People move to Toronto for many reasons: for business, to get an education, or to experience the city’s multicultural mix. A recent newspaper article paper chronicling one young man’s career-related move to the city revealed yet another attraction: the food. Needless to say, few locals were surprised by the young man’s excitement at unexpectedly finding himself in the country’s culinary centre. Anyone who’s spent time here knows the diversity and quality of cuisine at our doorstep is reason enough to relocate.
The advantage of eating out in Toronto is in the variety. Palates of all types and wallets of varying thickness can be satisfied. It’s all here, from the artistic symphonies of creative geniuses to the simple perfection of a well-made pizza, from meals for ten bucks to three Cs and cuisines from Thailand to Tuscany. And there’s always something new to discover: a Vietnamese sandwich that costs only a dollar, or a hot chef’s latest opus (dizzying price and reservation waiting list be darned).
Here we present 11 of the city’s prime places to eat, including our selections for the frugal gourmet (less than $100 for dinner for two with an inexpensive bottle of wine), for those who can afford a few more dollars (between $100 and $125 with wine) and for that enviable lot, the high-rollers ($175 and up, up, up).FRUGAL GOURMET
Pizza is a contentious issue in any city (everyone has an opinion about what constitutes the pick of the pack), but Torontonians who swoon over a thin yet tender crust and thoughtful toppings stand up for Terroni. The original on Queen West and two other locations are perpetually abuzz, welcoming boisterous families as well as moony couples. Dinner for two can cost as little as $25—the price of two pizzas. Add a few glasses of good red wine for not much more. Hip music, colourful chairs and funky colander light fixtures set a relaxed, fun mood, but the outstanding Italian food is the real draw, and pizzas are favourites. The Napoli (tomato, mozzarella and anchovies) is salty simplicity at its best, the sweet cheese and tangy tomato just the right match for snaking lengths of savoury anchovies. For a heartier pie, the Smendozzata (tomato, mozzarella, sausage, gorgonzola and onion) is unequalled in the city. Salads and such appetizers as oyster mushrooms baked with parmigiano make for good mid-afternoon snacks, while excellent house-made pastas get the same gracious treatment as the pizzas. Even a stickler for authenticity would be delighted by the penne all’arrabiata. Bottles of Italian wines and sparkling water should be followed by another Italian must: short, dark, syrupy after-dinner espresso.
Around the corner from Terroni’s Victoria Street spot is another of Toronto’s pet restaurants. Chef Jamie Kennedy is already a legend in this city, so when he opened JK Wine Bar last year, food lovers flocked. And fumed, since the restaurant does not accept reservations for supper. Lucky diners nab a chair at the kitchen bar, behind which the man himself wields tongs and towel without breaking a sweat, a whisper of a smirk on his lips at all times, even when the restaurant is hopping. To his left is a wall of his own preserves: wild leeks, plums and more, a silent clue to this chef’s passion for local produce and home cooking. And they’re not just for show: the onion for a Gibson martini might be plucked out of a jar of pickled jardinera. JK has a short menu of small but potent dishes, which makes it easy to sample a variety of Kennedy’s specialties, like herb-dusted frites with house-made mayo—an indulgence to start off a good meal. In the wintertime, cozy dishes such as braised oxtail or North African vegetable tagine (capped by a wonderfully runny poached quail’s egg) keep the cold away. Suggested wines take the guesswork out of flavour matches (Kennedy is also a certified sommelier). Two diners can order about eight different dishes between them, as well as some glasses of accompanying wines, all for less than $100, so it’s bound to be a memorable experience.
Speaking of memorable, those who think (and eat) outside the box head to Fressen, an upscale vegan restaurant that can make even a confirmed carnivore forget about meat. This Queen West space is comfortable and casual though much sleeker than your typical veggie café, and the menu is surprisingly tempting in so many ways. Daily soups are outstanding, as are first courses, such as pretty, fluffy spinach blini stacked around lemony avocado salsa. Salads are robust enough to make a meal. For entrées, if delicious grilled gluten roast doesn’t appeal, then how about Mediterranean vegetable stew topped with a large, soft millet dumpling or seared tofu in a tamarind barbecue sauce? A bounty of steamed and sautéed vegetables accompany, too. Meanwhile, chummy staff take requests from sensitive tummies and unusual diets in stride. Wash it all down with a good bottle of organic wine, but save room for the best dessert, a silky chocolate terrine charged with Jack Daniels and stuffed with chopped dates and nuts. It’s all very sophisticated, but even so, this feast only costs about $80—another Queen West bargain.
