THE BEST NEW RESTAURANTS IN TORONTO FOR 2015 ARE A POTENT MIX OF FINE-DINING RESTAURANTS AND EASYGOING ESTABLISHMENTS
Toronto’s dining scene is renowned for its diversity; its best restaurants are lauded for combining fresh, local flavours with culinary inspirations from around the globe. But it’s a tight market (the city’s foodies are a fickle bunch) and newcomers need to offer both high-quality cooking and a dash of conceptual creativity to really stand out. Fortunately, a select group of establishments rose to the challenge, and in doing so became our favourite pizza parlours, gourmet cafés, seafood spots and fine-dining spaces to debut in 2015.
YORKVILLE’S LATEST EXPENSE-ACCOUNT SPOT
The “scene” in Toronto’s most chichi neighbourhood is not for everyone. The area tends to hold at arms length anyone who’s the least bit self-conscious. Dining at its expansive contemporary-Japanese resto-lounge is no different: you’ll want to get a little gussied up, the better to match Kasa Moto’s dressed-to-the-nines dining room. The food, however, is worth the effort. A sizeable menu overseen by executive chef Michael Parubocki goes heavy on lighter bites like tuna tataki, hamachi with yuzu ponzu and, of course, a seven seas–swimming selection of sushi and sashimi (splurge on the artfully prepared platters). Land-loving patrons can indulge in the likes of tableside-cooked Japanese A5 wagyu beef. This being Yorkville, the frills don’t end there: the restaurant recently introduced a decadent Eastern-inspired brunch (try the breakfast bento box with salmon fried rice, yam tempura and pork belly), and its huge rooftop patio is reason enough to make a return trip once the weather warms.
THE ANTI-IZAKAYA IZAKAYA
We’ve been conditioned to expect a hearty greeting upon entering a Japanese pub. You’re unlikely to get one here: like owner Leemo Han’s other (Korean) snack bar, Oddseoul, Hanmoto cultivates a too-cool-for-school attitude. Even if someone were to shout “Irasshaimase,” you’d be lucky to hear it over the music. But some slights can be overlooked when you’re stuffing your face with food of the quality proffered at this compact Dundas West spot, where the kitchen indulges Han’s proclivity for smashing together Asian and North American influences in such late-night bites as dyno wings—deboned, stuffed with pork and bacon, and deliciously deep fried—and an “uni bomb” of rice, sea urchin roe and crisp chicken skin. The whole hipster-y experience is a bit of an acquired taste, but based on the consistently packed house, it’s a taste that a lot of us are buying.
HEARTY, HUMBLE MEXICAN
Perhaps a signal that Toronto’s taco trend is cooling, one of its biggest proponents, Playa Cabana owner Dave Sidhu, shies somewhat away from the handheld offerings at his mini-chain’s newest outpost. Instead, Cocina Economica hones in on Mexican home cooking, represented by meats like slow-cooked lamb, spit-roasted pork leg and adobo-marinated sea bream, served communally by the half-pound, with rice, beans and other accompaniments. The tight, colourfully adorned quarters add to the family-style ambience.
POLISHED FRENCH FARE IN A REFINED ROOM
For the past half-decade or so, chef Patrick Kriss has been something of a best-kept secret among Torontonians seeking inventive yet refined cuisine. He earned a reputation as a perfectionist in the kitchens of some of the city’s top restaurants; now he’s parlayed that experience into his own establishment, a stunning, timeless ode to tasting-menu dining. Kriss’s five-courser—typically with two options per course—leans toward French classicism while avoiding affectation. And discreet yet eminently amiable servers ensure the atmosphere of practiced effortlessness remains just so.
A CLASSIC BISTRO FROM TORONTO’S COCKTAIL KINGS
If you’ve been to Barchef, the city’s still-reigning champion of molecular mixology, you might have an inkling of what to expect from its sister space, Furlough. But only an inkling. The Trinity Bellwoods–area outpost from Barchef’s Brent VanderVeen and Frankie Solarik does brisk business in booze, but the drinks are less showy—think sophisticated takes on classics such as the Clover Club, Martinez and Moscow Mule, plus a number of modern but decidedly not meretricious inventions—than at the pair’s original location. The atmosphere’s a little more relaxed, too: casually continental, with gilt-framed mirrors, a tin ceiling and intimate seating. If that weren’t enough to encourage lingering, there’s also a full bistro menu, boasting nibbles like lobster on toast and larger options ranging from pan-seared trout with arugula pesto to a roasted pork chop with creamed corn, spinach and maple bourbon mustard.
