Sort-of Secret: Stop, a restaurant and wine bar serving up classic Eastern European food with a twist
Part of our series spotlighting the city’s hidden edible gems
The sort-of secret: Stop, a family restaurant near Dundas and Sheridan serving chef Denis Ganshonkov’s take on Eastern European classics
You may have heard of it if: You’re a human divining rod for good cabbage rolls
But you probably haven’t tried it because: It’s an unassuming place with almost no signage
I stand transfixed as sous chef Louis John gently blowtorches an immaculate piece of white fish, its skin shimmering like the waters of Lake Huron where it was caught, while chef Denis Ganshonkov carefully scoops a heroic dollop of Osetra caviar over the top, flimsy plastic takeout fork slightly shaking.
Welcome to Stop, a seasonal restaurant in Little Portugal offering fine dining without the fuss, a “special occasion” restaurant where it’s actually affordable to be a regular.
Stop initially opened as the Ossington Stop, farther east on Dundas West, in 2014. Back then, it was a bare-bones bar serving your average pub food. Ganshonkov bought it in 2017 and moved it to its current location at Dundas and Sheridan in 2021, with help from his mother, Alyona Song, and her husband, Sergey Semenuyk. He and his merry crew have turned it into a gastronomic pirate ship, a destination for local gourmands seeking a place with great wine and food that’s a little more relaxed and nourishing.
“I come here and it’s like a reprieve from the rest of my life,” says Elva Alushi, who spent years at some of the city’s fine-dining restaurants before coming to work front-of-house at Stop. “How often do people say that about their work?”
It’s difficult not to feel transported when you enter Stop’s dining room—it’s like stepping into a Baltic fairy tale. The walls are lined with photographs and paintings of smoking cats and dogs (many of them supplied by customers) and the room is typically full of happy regulars, every single one of whom is ready to gush about the restaurant.
Stop’s centre of gravity is Ganshonkov, a long-haired 35-year-old who listens to Nazareth, dresses like Rafael Nadal and talks about being the chef-owner of a restaurant with something close to religious fervor. “For me,” he says, “it’s mainly the quality of the ingredients and the people that I work with—Olga, Louis, Maria, Meghan, Elva, Ella. If it’s caviar, it’s gonna be the best caviar. Butter? It’s gonna be the best butter that money can buy. Vegetables that are blowing everybody else’s out of the water, you know? Our food can’t suck.”
As we run down the list of products he’s crazy about–root vegetables from Mark Redman’s Little Wolf Farm, Marc’s Mushrooms, Affinity Fish, 100km Foods–Ganshonkov admits that Stop has a “post–Soviet Union” flavour profile. He attributes that to his upbringing in Kazakhstan, where he was born and raised before moving to Canada with his mother—who was born in Estonia to Korean parents—when he was a teen.
But Ganshonkov is also allergic to labels and says abandoning the “Russian” branding initially attached to Stop helped him unlock new levels of creativity and freedom. “It was never really Russian food to begin with, anyway. I was making Ukrainian borscht, Polish cabbage rolls, Georgian dumplings and French crêpes.”
Ganshonkov says the Eastern European classics he fields allow him to serve food that is simultaneously nourishing, delicious and accessible—ethereal yet crispy roasted potatoes; poached beets, sweet like strawberries; brothy, meaty, life-restoring borscht (which will return to the menu in October); and unspeakably fluffy honey cake, once a menu special, now thankfully a regular feature.
“You can absolutely come in and ball out. You can get that $400 bottle of wine and the rib-eye. But you can also come in for a beer and a plate of cabbage rolls, and it won’t set you back that much. We want to make sure we’re not alienating people.”
The cabbage rolls and borscht were what got my attention when I first visited Stop last year. I grew up eating my mother’s Polish cooking at home and never imagined I’d ever eat like that again after moving away from her to the other side of Canada—much less find a restaurant in Toronto that consistently warps me, Ratatouille-style, back to those very same flavours.
“It’s insane, dude. Matt absolutely nailed it,” Ganshonkov says of the Eastern European dark rye bread he gets from local baker Matthew Lawrence. He serves it alongside the borscht, which turns the bread into a magical substance upon dipping. “If you don’t have the memory of taste, you will absolutely never, ever be able to recreate that flavour.”
But you don’t have to be Eastern European to be moved by Ganshonkov’s food. You just have to be hungry—if not for cabbage rolls, perhaps for a new kind of Toronto restaurant, one where genres and labels are less important than the people pouring their souls into the food and service.
“I am this restaurant. This restaurant is me. I just cook what I like to eat,” emphasizes Ganshonkov. “There’s no ‘cuisine’; there’s no ‘Russian,’ ‘French,’ whatever. It’s Denis cuisine.”