Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017
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Heat of the moment

From ethnic comfort food to high-concept cuisine, Toronto's best restaurants are on fire

If Montreal lets no gras grow under its feet and Vancouver boasts Canada's most adventurous pool of culinary talent, where goes Hogtown-by-Lake? It goes in all directions at once: yes, the city Canadians love to hate has its share of snooty restaurants to send some of us scrambling for a third mortgage, but it also has terrific spots run by chefs determined to make it in Canada's most competitive city. And no other place in this broad land can boast having so many different cuisines so well represented.

With this in mind, I've chosen seven Toronto restaurants representing a range of cuisines. What they have in common is excellence. The trappings, the service, the food will all differ dramatically, but the effects on your pleasure quotient should be pretty much the same.

BUDGET
Sidhartha
1450 Gerrard Street East; tel: (416) 465-4095
Inconsistency is forever the rule among Toronto's Indian restaurants, so thank heavens for Sidhartha. With soft lights, fabric-swathed alcoves, Sidhartha spurns subcontinental kitsch in favour of simplicity and cosiness. As is the way in Little India, buffet lunches and dinners sate gluttons and extended families, but it's the " la carte that struts its stuff for mother India's kitchen.

Northern India prevails on the menu, but the South comes represented by such authentic ambassadors as uttapam, a rice pancake galvanized by green chilies, and masala dosa, the crispy, billowing crêpe stuffed with potato curry and accompanied by zesty coconut chutney and sambar, a thick, spicy gravy made from lentils.

Invariably, my opener is onion bhaji, feathery, greaseless fritters of sweet onion that surely rank as the best of their kind in Toronto. For mains, an easy fave is the vegetarian mali kofta, a vegetable-and-cheese dumpling in creamy gravy that demonstrates how subtle and symphonic Indian spices can be. Swimming in spices, jal ferezi, mixed veg, is a hot one. Shrimps surprise because the wee crustaceans are plump little critters, not the wizened antiquities served in most Indian restaurants. And red wines from Down Under dance with Sidhartha's subtleties.

Rich Congee
7077 Kennedy Road; tel: (905) 947-1880
Driving to the megacity's northeast frontier circa Steeles and Kennedy is the equivalent of a trip to Mars for most downtowners, yet tucked away on the fringes of the behemoth Pacific Mall is this jewel dedicated to the prospect of congee.

Chinese rice porridge doesn't sound like much, but it's one of the great staples of China and Southeast Asia. Rich Congee holds out enormous, steaming bowls of the porridge in the silken Cantonese style in 57 — yes, 57 —— different varieties. Think of congee as a kind of pizza: how good it gets depends on the toppings, which in this case cover a vast range from blood Jell-O — congealed pig's blood — to lobster and crab. And when it's good, it is the last word in comfort food.

My idea of a great lunch at Rich Congee: start out with a platter of crisp, greaseless shrimp fritters. Or the amazingly tender — not the usual bungee cords — deep-fried squid. Go for the fish or seafood congee, it costs a pittance (seafood with winter melon is a mere $6.50). Or order salmon, the rice loaded with juicy chunks of fish, laced with ginger and green onion and lightly drizzled with soy.

MODERATE
Bouchon
38 Wellington Street East; tel: (416) 862-2675
When Jean-Pierre Challet unveiled his cosy, subterranean Bouchon — which translates loosely as wine cork — he turned the notion of the Toronto bistro upside down. Bistro food can soar to $200 per couple in this town, but Challet proffers a menu whose priciest item — an inventive rack of lamb encrusted in black tea — is a mere $19. Yes, the plates are a little smaller, but only a little, and the real bargain is the chef's originality and artistry at family restaurant prices.

Going a step further, Challet has recently taken a leap into "dinner in a glass." This isn't nearly as crazy as it sounds. Imagine a wide-brimmed glass in which a layer of deep-fried calamari, so light it almost levitates, gives way to a layer of finely chopped crab, and the crab gives way to a layer of bouillabaisse risotto, the rice perfectly infused with Marseilles-style seafood sensations.

For those who insist on dinner on a plate, Challet's Quebec foie gras — terrine or seared — is a dream, and at $16, is vastly better and more generous than the exiguous liver served at other bistros. Also harking from the French southwest, his plump duck confit trumps probability by emerging from the oven juicy and crispy skinned. And anything that swims has never received more love in a Toronto kitchen.

