My old editors at Toronto Life may be surprised to see me presenting a list of Top Ten New Restaurants – I always used to grumble about doing it when I worked for that magazine. I would moan about the illogicality of comparing apples to oranges and when that got me nowhere I’d lard my introduction to the list with modifying qualifications which the editors would immediately remove. And now here I am, blithely putting my own Top Ten together. Oh well. Hey-ho… These days, I can do exactly as I please.
Toronto offers amazing culinary resources to a would-be chef. The new generation of cooks has grown up listening to dozens of culinary languages and their gastronomic vocabulary is now broad enough to beggar parallel. They can revel in the freedom to use any flavour, texture or technique that takes their fancy. They are not shackled by genre or ethnic heritage; they have a different and rather terrifying responsibility: they can do as they please.
Given such freedom, it’s interesting that so many of the new restaurants that opened in 2010 showed such a narrow focus. Here are these polyglot chefs, well educated, sophisticated, opening their first restaurants. Instead of leaping forward into the future, most of them have chosen to step back into the past, sometimes two generations back, offering a sort of faux immigrant experience to their customers. Last year saw a cluster of deliberately under-decorated little dives pop up in the city’s western reaches with tiny menus of old-school domestic European cooking or quaint North American comfort food. The recession was fading into memory across the rest of Canada but these new restaurateurs were behaving as if breadlines and soup kitchens were only a couple of slow evenings away.
I have nothing against humble simplicity on the plate, even if the hard wooden chair I’m sitting on wobbles and the quaint table is too small to hold more than two plates and a glass. I love the new fashion for wacky house-made cocktails. And it’s nice that so many new places are doing gnocchi and collations of charcuterie and hand-cut pasta – it makes it so much easier to compare them. Provided you’re paying close attention. Otherwise, they tend to run together in the memory into a single archetype.
It’s just a phase the city is going through. When wealthy angels are wary of investing, chefs have to finance themselves. They set up shop in low-rent neighbourhoods and do their own renovations and it all ends up feeling a bit like a student project, but with much better food.
Do I sometimes miss cushions and white linen tablecloths and a measure of old-fashioned glamour? Those places haven’t disappeared – it’s just that nobody writes about them these days. Toronto’s restaurant press, more than ever before, is giddy from a collective neophilia. The magazine and newspaper critics march in step from one debut to the next, eyes constantly on the horizon (or on their twittering BlackBerries), vigilant for novelty. I can’t remember the last time I read anything about, say, Scaramouche, Centro, Langdon Hall, Canoe, Chiado or Sushi Kaji in any mainstream media – though all of them are firmly amongst the Top Ten Best Restaurants in our part of the world. Ignored by the press, such stars no longer bother to court journalists, relying on a core clientele that already appreciates what they have to offer.
In my case, I’m afraid it’s purely a matter of budget that prevents me visiting all the city’s best restaurants every year as well as all the new ones. I pay my own way these days, and am happy to do so. If you care to look back through my archives you can see new places I wrote about that have not made my top ten, though some of them are quite popular with the public and with other critics. It may be they were having a bad night when I happened to drop by. Or perhaps it’s just that we all have our own ideas about what constitutes quality. Here are my ten best experiences of 2010. Please check out my archives for full reviews.
Number 1 FRANK’S KITCHEN Every decade, College Street offers an unexpected jewel – Palmerston, back in the day, Trattoria Giancarlo, Gamelle in its prime… Frank’s Kitchen is in that class, a sophisticated grown-up in a neighbourhood of brash children. It’s a super restaurant, conceived, owned and operated with pride and passion by chef Frank Parhizgar and his wife, front-of-house whizz Shawn Cooper. The welcome is gracious, the tables set a decent distance apart, the noise levels well under control (even though the tight little kitchen is open to the rear of the room), the lighting flattering. The place seats around 45 and is always busy, especially on Sunday nights when other chefs and industry types crowd in for the $28 three-course prix fixe. I’m not sure how they do it for though prices are by no means steep (mains $15-$30), Parhizgar isn’t stingy with the foie gras, fresh truffles and lobster and his meats are as carefully sourced as any. It helps, no doubt, that he does everything himself, from the array of fresh, warm breads to the last envoi of tiny chocolate truffles and freshly baked madeleines that he takes out of the oven just as we ask for the bill. Don’t miss: elegantly opulent oysters Rockefeller; charcuterie including lamb loin like snippets of rose-coloured silk; lobster ravioli; elk loin with a faux fat cap of foie gras. Wines: there are sometimes unadvertised treasures to boost the short printed list. Frank’s Kitchen is at 588 College Street (at Clinton Street). 416 516 5861.
