8 Reasons to Visit Toronto

Toronto is a glorious mash-up of cultures, and eating there has never been more eclectic or as good. Despite the city’s rep as being a wannabe New York, over the years Toronto has established its own food culture that mixes a level of high quality of cooking with an urban vibe second to none in Canada. Young chefs are creating casual restaurants with food influences from around the world. Meat is often central as the array of local cuts on offer and the increasing number of good butcher shops can attest. Restaurants are busy and often go late into the night. For a quick visit from the more laid back BC scene, it’s a fresh burst of excitement and an energizing change.

 Top Photo: Wall mural in Roncevalles area of Toronto. Photo by G. Hynes

1. CLASSIC DRINKS

What better place to start your visit than at the Roof Lounge on the top floor of the Hyatt Hotel near Yorkville. I’ve been going to this classic, dimly lit bar for years. It’s a sophisticated retreat from the busy city and the hushed chatter can be very comforting after a long flight. The service is top notch, but not pushy; the bar snacks are free; and the bartenders know how to mix a drink.  Go for the Boulevardier—a kissing cousin to the Negroni, it subs bourbon for gin with Campari and sweet vermouth and, on a cold Ontario night, will quickly warm you up.

 

Hyatt Hotel, 4 Avenue Road, 416 925 1234

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2. ON TREND

If you follow celeb chefs you’ll know about David Chang’s upwards trajectory—his magazine Lucky Peach, and his iconic first restaurant, Momofuku in New York. Toronto has its own Momofuku noodle bar outpost where diners sit at the kitchen bar or long communal tables. Service is swift, wines and sakes come in small tumblers, and the ramen is worthy. We tried the famous sweet buns with thick slices of pork belly, and the smoked chicken ramen served in a big bowl and filled with tender, locally farmed chicken, skinny noodles, runny egg, shitake mushrooms, and a shard of crisped chicken skin. The broth with its kick of hot sauce was deeply flavoured. This is cheap, democratic dining, and the high-ceilinged room was full and bustling. For dessert you go up to the second floor Milk Bar, choose your sweet and bring it back to your table. A must try is the crack pie—rich, salty, sweet with an oat cookie crust. Addictive.

 

190 University Avenue

Website Momofuku

Website Milk Bar

 

3. DOWN MARKET CRUSTACEAN

Take the red rocket past Bathurst on Queen West to Rock Lobster, tucked in among the fabric shops and hip eateries. There, you’ll find the Maple Leafs on the TV, east coast lobster, ubiquitous pork belly and the surf and turf is steak tartar and vanilla-poached lobster. Rock lobster is the type of casual restaurant/bar that excels in Toronto.  For lunch, lobster is served up in a hot dog bun with Yukon potato chips and a ¼ pickle. No fuss, no pretensions. Two locations.

 

538 Queen Street West

Website

 

TIP: After lunch, poke about and discover BYOB Emporium – heaven for pro bartenders and hobbyists alike. The selection of hand-crafted bitters, fresh grenadine and bar accessories is second to none.

 

972 Queen St. West

Website

 

An array of bitters for sale at BYOB

An array of bitters for sale at BYOB

 

4. FRENCH NOUVEAU CLASSIQUE

Ici Bistro is the kind of neighbourhood restaurant everyone wishes they had in their own hood. It’s a small boîte of a room with an open kitchen, a handful of tables, great servers, and impeccable, well-executed cooking.

 

It also has some of the best French food in the country. Chef Jean-Pierre Challet, or JP, as he’s known, came to Canada thirty years ago from Lyon. First working in Quebec City, then making the move to Toronto that, he says, was more open to new ideas at the time—better for his nouveau style of French cooking, which is lighter and fresher than in Escoffier’s day. Challet is also a certified sommelier with a love of Ontario wines. His depth and knowledge of Niagara and Prince Edward County wines makes for enlightening wine and food pairings. JP offers a word to budding sommeliers, “You have to get out into the vineyards to find the unique wines”.

 

Take a seat at the kitchen bar and watch the team at work as the procession of both classic and innovative dishes flows out of the tiny kitchen. Order a la carte or do as I did and leave it up to JP. For the next two and half hours I sampled a broad array of dishes and wine pairings – a great way to get know a menu.

 

One mark of a top kitchen is how well they do simple dishes and steak tartare is one of those tests. At Ici, the beef is fresh and hand-chopped and three versions are offered. My favourites were the Savoyard that comes with creamy potato Gratin Dauphinois and small cubes of Le Sauvagine – a melt-in-your-mouth soft cheese from Quebec, and the Bordelais with sides of sustainable caviar from New Brunswick, fresh PEI oysters and a deep-fried potato beignet. The wine pairing for the tartare showed how good Ontario wine can be when carefully chosen. Challet poured an Ancestral 2011 from Hinterland, a small winery that specializes in sparkling wines in Prince Edward County. It’s a lightly sparkling Gamay Noir inspired by the techniques employed in the region of Bugey-Cerdon, France. Using the ancestral method, the spritz of this wine is achieved by capturing the carbon dioxide produced during the primary fermentation. The fruit is whole berry pressed to achieve an attractive pink colour. It was a surprise pairing, as most people would go for a red. This wine kept the dish fresh and light.

