu’s bubble of concentration and the surgical precision of his knife work. Izutsu has been quietly influencing our appreciation of Japanese food for years: he opened Kaiseki Sakura and Don Don Izakaya, a harbinger of the late-night karaage and Sapporo craze; served as private chef for the city’s consul general of Japan; and, for the past three years, has been chef de cuisine at Yorkville’s Kasa Moto.
Yukashi is small, with only 20 seats, which is the right size for the demands of its nightly omakase menu, each dish mind-bogglingly complex, beautiful and tasked with making a statement on the current season. Toward the end of last fall, he paired a cloud-like chawanmushi with chestnut and grated lotus roots; stacked slices of barely torched, buttery Wagyu with lobes of foie gras and uni for a trio of fatty luxuriousness; and created a show-stopping, fully edible woodland scene—if your local forest floor happened to be strewn with potato chips cut into maple leaves; radishes carved into flowers; “moss” of crumbled green-tea cookies; “rocks” of squid ink, bread crumb and purple potato; and cracker “twigs.” After all that, a potato cheesecake in red bean sauce—sweet perfection in its own way—is a bit of a comedown.
The first time you enter, you’ll stop dead in your tracks. There’s a lot to take in: the octagonal room, gigantic by downtown standards; the steady march of servers balancing precarious silver trays of a half-dozen martinis; the vintage playlist a-throb with the Temptations and Carole King; the tables of modelesque women and men who look straight out of one of those European Netflix series you’ve been bingeing; and most of all, the dramatic honeycombed ceiling sculpture that looms over the room and, though immobile, gives the impression that everything and everyone is dancing. It’s quite a scene.
Steven Salm, president of the Chase Hospitality Group (which also operates swishy spots the Chase and Kasa Moto, among others), named the restaurant after his late father, who was one of the inspirations for the menu’s dinner-club fare: Rockefeller oysters (properly hot and buttery, with generous bacon), matzo ball soup so deeply chickeny it could cure the plague, Dover sole filleted tableside and served with brown-buttery sauce meunière, and a braised-beef fettuccine stroganoff—a mid-century throwback that would have been more sorely missed if this was the standard. It’s hard to imagine dear Arthur ordering the menu’s vegan options, like a nutty mushroom and port jelly pâté or a spinach and almond béchamel lasagna with cashew mozzarella (Salm also operates the vegan mini-chain Planta—now in South Beach!). Nor would the elder Salm likely recognize the occasional 2019 novelty, like the pool of passion fruit coulis that adds a tart kick to an excellent caramel cheesecake, both dense and fluffy.
Another curiosity: the option of a $449 annual membership, which gets you comp valet service and wine discounts. That, along with a lounge of equestrian plaids and green leather booths, is how Salm is attempting to cultivate the air of an exclusive, pampering club to which you’ll want to return again and again. It’s working.
Straight out of Humber’s chef school, John-Vincent Troiano cooked at all the right places (Rain, Buca, Acadia, Tutti Matti), shadowed the legendary kaiseki chef Masaki Hashimoto for three years and interned at Copenhagen’s Noma. Now he’s setting out on his own. A Thornhill strip mall isn’t the first place you’d expect to find a restaurant named Frilu—a play on a Norwegian term for finding inspiration in nature. But there’s something to be said for getting away from the pressure cooker of the downtown restaurant scene.
Troiano’s tasting menu (a steal at $95 for a dozen or so courses) is, like the best of them, telling a story about seasonal harvests. He’s not a little pretentious about it, with an Ibsen quotation closing the menu, poetic titles for each dish and the odd fanciful idea that looks better than it tastes, like a reinterpreted Oreo composed of black quinoa and blueberry biscuits sandwiched over gluey whipped spiced pork fat.
But there are far more wows: a funky-forward combo of B.C. sea urchin, burdock root, discs of black radish and roasted chicken jus; the rich, gamey texture of charcoal-roasted venison tongue smeared with a purée of caramelized onion and anchovies; and the bite of a horseradish cream coating a poached lobster tail. One night’s highlight was a whole mini pumpkin perched on a straw-covered plate. Troiano had piped its hollowed centre with a mixture of bone marrow, squash, nutmeg and cinnamon, all flash-roasted until it puffed up like a soufflé. It’s the most luxurious squash I’ve ever met—and a fine excuse for a suburban pilgrimage.