Number 2 MALÉNA Sam Kalogiros (a guy from Corfu) and David Minicucci helped define the new vibe at Av and Dav with L’Unita. Now they have opened Maléna a few doors south, a seafood restaurant in a cleverly reinterpreted and sophisticated Ionian idiom. What does that mean? Consider chef Doug Neigel’s sea urchin crostini – crunchy toast spread with puréed avocado, sea urchin, red amaranth seedlings a little black salt. The avocado is a great idea – echoing the texture of the urchin but too bland to impinge on the purity of its flavour. Together it tastes like the sea itself. The menu is packed with delicious things – a great seafood soup full of nicely undercooked clams, mussels, spot prawns and cod; whole fish flawlessly grilled; stone crab claw in avgolemono sauce. If the atmosphere sometimes gets too boisterous to concentrate on the nosh, why not sit at the bar with a glass of Moschofilero from sommelier Zinta Steprens’s fascinating list and converse with half a dozen oysters (from P.E.I. not Corfu) or a crudo of Qualicum Bay scallops: true Canadian-Hellenic détente. Maléna is at 120 Avenue Road (one block south of Davenport). 416 964 0606.
Number 3 ICI The chic, modern little space on the corner of Harbord and Manning is packed every night, already a hit with the neighbourhood and a destination for fans of owner-chef J-P Challet from across the GTA. Counters at the bar, in the windows and below the open kitchen offer one way of experiencing the place, perched on comfortable stools, or there are several tables, set close together as they are in any good French bistro. The menu is full of irresistible things, with every dish available in a large or smaller portion (such an attractive idea) backed up with five or six items for sharing – a plate of oysters perhaps, or charcuterie or a selection of little croquettes, everything combining big flavours and delicate textures. Challet’s mission these days is to reinterpret classical French bistro ideas in a modern, lightweight manner, sometimes redistributing the elements of a dish. So blanquette of veal arrives as a soft, very thin crepe wrapped around the juicy pulled meat with its white mushroom sauce. Chopped morels and black trumpet mushrooms reinforced the theme in a darker, richer truffled sauce. A cube of perfectly cooked boiled potato, a trembling flan of puréed squash seasoned with lots of white pepper, green beans and strips of heirloom purple carrots as thin as pencils completed the dish. Challet is a qualified sommelier as well as a chef and suggests a couple of matches by the glass with every dish. His wine list is a thing of beauty with Canadian bottlings outnumbering French and top local producers strongly favoured. Like the menu, the list will change frequently. It’s great to have Challet back in the saddle, demonstrating the art of bistronomy. Ici is open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. 538 Manning Street (at Harbord). 416 536 0079. www.jpco.ca
Number 4 LUMA Daylight floods into Oliver Bonacini’s spiffy Luma, up on the second storey of the new TIFF Bell Lightbox building. Unlike the drab airport-style décor of its BlackBerry lounge, the restaurant’s looks are all very cool and laid back with enough visual drama to delight rather than bore the eye. Finishes are in different woods on the floor and high partition walls, chairs in mushroom leather, sofas more of a butterscotch while a massive planter filled with curly willow wands gives focus to the centre of the room. Chef Jason Bangerter has put together a menu that doesn’t make a massive opening impact – sandwiches, salads, tuna, chicken, beef tenderloin, steak frites – but quality of ingredients and attention to detail lift standards remarkably high. Burrata, flown in from Italy and barely a day old, oozes rich buffalo cream when one slips a knife into its glistening, tender, snow-white heart. Bangerter sets the cheese on top of a thin but flavourful slice of grilled eggplant and surrounds it with a kaleidoscope of colourful beets, some cut into soft chunks, others firmer but thinly sliced. A marjoram and pine nut vinaigrette echoes the earthy sweetness of the beets and it’s impossible not to mop the plate with chunks of the lovely crusty breads baked by David Wilson, that masterful artisan of the ovens and the man responsible for Marc Thuet’s loaves, back in the day. Foie gras torchon is as smooth and soft as a baby’s arm, served with square-cut blocks of toasted brioche. Pan-seared scallops are meticulously timed, surrounded by tiny grilled artichokes and perched on top of a disc of smashed potato. Curls of cured ham are the crown, lemon vinaigrette the dressing. Canada is the principal provider of wines. Luxuriously spacious, elegant but not posh, unhurried and airily contemporary, Luma’s a great place for a downtown lunch. Luma is at 330 King Street West (at John Street). 647 288-4715. www.oliverbonacini.com
Number 5 ORIGIN Chef Claudio Aprile talked for years about opening a larger, more casual sibling for Colborne Lane, his edgy gastronomic temple. Ambition fulfilled. Taking one of Toronto’s oldest buildings back to its bare brick bones then redecorating with modernist whimsy, he has created a hip bar and a loud, bustling 90-seat dining room – numbers doubling when the sidewalk patio comes on line. A central open kitchen provides the ambient energy along with a menu of small dishes (nothing over $19) of no particular cultural focus. One or two damp squibs aside, most plates provide fireworks. Miso-glazed black cod in mushroom consommé is silken heaven – maybe the best version of that clichéd dish that I have ever tasted. Splendid shrimp ceviche gets a garnish of corn kernels crisped and still vaporous from a dip in liquid nitrogen. But not everything is exotic. Very fresh buffalo mozzarella becomes a sort of bruschetta with basil and tomato; smoked cod croquettes are pure Little Portugal. Crisp, freshly made fried plantain tostones outshine a conventional guacamole. Foodies will want to sit at the counter, sushi bar-style, and watch the action. It’s almost more fun to relax in the bar, tasting the inventive cocktails and sharing one plate at a time. Origin is at 107 King St. E., (at Church St.), 416 603.8009. www.origintoronto.com.
