Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017

© Carol Clemens

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Toronto stars

From street-front takeout to high-end hotels, we round up the restaurants you just can't miss

Toronto trendies are having a bad year. The city in which I grew up and which I refer to with some affection as Hogtown-sur-Lac is without a trend to cling to. This is a good thing: it signifies Toronto's growing up. It brings the city a tad closer to being what it's always wanted to be — Canada's Big Apple.

There are threads: Toronto chefs are trying to be as local as can be, not an easy thing when the sprawl is knocking against the Arctic Circle. Freshness is in, with top chefs working from scratch, not pre-prepped ingredients. And Torontonians are lightening up: small plates, whether tapas or dim sum or mezzes, are having their day.

One-offs, another nod to gastronomic complexity, can make it in 2011. Dine on designer Eastern European fare and wash it down with elite vodkas at the Rasputin Vodka Bar (780 Queen Street East; tel: 416-469-3737; rasputinvodkabar.com). At the Ruby Watch Co. (730 Queen Street East; tel: 416-465-0100; rubywatchco.ca), chef Lynn Crawford takes her chances with a like-it-or-lump-it single-menu dinner.

The unabashedly carnivorous Black Hoof (923 Dundas Street West; tel: 416-551-8854; theblackhoof.com) proffers treats in the order of smoked sweetbreads, foie gras with blood sausage, brain-stuffed ravioli, tripe-and-pig trotter stew and for dessert, bacon chocolate bread pudding. Ten years ago, it wouldn't have lasted a week.

So here we go: we dined out and we're passing the findings along.

The Jewel

Lyon-born-and-raised chef Jean-Pierre Challet has left his mark at kitchens from the late and much-missed Inn at Manitou to the Windsor Arms Hotel, but he's never been better than he is at Ici Bistro (538 Manning Avenue; tel: 416-536-0079; jpco.ca/restaurant/welcome). Opened earlier this year, his tiny restaurant (which only seats 24) has placed on every 10-best list that counts and calls for reservations three months in advance.

It's a lovely, happy room with Challet presiding Titan-like in the elevated open kitchen and maitre d' Jennifer Decorte overseeing swift servers who understand the menu almost as well as the chef.

Challet's foie gras is poached, not pan-fried, silken and accompanied by a black trumpet mushroom croquette that testifies to the chef's reputation for the incredible lightness of cuisine. The surprise hit is delicately seasoned merguez sausage paired with goat cheese and sided with the chef's famed, feather-light gnocchi in a Dijon mayo.

Ingenuity abounds from a deeply concentrated soupe de poissons to a cunningly deconstructed lobster Thermidor. For dessert, lunge at JP's trio of lemon, its centrepiece a lemon tart that makes no concessions to sugar hounds. Or will that be the Grand Marnier soufflé, only the best in town?

Ici also boasts a most accommodating menu, leaving the customer in charge of what he eats. All dishes can be apps or mains and the selection of wines by the glass — two pairings for each dish — is comprehensive and thoughtful, Challet and Decorte both being accredited sommeliers. Wouldn't you love to find a bistro like this in some hidden corner of Paris? Fat chance.

Fanciful Fusion

Welcome to Origin (107 King Street East; tel: 416-603-8009; origintoronto.com), the most successful small plates restaurant in the Hogtown history. Quicksilver chef Claudio Aprile's hip, happy tapas emporium rocks the steamiest open kitchen in town. We haven't seen this sort of energy since the heyday of Franco Prevedello's Pronto in the 1980s. Only now, can we keep up? At Origin, if you're over 35, you're a fogey.

We tend to forget Aprile's rackety room is also a fine restoration of a historic building, in this case a 19th-century clothing store. This explains the corset theme on a rear wall. And by the time you're done, you may need a corset yourself.

The globetrotting menu pauses in Spain, Italy, Japan, Thailand, India and Mexico. Molecular cuisine cuts in with special effects: poof goes the liquid nitrogen in the kitchen. Not everything works — the kitchen is too frenetic not to stumble — but there isn't a dull moment.

A salad of toasted almonds, shaved asparagus, arugula, Manchego cheese and lemon peel in poppyseed dressing proves an absolute must-taste. Same with the crunchy bruschetta, first-rate prosciutto playing off bufala mozzarella.

On the heavier and pricier side, tortilla wrapped around duck confit with pickled Chinese cucumber and carrot, sweetened with hoisin and fired up on Southeast Asian sriracha makes for snazzy fusion. And how do you resist a side of popcorn popped in clarified butter, tossed in truffle butter and sprinkled with Manchego cheese? Definitely not coming to a movie theatre near you.