Bargains may not be associated with the Yonge and Bloor neighbourhood, better known for its high-end boutiques. And yet, this part of Yonge has developed a strip of affordable but suave Asian restaurants. None is better than Saigon Sister, a bright room with minimalist decor where two people can eat and drink for less than $60. Two-storey ceilings and a glass front add a sense of extra space, much welcome during the bustling lunch hour when everyone from students to suit-clad movers and shakers chopstick their way through predominantly Vietnamese dishes. Appetizer platters are a good idea since they offer lots of appealing bites: beef and betel wraps, cold salad rolls, chicken satay. Zingy hot and sour soup might not be Vietnamese, but who cares? Mix and match proteins and noodles for main courses. Sweet and spicy rice vermicelli with fried tofu and bok choy or sautéed beef and vegetables over pudgy udon are both good enough reasons to dine here. All kinds of fruit smoothies, martinis, decent wines and Asian beers lift this restaurant several notches above its neighbours.LATE-NIGHT EATERIES
Do midnight cravings have you wanting more than a burger with a Mc prefix? Then visit these downtown eateries where kitchen staff work late to satisfy your hunger.
Enjoy fresh steamed mussels, risotto, pasta and cognac-soaked peppercorn steaks at sleek Bistro 333 (333 King St. W., 416-971-3332) until 4 a.m. on weekends. Stylish lounge Room Service (471 Richmond St. W., 416-703-6239), offers a full menu from midnight to 5 a.m.; satisfy your nocturnal appetite with Mama Laura Lasagne and Strawberry Shortcake. At 50s-inspired diner Shanghai Cowgirl (538 Queen St. W., 416-203-6623) watch orders of Drunken Mussels and Ghetto Chicken being carefully prepared in the open-concept kitchen until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights. Amato (534 Queen St. W., 416-703-8989) serves the tastiest late-night pizza, with delivery available until 4 a.m. on weekends. —Caroline Puttock
FOR A FEW MORE DOLLARS
Though Toronto has lots of cheap and cheerful Southeast Asian eateries, Lalot adds refinement to the flavours of Vietnam, and still keeps the bill for a two-person supper under $120. On an unlikely corner at Queen and Bathurst, the storefront is as shy as Honest Ed’s discount emporium is brash. Because the food is so stimulating, unfussy surroundings create a pleasant balance. It all starts with the restaurant name, a type of betel leaf (a quintessential Vietnamese ingredient) which, when wrapped around a piece of grilled flank steak and sprinkled with chopped peanuts, adds a subtle perfume to an outstanding appetite-whetter. Soon enough, the room starts to buzz with conversation and gasps of delight. Entrées arrive beautifully presented. The catfish hotpot, still bubbling with fierce heat, holds the most tender and flavourful fish made sparkling by chilies and onions. Drunken chicken over a ginger glaze gets a kick from beautifully bitter gai lan, a leafy green much like the more common rapini. Sautéed green vegetable side dishes share well, as does a tub of jasmine rice. It’s just the thing to soak up all the luscious flavours on these plates. A huge family portrait on the wall (Lalot’s co-owners, Sydni and Albert Banh, as kids) suggests that this exquisite food is well-grounded in something more homestyle.