Number 6 BROCKTON GENERAL First-time restaurateurs Brie Read and Pam Thomson have turned a grungy Portuguese sports bar into a demure little gem with thoroughly unpretentious décor, enthusiastic service and seriously impressive food. The kitchen is the solo domain of chef Guy Rawlings, who writes his small menu on a roll of butcher’s paper that hangs on the wall, changing many of the dishes nightly. As one would expect from a Cowbell alumnus, he butchers his own meat, buying a whole lamb from Dingo Farms in Bradford, for example, and wasting nothing. He served the shoulder on the night we visited, the tender meat confited in spiced oil, pulled and heaped onto a slab of grilled eggplant that had been brushed with Greek olive oil, mint and dill. Rawlings is a whizz at pickling, using preserved items to add an extra dimension to several dishes – crunchy pickled cucumber adding tang and texture to the lamb. Pasta is a must-have – maybe maltagliati tossed with braised escarole and braised celery tops – forthright, pleasingly bitter greens that made the nubbins of meat from a boar’s head seem all the sweeter. Four of the eight wines on the current list are Canadian (all of them available by the glass) but Read and Thomson have had a surprise hit with their bourbonade, a lovely summer cocktail of bourbon, thyme-flavoured simple syrup, fresh lemonade and soda. Beer remains the preferred solace of those old Benfica fans, some of whom still drop by from time to time, taking an avuncular interest in Brockton General’s progress. Dinner menu Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Brockton General is at 1321 Dundas St. W. (at Lisgar St.), 647 342-6104.
Number 7 THE COPPER CHIMNEY The décor will never make the front cover of Interiors magazine but it’s rather a relief to find walls that haven’t been stripped back to the brick and a ceiling where ducts and piping are discreetly hidden. Don’t be put off by the eclectic, old-school-curry-house menu – the dishes here are diverse and distinct, the quality excellent and portions so big we needed two satchel-sized doggy bags and a weekend to finish our order. Highly recommended: fried basa catfish in crisp, spiced batter, Amritsar style; sizzling, juicy Lucknowi chicken kebab, one of many super items from the tandoor; Baigan Patiala, a rich, heavy dish of eggplant stir-fried until it’s so soft it almost begins to dissolve. Inextricably integrated is garlic, tomato, corinader, mango and – the key ingredient – masses of fresh, sharp raw ginger that cuts through the smotheringly unctuous textures and warm, whispering flavours, dragging you back into the light. Almost forgot the ras-malai for dessert. We were stuffed but somehow managed to finish the goblet of double cream flavoured with cardamom and crushed pistachio and the small, flattened balls of fresh cheese drowned therein. Prices, incidentally, are very reasonable, most mains costing around $12. The Copper Chimney is at 2050 Avenue Road (two blocks south of Wilson). 416 850 9772. www.the-copper-chimney.com.