Best Bite

At TOCA by Tom Brodi (181 Wellington Street West; tel: 416-572-8008; tocarestaurant.com), the acronym stands for Toronto, Canada and Brodi is chef at the luxe Ritz-Carlton Hotel. With the feel of a sleek private restaurant surrounded by a hotel, TOCA tosses off the outmoded hotel dining stigma.

At lunch, there isn't a false note from crusty house-made olive bread to the reincarnation of Cobb salad, a 1930s fave of half an iceberg lettuce, smoked chicken, avocado, egg, diced bacon, corn salsa and purple potato chips. Avocado fries prove it can be done.

But the dish is "fancy fish and chips." One cone spilled over with Kennebec fries topped with shaved Thunder Oak gouda and a second was loaded with tempura-battered lobster whose sweetness elevated the dish to a plateau of giddying deep-fry pleasure. At dinner, Brodi's Canadiana theming follows through with BC spot prawns and pan-seared venison loin.

One of a kind

Set in a former garage and conjuring up a party amid a rummage sale, chef David Haman's Woodlot (293 Palmerston Avenue; tel: 647-342-6307; woodlotrestaurant.com) qualifies as an original. When was the last time you started off with red fife baguette toasted to crunchiness, spread with chick-pea paste and topped with the grilled Cypriot halumi cheese and rhubarb preserve?

Ragout of snails (the original slow food) and pork belly with shitakes and Jerusalem artichokes all atop creamy polenta is an instant signature dish. Likewise the deconstructed cassoulet of duck confit and pork belly landscaped on navy beans and garnished with preserved lemon — a great dish from a kitchen that does everything from scratch. An alternative vegetarian menu is offered and much raved-about. In Toronto's endless winter, rush in for venison pie.

Taken for granted

The Art Deco room of EPIC (100 Front Street West; tel: 416-860-6949; epicrestaurant.ca) at the Fairmount Royal York must be the city's most media-ignored restaurant. Even a Google search for turns up just a single professional review. We tend to view it as a safe place to take granny, but it can be much better than that.

The menu pleases locavores because it reflects Fairmount's long-standing support of Canadian producers and wineries. Atlantic smoked salmon is unusually firm of flesh, unctuous and deep-flavoured, and intriguingly sided with minced salted shallots and pomegranate seed. Seared tuna and BC Dungeness crab cake pair up for an app of unusual heft and contrast.

Sablefish, aka Alaska black cod is the measure of any kitchen, here impeccably fresh and juicily done, reflecting the sea-loving style of EPIC chef Tim Palmer, recently arrived from Bermuda. Butter-poached lobster is its equal, a hefty tail and two claws garnished with an platter of heirloom veg. For dessert, maybe lavender shortbread crème brûlée, the lavender from the hotel's rooftop garden.

It's also fun to remember when the hotel opened in 1929, the room rate was $2 and the price of a grilled trout was almost half the price of the room. How times change.

Pig out

If Toronto contributes anything to the fast food nation, it's this take-out that does one thing and does it so well, it's in a class by itself. The aroma of roasting pork wafts out onto the sidewalk from Porchetta & Co (825 Dundas Street West; tel: 647-352-6611; porchettaco.com) prompting whiplash among pedestrians. Inside chef Nick auf der Mauer oversees a celebration of Ontario pork, perhaps the finest in Canada.

He begins by marinating his pork shoulder in sage, rosemary, lemon and garlic. Then he wraps it in prosciutto and pork belly and roasts if for hours. The pork goes into a sourdough bun. Then he adds crispy pork crackling, coarse seed mustard, Parmesan and truffle sauce. The result is as scrumptious as you'd imagine — fatty, juicy, hot, sweet and savoury simultaneously. Salivate and join the queue.

Critics' Choice

A darling with Toronto critics, Nota Bene (180 Queen Street West; tel: 416-977-6400; notabenerestaurant.com) reteams maitre d' Yannick Bigourdian and chef David Lee in a more casual, less expensive take on their earlier Splendido. The fare is lighter and simpler, too, and you could build a smart meal of apps.

A charcuterie plate brings tastes of lonzo, richly cured pork loin, delicious artisan chorizo and crusty bread with ultra-peppery olive oil. Himachi tuna marinated in lime juice and seafood stock ever so briefly, Peruvian-style, is velvet on the tongue. Crispy-skinned duck wafts with five-spice. Steak tartare is, for once, properly chopped and dressed. And who can resist the Alp of deep-fried onion rings on the side?

The main to order — and probably Toronto's last word in comfort food — is chef Lee's Cornish hen. It comes simply and perfectly roasted with thyme and garlic and served with BC morels. Every bite delivers near-spiritual pleasure, a prefect respite from the brain-addling 21st century.

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

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