Days before Christmas, Jeff Kang of Queen West’s Canis gave the city a present in the form of this intentionally unadorned, monastery-chic wine bar—what better setting for solemn oenophilia? The list is primarily drawn from natural and low-intervention wineries, and everyone on staff is a wine geek: one server went so far as to have “Syrah” tattooed on the back of his hand. Kang’s short, pairing-friendly nightly menu is more relaxed than the ingenious, tweezer-assembled cooking for which he’s known. Each plate is nevertheless a stunner: he brushes a final coat of fermented black bean sauce on braised short ribs; stacks steamed Salt Spring Island mussels, in a sauce of caramelized whey, on a cube of potato pavé; and prepares a small selection of handmade pastas, like a tagliatelle tossed, ramen-style, with chili-flecked sausage, egg yolk and shredded cabbage. Sandwiches of breaded, deep-fried skate wing are greasy heaven. Kang envisioned people coming to Après after work, but it’s also perfect for those nights that aren’t complete without a post-dinner glass or bottle and some snacks. In my experience, you’d do just as well to make it the main event.
This latest restaurant from the Food Dudes group (they also run Rasa, Omaw and Blondie’s Pizza) has a split personality. The slim Victorian just off the King West clubs–and–loft condos strip looks like a spa, everything pale, undulating and candlelit, the air spritzed with a signature scent. The staff, in white runners, tight white dress shirts and pale pink aprons, could be mistaken for perky beauticians. But the wellness vibe ends at the menu, which is very good but not exactly health-forward. It’s party food, meant to pair with cocktails: addictive sticks of compressed grated potato, slow-cooked in schmaltz, deep-fried and topped with Japanese-style mayo, house-made kimchee and wiggling bonito flakes (pictured below); crab-and-scallop dumplings coated in hollandaise and a dusting of panko; and, to cut through the richness, a handful of greens options like a slaw of snap peas, shio kombu, salted pickled plums and Asian pear. The mixed drinks, as at Rasa, are top-notch, even if they’re goofily organized into four categories: Spring, Floral, Summer, Spice. In my early visits, the strangest moment came at dessert, when our server offered us a “sharing spoon,” which is a single long wooden implement, custom made for the restaurant, with spoon heads on either end. Somehow, awkwardly, you’re meant to feed dessert across the table to your date—any couple who can survive that can survive anything.
Now that unrenovated Leslieville semis are going for a million-plus, dining options are looking up east of the Don as serious restaurant investors follow the money—and lure standout chefs to follow them. My pick of the new crop is run by Jeffrey Bovis, last of Dundas West’s fish-focused Ufficio. Like many new neighbourhood spots, Wynona (the name was apparently a whim) fashions itself as a wine bar. There’s a good starter list with several natural and unfiltered vintages, which make smooth dance partners with a plate of plump Portuguese sardines and marinated red peppers, dreamily creamy burrata finished with honey and fennel pollen, and especially with Bovis’s handmade pastas. He pairs cavatelli with preserved lemon and meaty hen of the woods mushrooms, stuffs agnolotti with roasted beet purée, and weaves a tower of spaghetti with zucchini twists and stracciatella. The room is spare and refined (white-painted brick, blonde wood, vases of wildflowers), and every seat has a view of Bovis’s compact kitchen. Even on the coldest nights of this past winter, the place was full, the conversations keeping up with beats and the popping of corks. As good a sign as any of a neighbourhood with momentum.
This could be the best or worst of times to be a tartare lover. Every new menu seems to include a version (thanks, faddish protein diets!), and to stand out, many chefs feel compelled to commit terrible, unspeakable acts, like adding foie gras, puffed quinoa or six varieties of grain mustard. The tartare at Leemo Han’s latest spot sounds no less wrong: he combines ruby slices of beef with squid sashimi, Asian pear, a sprinkle of sesame seeds and (the one nod to tradition) quail egg yolk. Instead of toasts, there are sheets of nori. Against all odds, it works brilliantly. Getting away with culinary mash-ups is Han’s thing: Vietnamese-American at Pinky’s Ca Phe and izakaya-meets-McDonald’s at Hanmoto. Here, he’s importing kimchee, ssamjang and gochujang into Central and South America (tacos al pastor, beef rib grilled parrilla-style over charcoal). I fell hard for a potato mash mixed with roasted kimchee, eggplant romesco sauce and a fried egg. It’s breakfast for dinner with a chili kick that calls for another cocktail—bourbon, lime and sparkling Korean rice wine in a milkshake glass.