Not far to the southwest is the headquarters of renowned chef Susur Lee. His reputation sets him up not just as one of the top in the city, but also as one of the most inventive chefs in the world. But that fame has come with a price—for his customers at least, who often find a meal at Susur to be beyond their budget. Chef has heard these diners, and just recently opened Lee (603 King St. W., 416-504-7867) right next door to his pricey restaurant. Lee is more casual, and ultra hip with its stripped but sexy decor, attractive servers and cool music. And yes, happily, it’s much less expensive but no less ingenious and palate-pleasing. Plates are small (a new trend, it seems), so a hungry couple can share seven or eight and still get away with paying not much more than $125, including a decent bottle of wine. Thank goodness, because every item of the menu appeals: coconut, lime, chili and shrimp soup so intensely delicious the small bowl is barely enough; salted pork loin so tender it nearly crumbles in the mouth, leaving just its umami-rich taste on the tongue. Chef Lee is a whiz with brain-tickling fusion, so mushroom dumplings are filled with green onions and glass noodles, then covered with béchamel and tomato sauce like cannelloni. On paper, the idea seems forced; in the mouth, it reveals itself to be a brilliant merger. Even desserts are mini indulgences, like the bacci cake, a small dome of chocolate loaded with peanuts and set in a drizzle of liquid caramel. It’s like tasting artistic license.
Uptown at Zucca (2150 Yonge St., 416-488-5774), simpler dishes are a reminder of why Italy is home to one of the world’s greatest cuisines. In this quiet space, gentle lighting matches the kind of hushed purr that accompanies true gustatory satisfaction. The fare is regional Italian—cuisines that rely on seasonal ingredients and straightforward preparations by an insightful chef. Antipasti can be as unpretentious as a good green salad or as refined as a sformato, a soft custardy flan flavoured with the best vegetables available. Primi like chick pea-flavoured pasta with lamb ragu are full-bodied enough to be a whole meal or, like the ciriole pasta with tomato, basil and hot peppers, exquisite enough to tease the palate for the next round. This house-made pasta, cooked becomingly al dente, is so good it could stand on its own. According to Italian culinary taste, main courses feature grilled and roasted meats and fish, and chef Andrew Milne-Allan has a way with fish, especially a daily special of a lovely whole fish grilled with lemon and fresh herbs. Sometimes it’s mackerel, sometimes striped bass: whatever looks best to the chef. The theme continues to the sweets: a ripe pear drizzled with buckwheat honey under a flurry of shaved parmigiano exceeds expectations as it is more than the sum of its tip-top parts. A prix fixe offered Sunday to Tuesday keeps dinner for two far under $100, but a full supper on any other night rarely creeps over $120.
At two of the city’s venerable landmarks, brunch couldn’t be further from institutional. At the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Agora, the exhibitions inspire the inventive menus. In equally vaulted surroundings on the U of T campus, The Gallery Grill offers such cosmopolitan fare as roasted squash-stuffed buckwheat crepes. The day’s off to a glamorous start at Belgian brasserie Café Brussel, also known for its moules, or Mildred Pierce where you can try the whimsical green eggs and ham. Neighbourhood haunts treat the brunch bunch to fragrant baked-good starters at Leslieville’s Verveine, and in Little Italy, lattes and waffles at ruggedly retro Aunties and Uncles (74 Lippincott St., 416-324-1375) or Kalendar. For eggs, Over Easy is just one way to have yours at this Annex eatery, or at Cora’s Breakfast and Lunch in Mississauga.HIGH ROLLERS
Certain Toronto restaurants have become hubs of creative flair, destination restaurants of a sort. A triple- digit price tag is understood, but so is the assurance this will be more than just a meal. Upon crossing the threshold at Senses diners inhale the spicy smell of star anise that pervades the room and recognize that all five senses will be involved. The $99 per person tasting menu is the ideal way to be immersed in chef Claudio Aprile’s vision. This involves a flight of dishes as well as little culinary bells and whistles, such as an icy spiced ponzu slushie served alongside a hot pebble sprinkled with ground spices—a clever way to engage the nose as well as the tongue. Even within each course, variations share a plate. Torchon of foie gras with flax crackers on one end and two bites of seared foie gras on the other bookend a long plate whose midsection is occupied by one fat slice of fried squab, a smudge of sweet-tart hibiscus jam and a drizzle of foie gras foam. However, ordering off the à la carte menu is equally entertaining. Appetizers are splashy with intermingling flavours. Marinated shrimp ceviche rest between saffron roasted potatoes, smoked paprika oil, squid ink aioli, fresh cilantro and whiskers of green onion. This may seem like overload, but the combination works wonderfully. Entrées are a bit less flashy. Braised beef short ribs are scented with star anise but remain every bit as tender and comforting as a Sunday supper. Amid many dessert selections, a plate of truffles and cookies proves a nicely subdued finish to all that stimulation.
