Canadian cities have been under increasing scrutiny, for better or worse, given the wildly uneven quality of the commentary in terms of what is now called, ubiquitously, their “food scenes”. When David Hawksworth’s Young Chefs Scholarship had its inaugural competition last year, both Anthony Walsh and Mark McEwan flew in from Toronto for the occasion, as part of a national panel of well-known chefs who judged the competition. Both of these chefs fielded a hailstorm of questions centered around two themes. Where is the hottest food scene on the planet today? (The answers ranged from Singapore through Hong Kong and on to San Sebastián.) And, what is the best food city in Canada, and, as corollary, how does Vancouver stack up with Toronto? (The answers were not evasive, but certainly non-committal.)
You could forgive them for being perhaps a little tired of, bored with, such lines of questioning. It is as if the dining in any particular city can somehow be measured empirically against other cities. You can get into a heated argument, especially if the invigorated cocktail scene has made its presence known, about whether New York is a true rival for Paris, if either rivals London, or if Canada generally is in the game at all. According to the popularity contest known as the San Pellegrino Restaurant Awards, the answer to the latter question appears to be “no”.
But, let’s say you are from the Maritimes, or from Western Canada, and in Toronto, as many are, on business for a few days. Let’s say you are taken to a few outlying neighbourhood places, and not every place is about fine linen and tall, big-bowled stemware. Toronto is, simply put, a terrific place to dine out. All the trends are established; organic, local, sustainable. That is in part due to a coterie of hot young chefs making their mark, but it is also due to a distinguished history in this city of fine dining, led by such names as Robert Sulatycky, Michael Stadtlander, Jamie Kennedy, Lynn Crawford, and Mark McEwan.
McEwan, a Food Network star in addition to now owning four restaurants, a catering company, and a fine little grocery store, remembers the old days. “When we started North 44, up on Yonge, the idea of a neighbourhood place that had fine dining aspirations was almost unheard of. But we stuck to the plan, which still is to bring the best food we could, prepared well and presented well, and sure enough, diners liked us, and stayed loyal,” he says. “Today, the diner is so much more knowledgeable, is well-travelled, and has eaten in some pretty great places all around the world. So the bar for us has never been higher.”
Roberto Martello has been bringing his take on Puglia to his clients at Grano for nearly 30 years, and the place always seems full, so the notion holds firm; put quality on the plate, emphasize great service, and you have a shot. Another celebrity chef, Lynn Crawford, has embraced a more casual, friendly approach at her Ruby Watchco, a hit right out of the gate. Claudio Aprile, long a bastion of haute cuisine partially inspired by his days cooking in Spain, has struck the right notes at Origin, the more approachable companion to Colburn Lane. David Lee, who ruled Harbord Street at Splendido for many years, and found great success at Nota Bene, has branched out into a BBQ place, called the Carbon Bar.
“Today, the diner is so much more knowledgeable, is well-travelled, and has eaten in some pretty great places all around the world. So the bar for us has never been higher.”
And the celebrity chefs are no longer local only. Daniel Boulud has found a happy landing for a Café Boulud at the Four Seasons new property; David Chang is making people sigh over his noodles in an always packed Momofuku, based on his crazily successful New York restaurant.
But the real mark of a vibrant food scene in a city this size is what happens at the hot new joints, or when a hot new chef arrives at a popular restaurant and takes it to new levels. Enoteca Sociale is a great example, where chef Kris Schlotzhauer runs some amazing, simple, delicious food out of a tiny kitchen. “We are so fortunate in this region, where amazing, fresh seasonal foods are not just a talking point, it’s reality,” he says. “And our guests are so knowledgeable, and appreciate it all.” A treviso salad is graced with grapefruit, pistachio, and chili; the albacore tuna conserva has a nice bite of orange, fennel, olives, and red onion; the fish of the day is served whole; the 45-day dry-aged Ontario ribeye is completed with parmesan, balsamic vinegar, and arugula. This place rules Dundas West.
Tucked onto Temperance Street, though in no way could you say this restaurant advocates such a thing, is the Chase. Downstairs is convivial, casual, a gigantic bar and lounge area giving way to street-side casual dining, while upstairs, an elegant, carpeted room provides a somewhat more hushed but still vibrant experience. That is because the food coming out of the kitchens is approachable, wines by the glass are plentiful and good, and the service is really an extension of the idea that the place exists to make you happy. Judging from the laughter and the lineups at both the door and the bar, it seems to have caught on.
College Street still has its fine rooms, but venture a bit further away from University and you will, after looking for it closely enough, find Bar Isabel. Chef/owner Grant van Gameren, has hit the mark with a place that looks a bit shopworn, but is comfortable, charming, and bustling. “I wanted a pretty specific situation, a comfortable place where we could do what we really want. All the charcuterie we make ourselves, the meats, there has never been a better time for sourcing things.” In the kitchen, he and his small brigade turn out small plate after small plate of amazing contorni, the best sardines in the city (we had to use that cliché at least once), and some terrific mains. Add some pretty obscure sherries and a nicely built wine list along with plenty of craft beers on tap, a staff that seem to enjoy being there and doing what they are doing, and you have a little night magic. At 11:45 p.m., it is no less hopping than at 7. “People love it. No pretension at all, just the best things we can put on a plate.”
This is the kind of restaurant that gets the locals excited. It feels like something you would find only in a great food city, and to now be able to find it, in its modest surroundings in a quiet part of town, is to somehow feel like, yes, this is a good place to be. Portland, a current darling of the restaurant media, has some fabulous places, but none better than Bar Isabel. Like Model Milk in Calgary, and L’Abbatoir in Vancouver, it is setting its own standards and beating them every day, being innovative to some degree but mainly just putting out great dishes people love to eat.
So, there is great dim sum and Lai Wah Heen; undeniably great pizza at Pizza e Pazzi; plenty of good coffee houses, none to date any better than Dineen Coffee, right near the Chase; gelato, sure, at Il Gelatiere Artigianale. The choices for Portuguese restaurants on or near College Street alone would require serious amounts of time.
Toronto may be the fourth largest metropolis in North America, but its status as a food city is, if anything, growing faster than its population. For visitors and locals alike that is nothing but good news, and good eating.