 

Another standout dish we had was the classic Lobster Bisque with a double crustacean twist. The intensely flavoured and creamy bisque had cognac, Pernod, a touch of ginger, and was topped with milk foam and it had a shrimp frite—a prawn wrapped in potato slices and then deep-fried—on the side. There’s a pattern developing here. What put these two dishes over the top was the combination of dissimilar textures and temperatures—smooth, crunchy, hot and cold. Masterful. Ontario is known for its Riesling and the Charles Baker Picone that accompanied the bisque was an eye-opener.  Using grapes grown atop the Niagara escarpment, the wine had a sharp clean acidity, big rich Riesling aroma, and a lingering finish. Well worth searching out.

 

Other noteworthy courses included an eastern-influenced Asian pear, scallop, lobster, and crab dish with a spicy mayo which could become habit-forming and braised beef with artichokes that came with a rich morel jus, carrots, squash, chanterelles, and crosmesquis—a sort of deep-fried croquette. Very satisfying on a cold night.
Desserts were equally impressive; especially the lemon tart with chevre and the floating island with Cointreau crème brûlée and crème Anglaise.

 

Verdict: Plenty of butter, cream, and alcohol, and not to be missed.

 

538 Manning Ave, Toronto

416.536.0079

Website

 

Colourful Kensingston Market is worth a walk round.

Colourful Kensingston Market is worth a walk round.

 

5. RONCEY

No trip to Toronto should bypass the newly gentrified area of western Toronto along Roncesvalle Avenue. Back in the day, it was primarily a Polish district known for its kielbasa coils and loaves of dark rye. Although a few remnants of that vibrant culture still remain, a walk along the avenue now reveals pretty grocery stores, hipster boutiques, independent coffee shops, and plenty of places to chow down in style. Near my old haunt on Constance Street, Hopgood’s Foodliner is the hot ticket and the restaurant quickly fills with young couples, artist types, and professionals from the tech and food industries. There’s a nod to Nova Scotia with the molasses bread, but most of the menu is delightfully eclectic from the lovely, lightly seared Digby scallops and sea urchin with capers and garlic to the more sturdy mackerel on oatcakes with crème fraiche.  Everyone talks about the Puff Daddy & Notorious P.I.G.—a towered concoction of foie gras, pork shoulder, blood sausage, sweet beer gastrique, apple slaw, and puff pastry. It was a bit odd to my taste, reminding me of a crazy, savoury version of a Greek dessert, but hey, I saw quite a few of them coming out of the sliver of a kitchen at the back. The wine list is good and the barman’s recommendations spot on: if it’s available, try the limited edition “Cuvee Dix-Neuvieme” chardonnay from Pearl Morissette Estate Winery Chardonnay in Niagara —loaded with creamy peach, pear, apple sauce, vanilla, and butter braced by a good chuck of acidity.

 

325 Roncesvalles Ave., (416) 533-2723

Website

 

6. RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR

The cab drops me off on College St near Ossington. It’s 6pm and already a crowd of about twenty is huddled by the front door hoping for a table. The doors open and we get lucky and snag seats at the bar. Instantly, the restaurant is full and the bar is a blur of busy bartenders and cocktail shaking. Within a few minutes, everyone has their drink and the noise level rises to a roar.

 

Spanish-rooted Bar Isabel is the year’s Best New Restaurant as picked by EnRoute Magazine. The accolade is deserved and if you need a reason to go to hogtown, this is it. It’s the real deal, eating at its best. The room bursts with energy; it’s loud, fun, and reminiscent of a timeworn European tavern. The food is big, bold, vibrant, and brassy and is some of the best I’ve eaten lately.  Don’t miss the fresh green chorizo (poblano chili, spinach, cilantro) with marinated escarole. Do try the Swiss chard with anchovy and golden raisins. The menu is for sharing and best way to eat here is to order as many plates as you can. Have the whole grilled octopus (it also comes as a half) with potatoes. The octopus has been slow-braised for hours with mirepoix and stock, then generously slathered with paprika, garlic, and lemon and given a smoky char on the grill. The result is meaty  like a steak—fork tender and robustly spiced. Magnificent. Finish the dinner with the moist Basque cake with an eggy custard centre and dripping with sherry cream poured by the waiter. Linger over an old Armagnac or a tawny port. Polished service.  Recommended.