Number 8 ENOTECA SOCIALE Rocco Agostino, co-owner of Pizzeria Libretto, has another smash hit on his hands. No pizza this time, but hearty, simple Italian food and once again nightly line-ups at the door. Overcrowding and ambient hubbub will be too much for some customers. They might wish to book the small room in the basement which has a fine view into the humidity-controlled cave where Agostino ages his collection of cherished cheeses. The rest of the menu is “inspired by classic Roman cuisine and Nonna’s cooking,” according to the chef. Hence fabulous fish cakes studded with chunks of potato and salt cod in a crisp golden crust set over a stiff, pungently garlic-driven aïoli. Or a delightfully simple dish of perfectly textured spaghetti tossed with finely grated pecorino cheese and freshly ground black pepper. It sounds so easy but all three ingredients have to be brilliantly judged to make magic happen. Agostino hits it out of the park. Some secondi get a little more complicated. I don’t often see goat outside a Caribbean or south Asian restaurant. Here, they treat it like porchetta, deboning the animal and stuffing it with a loose farce of pork n’dua, the internal parts of a pig that usually get little attention. The goat’s texture is as fine as young veal, but its sweet flavour is over-seasoned and dominated by a garlicky green gremolata spread on top of each slice. Creemore farmed Ontario ranibow trout is treated beautifully, a fillet pan-fried until the skin crisps but the flesh stays moist, set over firm brussels sprouts and creamy mashed squash. For dessert, vanilla panna cotta is simply ambrosial – soft yet not at all runny, wobbly, creamy, too insubstantial to stand up for itself if it weren’t offered in a ramekin… Crumbled on top are crushed smoked pecans that fall into the panna cotta every time the spoon enters that smooth, albino embrace. Wonderful stuff. Anitpasti $8-$12; pasta $12-$15; secondi $15-$18. Panna Cotta $8. A long, excellent wine list is worth serious exploration. Enoteca Sociale is at 1288 Dundas Street West (at Coolmine Road). 416 534 1200. www.sociale.ca
Number 9 FABBRICA Fabbrica is Mark McEwan’s new venture, a big, clever restaurant on the outer ramparts of the Shops at Don Mills, close to his food emporium. Giannone Petricone Associates designed the space, using reclaimed wooden strips on the soaring walls, a red, black and blue scheme and light fittings like white balloons hanging from octagonal umbrellas. The conceit is industrial but it’s all so obviously designed that the grit can only amount to a gesture. The space reminds me of the restaurants Terence Conran was opening in London during the 1990s – smart but also relaxed and unapologetically practical. Chef Rob LeClair executes a long menu that reads as Italian, but from no particular region, with flavours and textures showing a refined North American approach. Butterflied smelts, lightly battered and crisply fried, are fabulous, the fish moist, soft and white and served with half a grilled lemon and a lemon-caper aioli. Pizza here is Neapolitan style, the crust soft and slightly chewy but not at all charred. Octopus is a palpable hit, slow cooked in its own juices with chili, garlic and parsley then lightly grilled. Tender tentacles are tossed with ceci beans, matchsticks of salami, peperonata, onion and arugula to make a lovely, decorous, gently flavourful salad. Flavours soar in a braise of lamb neck with pale pine nuts and caponata that shares a rich, lip-sticking jus with a hearty, firm sausage of lamb and fennel. Fabricca is at 49 Karl Fraser Road (on the north-east corner of the Shops at Don Mills, where Don Mills Road meets Lawrence). 416 391 0307. www.fabbrica.ca.
Number 10 RUBY WATCHCO It seems like more than a year since Ruby Watchco opened, the casual-chic restaurant showcasing the combined talents of chefs Lynn Crawford and Lora Kirk. Their concept is a bold one. Each night they offer their customers one simple four-course meal—salad, main, cheese and dessert—starring whatever ingredients they are able to source that day from local farmers and growers. The style of food has been described by one of their friends as “souped-up home cooking.” At $49 a head, however, this is no cheap table d’hôte and every dish has to deliver. The food, plated at a well-lit table outside the kitchen, is served family-style in red Le Creuset casseroles which adds to the infectiously friendly vibe. Every time I’ve been there I’ve seen strangers turn to the tables beside them and discuss what they’re eating. Dinner starts with a salad – maybe of confited chicken leg, the tender, flavourful meat chopped up with crunchy croutons, red lettuce leaves, shaved radish, a quartered soft-boiled egg and some shaved pecorino. Beneath it all is some Garlicky green goddess dressing that brings everything to life. The main course could be a grilled flank steak, sliced thickly on the bias. A puck of herbed cabernet franc butter melts over the meat, licking the watercress beneath it. Smoked button mushrooms, sautéed with baby creminis and caramelized onion petals, nestle in one Le Creuset ramekin. Another holds chopped leeks and spinach, both braised in cream. A third is filled with firm, buttery roast parsnips, cut like plump frites. Cheese follows, then dessert – Kirk’s awesome lemon tart, if you’re lucky. I like Ruby Watchco’s style. The restaurant has substance but also a discreet glitter of star quality that brings focus and credibility to this emerging Queen East strip. Ruby Watchco is at Queen Street East (at Broadview). 416 465 0100. www.