While Aprile’s inspirations span the globe, those at Xacutti pronounced “sha-koo-tee” are mainly Indian. But chef Brad Moore’s creativity takes his dishes into an entirely different realm than plain old curry and rice. Take, for example, Moore’s cinnamon-guava pork ribs: the tastes and textures are novel, and nothing can stop you from sucking on fingers to ensure you’ve consumed every last sticky-sweet drop. Posh flavours seem to drip from the menu: cardamom, fenugreek, mint, coconut, tamarind and chili. Fish especially is superb, each plate popping with these bright, intense colours and seasonings. There’s an über-cool long communal table that makes instant friends out of strangers, and servers with handheld computers appear to have just stepped out of a fashion magazine. All that glamour doesn’t stop Moore from serving doughnuts for dessert—punchy ginger cake doughnuts with poached figs, though, that combine sophistication and comfort with the flavours of India. Dinner for two costs about $150, but a weekend brunch adds macadamia flapjacks and peppered steak benedict into the mix.
Further west along College Street, where Little Italy gives way to Little Portugal, Chiado stands as Toronto’s best place for seafood, though supper will, of course, cost well more than a plate of fish and chips (dinner for two is close to $170). To begin, a deep bowl of shrimp and lobster bisque is smooth but for two plump shrimp, and scented by just a suggestion of saffron. Next, marinated raw or grilled sardines are a revelation, vastly different from the tinned sardines most Canadians are used to. A practised server dressed in classic black and white brings round a platter of fillets and whole fish to entice diners with daily specials. Skate, tuna, striped bass and several Portuguese specialties are all tempting. Espada, a Portuguese black fish described as tasting like a cross between Dover sole and lobster, lightly sautéed and served over beet risotto, is simple but stunning. The Portuguese also know dessert. Chiado’s natas is a more worldly tiramisu, with crushed almond biscuits the base for frothy meringue and thick custard—a sweet, remarkable conclusion.
Splendido is our city’s culinary crown jewel. From the gracious host’s welcome to the jellied plum petit fours for dessert, a meal here is as delightful as anyone could hope. The high-ceilinged room twinkles with candlelight; attentive servers are soft-spoken but warm; tables are placed so that the room seems cozy yet each table floats in its own space. Chef David Lee’s menu embraces traditional influences (as in steak with sautéed mushrooms) as well as modern touches (horseradish foam accompanies a beef rib second course). Although dishes might seem complicated, Lee makes sure that principal flavours remain clear. So an exquisite rack of Australian lamb has some playful accompaniments (leek tartlet with cheese foam), but the meat itself is simply treated, herb-crusted, perfectly cooked and complemented by fresh mint sauce. Likewise, shellfish chowder is rich but sweet with fresh corn, and chanterelle risotto is creamy but not cloying. Splendido also offers a tasting menu, the place to look for inventive treats such as an egg yolk raviolo (like a poached egg made of pasta) crowned by confit of veal tongue and gilded with shaved black truffle. Cost should be no object, for this is a restaurant that provides a priceless experience.VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
Every year Where readers determine our MOST MEMORABLE MEAL AWARDS. See below for a look at last year’s winners.
BEST AMBIENCE Auberge du Pommier
BEST BAR Panorama
BEST BREAKFAST/BRUNCH Hot House Cafe
BEST BUSINESS LUNCH Jump
BEST CHINESE Lai Wah Heen
BEST FAMILY DINING The Pickle Barrel
BEST FINE DINING Scaramouche
BEST FRENCH Le Papillon
BEST GREEK Christina’s
BEST HOTEL DINING The Four Seasons
BEST INDIAN Babur
BEST ITALIAN Sotto Sotto Trattoria
BEST JAPANESE Benihana
MOST ROMANTIC 360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower
BEST SERVICE Ruth’s Chris Steak House
—From reasonably priced bistro fare to sky-high haute cuisine, Claire Tansey sinks her teeth [and heart] into some of the best food the city has to offer.