 

JOY Bistro
884 Queen Street East; tel: (416) 465-8855
Imagine tucking into juicy, delicious braised lamb shanks in a rosemary cloud, and forking out only $19. And with it, a California Zinfandel at $27? And in a cosy environment with comfy chairs, soft lights and a snazzy red-granite bar? This is why JOY Bistro is, well, a joy. Owner Ted Koutsogiannopoulous believes in a good deal: most appetizers are under $10, most mains under $20, many wines under $30.

This unpretentious resto on an emerging strip of Queen Street East is a breakfast spot where locals wolf down alps of blueberry pancakes over coffee and newspapers. At lunch, it's a neighbourhood hangout and home to the occasional business lunch. At dinner, the lights go down and it's a value-driven bistro.

Vegetarians warm to the Leaning Tower of Veggies, a vertical build of grilled eggplant, zucchini, sweet peppers and red onions, with warm chèvre, honey-toasted walnuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. And the aforementioned lamb shanks, as common as trolley cars in this town, are remarkable, huge and juicy, their flesh toppling from the bone.

LiLy
786 Broadview Avenue; tel: (416) 465-9991
LiLy brings a new spin to East-West fusion: the distinctly European room — mahogany bar, leather banquettes and room-length mirror — dresses up for the Rising Sun with Japanese lanterns and tasteful prints. This is a case of one plus one equalling three: a warmly inviting room that encourages lingering over unusually playful and inventive Japanese cuisine.

The menu covers all the bases from teriyaki to tempura, but predictably, the heart of it all is fish and seafood. Sea urchin soup, for instance, brings a broth infused with smoky bonito and afloat with chunks of the foie-gras-like urchin. Sushi pizza, which is neither sushi nor pizza, sees a panko-encrusted soft rice cake topped with smoked salmon, avocado and crisp flying fish roe. LiLy's makis, or rolls, are stellar, all of them. The Broadview Roll boasts three kinds of raw fish (salmon, tuna, yellowtail) and two flying fish roes to symphonic effect, and the onion tempura roll is an addictive riff on the onion ring. Sushi? Hefty chunks of dreamy Pacific urchin (arriving fresh Tuesday nights) dabbed with flying fish roe drape the vinegared rice; at $7 for two, it's the most expensive — and inspired — bite on the menu.

SPLURGE
Truffles
29 Avenue Road; tel: (416) 928-7331
Toronto has no shortage of expensive restaurants. What's amusing is the infuriating sameness of their menus. As a veteran restauranteur commented, you can visit 10 top restaurants in a row and have the same meal every night. Well, until Truffles, which hasn't been the city's only AAA Five-Diamond-rated property for nine consecutive years for nothing.

In the Four Seasons Yorkville Hotel, Truffles transcends conventional wisdom that hotel restaurants can't compete. For years the kitchen has led, not followed, the pack, emerging as the city's preeminent celebratory dining room. Celebrity loves it, yet the restaurant is never stuffy or pompous. It treads many fine lines at once.

Under the seasoned helmsmanship of exec chef Lynn Crawford, food here tends to be cutting-edge luxe: you can reasonably expect a fish dish to come garnished with caviar. Salmon, wild not farmed, is likely to show up poached, not grilled. Surf-and-turf morphs into roast halibut and braised oxtail. Bitter chocolate sauces loin of venison. The signature dish for decades remains spaghettini with truffle foam, easily one of the best dishes I've encountered in three decades of professional dining.

Bymark
66 Wellington Street; tel: (416) 777-1144
Toronto superchef Mark McEwan, mastermind behind the elite North 44, goes underground for suits in Toronto's financial district. This sounds less than inspired — the suits still want beef, big, fat bricks of it — as does the notion of a $33.95 burger, even with porcini mushrooms, Brie, mustard-truffle aioli and spectacular rosemary onion rings. Yet McEwan, a fastidious detail man who leaves nothing to chance, should not be underestimated: At Bymark, he pulls it off.

The kitchen produces richly textured detail: salmon comes crispy skinned. Roast sea bass — not the luscious Patagonian toothfish on its way to extinction in many restaurants — is caught that morning, and comes bejewelled with scallops, shrimps, mussels and leeks. Meats gain hugely from extra aging and deeply reduced, lip-sticking sauces and drizzles. Moreover, the menu rhymes off wine by the glass for every last dish. McEwan and his Bymark chef, Brooke McDougall, have it covered off in a way so seamless, not even walking pinstripes can go wrong.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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