After closing her celebrated, decade-old Black Hoof, Jen Agg turned around and took over the Swan, the vintage Queen West diner that Anthony Rose formerly ran as a branch of his artery-busting Dupont restaurant Rose and Sons. It’s an exciting place: the busy beats of French vintage pop build through the night, the cocktails are potent and fun, and there’s a crush to get in the narrow room—one night, I had to inch around a couple making out in the small vestibule. The chef is James Santon, who followed Agg from the Hoof. His menu plays out a clever conceit: one side lists diner standards (chicken fried steak, onion rings, meatloaf), the other parallel bistro fare (steak frites, French onion soup, beef cheek bourguignon, etc.). The French side is pricier and tastier, especially the bourguignon, with its fluffy mashed potatoes and buttered carrot spears. After 11 p.m., they give in to the inevitable and break out the fondue pots.
Le Swan, 892 Queen St. W., 416-536-4440, leswan.ca
My two top reasons to go to this first North American outpost of an Amalfi Coast–based deluxe restaurant group: to behold the rooms of marble, white leather, crystal and brass, featuring a skull sculpture grinning from a plinth—the opulence second only to Donatella Versace’s closet; and to marvel at the fantastically elaborate tasting menus, one focused on vegetables and the other on meat and seafood. Together, they are a showcase for edible sleights of hand (what looks like a baked egg is actually a yolk surrounded by burrata foam), emulsions and unusual sauces (charred veg, capers and garlic, cinnamon and borage). The fanciful philosophy is summed up by a quenelle of eel-flavoured ice cream, its fishiness enhanced by sturgeon caviar, and a fast-drying parsley sauce painted across the plate like Japanese calligraphy. All this gilding comes at a price: at $150 a person for one of the tasting menus, a date night will cost you $400 with tax and tip, plus however much you’d like to drop on a bottle from the copious cellar.
The chef Craig Harding’s Campagnolo and La Palma are the laid-back, tanned distant cousins of Toronto’s Italian restaurant family: lighter, more seasonally minded, more Californian. At his new restaurant, occupying most of the ground floor of the Anndore House, a new boutique hotel, he’s taking a culinary side trip to Lebanon, Greece and Spain. He’s still making his signature bubbling and blackened cacio e pepe pizzas and handmade pastas, but the real treats come from the wood-fired grill: whole sea bream, skin charred and drizzled with Greek olive oil; kebabs of sumac-dusted lamb belly smeared with labneh; and especially plates of charred red cabbage (with pickled apple and chunks of walnut) or tabbouleh (with pomegranate seeds and grilled radicchio). There’s a small side café with takeout pastries, which you’ll wish was closer to your office, and a romantically low-lit bar that’s become, in the months since it opened, one of the nicest places downtown for an after-work curative.
Chef Francis Bermejo gives short ribs the respect they fully deserve. He slow-braises them in a marinade of soy and sesame oil—the ideal combo of sugariness and nuttiness. They’re then finished on the grill; topped with sesame seeds, chilies and oyster mushrooms; and plated with a mound of steaming jasmine rice. It’s one of the many standouts on a menu that playfully skips around Asia (pork belly with apple and pear kimchee, deep-fried tofu and shiitake mushrooms, beef tataki) but mostly takes inspiration from Bermejo’s birthplace, the Philippines. The emphasis is on sharable plates and snacks—like a mini sandwich of longganisa, a garlicky Filipino pork-and-chili sausage, with shredded cabbage and manchego—which is in keeping with the two-level party-every-night space semi-hidden at the back of the clubby Templar Hotel. The trendiest bit: a list of thoroughly tasty teetotaller drinks, like the Jungle Fruit punch with zero-proof spirits and a pineapple shrub.