DISTINCTIVE STYLE AND ALL-DAY EATS
There aren’t many Toronto eating experiences quite like gathering around one of the beer-barrel “tables” or sidling up to the Gaudi-inspired mahogany bar at Grant van Gameren’s College Street taberna. The chef and restaurateur’s second space distills the best elements of his still-popular Bar Isabel and makes them accessible from morning to late night, to anyone seeking a few excellent Spanish snacks and, perhaps, a daytime tipple. Don’t be intimidated by the crowded-casual vibe: just check out the offerings on the bar top, inform a staff member of your interests, and find a stool (or standing room) at which to indulge in some of the city’s small plates.
DEEP-DISHING DETROIT-STYLE PIES
This city has rather catholic taste when it comes to pizzas. Whether it’s Roman-style, Neapolitan certified or authentically N.Y.C., so long as the toppings are fresh and the crust done right, we’ll devour it by the slice—or, more likely, by the whole pie. Until recently, one ‘za Toronto had been missing is the variety preferred by our friends at the end of the 401. In Leslieville, Descendant’s Motor City–inspired servings are defined by a thick yet pleasantly airy crust that’s baked in a rectangular pan and topped with generous amounts of sauce and cheese—which caramelizes along the pie’s edge for a savoury crunch. As with most pizzerias, take-out is the standard order here, but the artfully distressed front of house does have seats for about two-dozen diners.
TEMPTING TIKI BAR
We give it a year before cynics start bemoaning “too many tiki bars” opening in Toronto. For now, though, cheekily named Miss Thing’s is out in front of what looks like the next trendy restaurant theme. The West Queen West hot spot boasts speakeasy style with splashes of Polynesian colour—an urbane yet creative design scheme that’s mirrored in a menu of upmarket pan-Asian fare. The toothsome bites change with the seasons, but generally draw inspiration from Hong Kong, the South Pacific and Hawaii. (America’s island state is notably represented by a Spam-based pintxo and flank steak–featuring “loco moco.”) Boozy, fruit-forward drinks offer a vibrant escape from the chill of winter.
RACA CAFÉ & BAR
BIG FLAVOUR ON A SMALL SCALE
The west-end Parkdale ‘hood is home to a lot of little dining gems that tend to operate under the radar due to their distance from the downtown core. Chef Ivana Raca’s eponymous café and cocktail spot might just be the best of this varied bunch. With just a handful of tables and a tiny open kitchen, the slim space is agreeably intimate, and its Southeast Asian decor lends both colour and calm—a contrast to the chef’s bold, seasonally inspired dishes, which draw variously on French, Italian, Mediterranean and Canadian influences. For winter, seek comfort in such delicious dishes as Peruvian meatballs and ricotta gnocchi, or Raca’s signature wild mushroom risotto.
SINGING THE SEA’S PRAISES
John Bil has long been a peripatetic member of the restaurant industry. A champion oyster shucker and seafood expert, his biography also includes helping to launch a great number of top restaurants, including Montreal’s Joe Beef. Now he’s settled at Honest Weight, his own fish counter, where Junction residents can purchase (and in the process, learn about) some of the best in-season fish, crustaceans and mollucks available in Toronto. Customers with pressing hunger pangs can grab a seat for lunch or dinner: locals favour the fish sandwich and Japanese-style okonomiyaki pancake, while Bil himself focuses on introducing patrons to lesser-known and oft-overlooked items to help promote true seafood sustainability.
Destinations like Naples, Rome and the Amalfi Coast tend to get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to eating Italian in Toronto. The city has dozens of good-to-great establishments slinging thin-crust pizzas, Caprese salads and braised octopus. Stelvio stands outside of the pack with its focus on cooking from Italy’s north—specifically the Lombardy region. The Alpine area is known for its heartier fare, with carbs and cheese sharing the culinary spotlight. At the stylish Queen West restaurant, that translates to such dishes as pizzoccheri di teglio (short, hand-cut buckwheat pasta with imported cheese, savoy cabbage and potatoes), pork sausage risotto, and a robust, traditional polenta.
BARBECUE, BRUNCH AND A LOT MORE
As the evolutionary pace of modern life continues to increase, so does our collective appetite for nostalgia. From our fashion to our films and even our food, what was once past inevitably becomes present again. Old School, a medley of smokehouse, diner, malt shop and cocktail bar—those touchstones of mid 20th-century Americana—fulfills a broad spectrum of culinary yearnings on the hip Dundas West strip. The round-the-clock restaurant goes whole hog with numerous styles of barbecue—Texas, St. Louis, Kansas City and more—complemented by a selection of hand-stirred organic sodas (though booze is also available). The big, daily brunch includes such indulgences as chicken and waffles plus a huge stack of buttermilk pancakes. Basically, what we’re trying to say is there’s something here to satisfy every appetite at all hours of the day.