 

797 College St., 416-532-2222

Website

 

7. SERENITY IN THE BIG CITY

Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth (he of the former Niagara Street Café and she of the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar) have a created an oasis of fine and innovative dining on a small residential street just past Bathurst below King St.  Approaching Edulis on foot on a dark and rainy night with my umbrella flapping in the brisk wind, I nearly missed it among the nondescript houses and apartment buildings. Once inside the candlelit, country-like cottage, though, the hospitality and warmth will easily dispel any residue of TO’s bitter weather.

 

There’s no written menu as it changes nightly. Even the servers don’t know what’s on until it comes out of the kitchen. But they will give you a general idea of how your dinner might progress, explaining how the owners spent a number of years roaming Vancouver Island, Panama, France, Italy, and Spain for inspiration and ask you for your preferences and dislikes. Then you simply pick either the Small (5 course) or Large (7 course) menu, sit back and let Chef take care of you. Think of it as adventure dining.

 

We choose the Large menu with the added truffle courses (November is truffle season, after all) and start with a flute of Spanish cava, snacking from a bowl of spiced olives with anchovy and buttered slices of house made breads. Then the measured procession of courses begins. Each is tiny, perfect, and presented in either a unique, handmade glazed bowl or a beautiful small plate. The first five courses are all seafood based: a delicate raw rascasse, a bony rockfish (that usually appears in French bouillabaisse) served with chili, cucumber and puffed rice; small live bay scallops; John Dory poached in butter with Croatian black truffles; large Portuguese squid cooked in its own ink with a confit of Japanese onions; and Lake Erie fresh water pickerel with porcini chips and celeriac purée. The cooking is finessed, nuanced, and balanced.

 

These are followed by paper thin slices of Matsutake mushrooms in duck broth thickened with a purée of fresh Nova Scotia snow crab; a rabbit and pistachio sausage with cabbage and chanterelles; and thin cut lamb chops, lamb sausage, radicchio and long noodles made of potato (a small world moment—the dinner knives for the lamb had been crafted on Salt Spring by well-know knife artist Seth Cosmo Burton and my server had worked in Café Brio in Victoria).

 

Two of the more unusual dishes that night were an exquisite truffle risotto that was made with potatoes rather than rice and a dessert of thinly sliced granny smith apples with chanterelle mushrooms that had been cooked down with reduced cider vinegar to a jam and topped with brioche. Fruity, tart, and earthy.

 

This is cuisine for the intellect—food for the mind but also cooking that succeeds in the mouth.

 

If you have a group of four, order ahead for the roast whole foie gras, Chantecler chicken baked in hay, St. Canut cream-fed piglet, or the seasonal, traditional paella.

 

 

‪169 Niagara St

Website

 

 

8. MONTREAL IN TORONTO

 

Whenever I go east in Canada, I long for a good smoked meat sandwich. Until recently this was a challenge to find in Toronto. Not now. Get yourself to Caplansky’s Delicatessen on College street, where the waitress are quick with one liners and the light rye is piled high with the moistest smoked meat this side of Vaudreuil. And the hand-cut frites aren’t half bad either. I was sorry I missed the 4th annual Latkepalooza, maybe next time; that is, if I don’t try the grilled salami with chopped liver, red onions and honey mustard.

 

356 College St.

Website

 

WHERE TO STAY

 

Hotel Le Germain

This is one of my favourite hotels.  Located downtown on a quiet side street in the center of the entertainment district and close to everything, it’s swank, sophisticated, and luxurious. Within a couple of blocks are subway stations, streetcars, and busy Queen St West and the area abounds in shops, bars, and restaurants. Across the street is the Second City comedy club if you need a few good laughs.

 

The hotel is sleek and modern, and each room sports an oversized luxury bathroom loaded with amenities such as thick towels and bathrobes (that actually fit!) The glass walled shower looks out onto the room. The beds are comfortable and are fitted with goose-down duvets and feather pillows.  Internet is complimentary, as is one of the best breakfast buffets in the country. Choose from sausages, toasted bagels, hard boiled eggs, fine cheeses, jams, juices, a half dozen different granolas, yogurts, herbal teas and good coffee.

 

The lobby has comfortable seating in the library with a fireplace, complimentary cappuccino bar, and bar service.  There’s 24-hour concierge service, a fitness center, room service, and helpful staff.

 

The hotel also has Victor Restaurant & Lounge, a full service restaurant off the main lobby. Chef David Chrystian sources organic and sustainable seasonal produce and heritage meats from area farms. Look for dishes like Berkshire Pork Loin and steamed tamale with chimmi churri and banana jam and a salad of Cookstown greens, beets, pepitas, fried onions, chili spiced feta—dining that reflects Toronto’s multicultural style.

 

30 Mercer St, Toronto

416.345.9500

Website

 

Hotel Le Germain Toronto

Hotel Le Germain Toronto

 

 

 

Written By:

Gary Hynes, a writer and photographer, founded EAT magazine in 1998 and is its editor and chief paperboy. He studied Electronic Music with Samuel Dolan at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Audio Recording Technology at ...

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