Block Party: Corktown has sprouted street life, and a bona fide dining scene, thanks to the Pan Am Games
You can tell a lot about a neighbourhood from its pastry. My obsession of the moment is the mille crêpe cake at Roselle Desserts, on King just east of Parliament. Stephanie Duong, Roselle’s pastry chef, achieves near perfection in her rendition of the French classic. She layers 20 crêpes with vanilla custard, then brûlées sugar over top. It’s not too sweet and surprisingly light, a harmonious state somewhere between pastry and cake. It’s so labour-intensive and fragile that Duong currently only sells it on weekends, and then only in limited quantities.
A year ago, you’d have little chance of finding a slice of mille crêpe in Corktown. For the uninitiated, that’s the pocket roughly bounded by Berkeley and the DVP, from Queen to the Gardiner. But now there’s a built-in, pastry-hungry clientele. The transformation was kick-started by the announcement that the city would redevelop the neighbourhood’s southeast section into mid-rise condos to house 10,000-plus athletes and officials for the Pan Am Games. When the Games are over, those buildings will convert into market-rate condos, subsidized rental units and housing for George Brown students.
Duong opened Roselle this past spring with her fiancé, Bruce Lee (a trained chef, no relation to the martial arts legend, though his father was a fan). They met while studying at the George Brown chef school and travelled the world together, working in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in Hong Kong—including the tea room at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon—and France. You can see the fervidly French attention to detail in her pastries, which manage to combine artistry with an engineer’s precision. She makes a stupendous financier, the little gold brick of almond cake moist under its crisp crust; terrifically buttery caramels (she uses high-fat Sterling); éclairs stuffed with frilly waves of banana cream; Turtle tarts of shortbread, salted caramel and Valrhona chocolate; and a cloud cookie of meringue drizzled with white chocolate, the sugary core softly gooey.
I recommend eating the mille crêpe on the spot, with a cup of one of the shop’s small-batch teas. There are a few tables at the front with a view of the Little Trinity Anglican Church’s Gothic revival tower. It was built by the same William Gooderham who distilled whiskey a few blocks south and, along with the button-cute historic Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, is a reminder of a time when Corktown was the centre of industrial Toronto. But after the factories closed, the neighbourhood slid into somnolence—in recent decades, it’s been a fringe zone of German car dealerships and empty storefronts, the place you zip past on your way to the Beach.
The new Corktown ranks high on the Jane Jacobs index: mixed-use, green, walkable, a balance of old and brand new, indie and chain. In the same block as Roselle, there’s an espresso bar, a boutique branding agency and an eco-friendly flower shop that sells spiky succulents in vintage pots, among other sweetly twee options. On the corner, a young chef named Matt Griffiths, who previously cooked at Ultra and the ACC’s Platinum Club, has opened the Corktown Kitchen. It’s exactly the sort of quiet, low-key bistro that any neighbourhood should be grateful for—where you can drop by, no reservation necessary, and order a proper steak frites, the pencil-thin potatoes golden and tossed with sea salt and scallions, the strip loin juicy and flavourful. Janet Zuccarini, who runs the flashy Italian restaurants Gusto 101 in King West and Trattoria Nervosa in Yorkville, is renovating a building a few blocks east of Roselle and Corktown Kitchen, with plans to open a second Gusto.
In late May, I took my seen-it-all elderly dog, Charlie, to Corktown Common, before it was temporarily cordoned off for the Pan Am athletes. The park was unveiled in 2013, after millions were spent on contaminated soil remediation. It’s on a parcel of land that once was the site of a pig processing plant said to be the biggest in the British Empire. There may still be some pork residue in the air—Charlie was unusually perky. Once the trees mature, the Common promises to be a beautiful place. The best part right now is the vantage west, from a coolly sculptural kids’ splash pad, of the restored rust-brick warehouses in the Distillery District and, looming behind them, the sparkly, ever-multiplying towers of the downtown core. It’s the same view you’d see at the south end of the DVP, if you weren’t concentrating on navigating the ramp up onto the eastern leg of the Gardiner. Toronto’s good side.
So who exactly lives in Corktown? Originally, the area’s railcar-narrow townhouses were home to Irish families (hence the “Cork”). Before the Pan Am hubbub, it was the choice of people who work in the TV and film industry for its proximity to the studio lots on Eastern Avenue. Aside from the new subsidized housing, there aren’t many bargains left: formerly down-and-out streets have become as expensive as anything else in the city (those Irish townhouses go for a million-plus).
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A friend of mine recently moved into the area, renting one of the brand new condos on Trolley Crescent—in a building where many of the units are owned by foreign investors. I met her for dinner at Cocina Economica, on Berkeley. It’s the newest of Dave Sidhu’s Playa Cabana group of Mexican restaurants. Where his other spots draw Yorkville partiers and the occasional Hollywood A-lister, Cocina is hidden in one of Corktown’s quietest corners, like it’s trying to avoid attention. But this is the new Corktown, and every spot gets noticed. Mid-week, the place was full. Patrons looked like a cross-section of area residents: all ages, classes and sexualities, no one out of place and everyone a little bit tipsy from potent margaritas and sangria ladled out of clay pots lined up on the bar. The food is some of the best I’ve had in Sidhu’s restaurants, which tend to have somewhat conventional menus and spotty execution. The star of the house quesadilla was the corn tortilla; it’s light years away from anything else in Toronto. The flavours in a ceviche of shrimp and scallops were summer-bright and fiery with chili. The menu’s emphasis, as the name implies, is inexpensive dishes—a family-kitchen style of Mexican food, which in practice means large platters of slow-cooked meats, sold by the pound, accompanied by rice and beans, pickled onions and more fresh tortillas kept warm under cloth napkins. We shared a plate of pork side ribs that had been wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in a paste of achiote, chipotle and guajillo chilies. After cooking so long, the chilies’ heat had mellowed and the pork was tastier than the average rib fest winner.
For dessert, the kitchen bakes little cornflour cookies sandwiched over dulce de leche and dusted with coconut. They were so good, I ordered more to go. I figured they’d hold me over until I could get back on the weekend for another slice of Roselle’s mille crêpe.