Even chicken, until recently unloved, industrially processed, over-plumped and druggier than a seven-time Tour de France champ, got interesting this year; it was 2012’s most ubiquitous meat. Crispy chicken skin – think of potato chips, but made from, well, skin – gained traction on city menus, and southern-fried chicken was officially everywhere. Nowhere did I have better fried chicken than at Daisho, where Mr. Blondin sous-vide cooked free-run birds to moist and dementedly tender before frying, and served them with stacks of scallion pancakes. Edulis’s Mr. Caballo, meantime, went old-country, slow-baking whole, deep-flavoured heritage-breed birds in a covered pot on a bed of hay for what was easily one of the most delicious meat dishes of the year. (But please, the city doesn’t need another fried chicken joint. Or taco spot.)
Mackerel and Nova Scotia sea bream, both supremely fresh, flavourful and sustainable, were the fish of the year. And for the first time in a decade I didn’t see Chilean sea bass, that poster-species for overfishing and damn-the-consequences greed, on a menu, not even once. A wish for 2013: an end to the consumption of shark fins in the city, which might be the only thing worse.
North African and Middle Eastern spices, with their smoky, citrusy, musky, narcotizing backnotes, made headway on city menus (To wit: the harissa-spiked corn soup at the members-only Soho House Toronto).
And if you didn’t eat at least one smoked vegetable or condiment (the smoked tomato and cumin ketchup at The Grove: sublime) or fish or caviar garnish this year, you didn’t get out enough. The smoker was to 2012 what the pig tattoo was to the mid-2000s: every second chef in the city had to have one. (How is that tattoo removal going?)
As wine, beer and cocktail lists have grown more esoteric in the past few years, servers’ ability to answer the question “What does that taste like?” hasn’t always kept pace; we all know what Bordeaux is and how a Manhattan tastes, but what about orange wine from France’s (next-big-thing) Jura region, or the retro-progressive cocktail called arsenic and old lace?
At Raw Bar, proprietor Jen Agg and sommelier Zinta Steprans (since departed for Soho House Toronto), described every wine on their superbly curated list with the sort of care – and whimsy – that made the obscure instantly accessible, and urged would-be drinkers to have a try. About a cru Beaujolais from Moulin-a-Vent, they wrote, “It has a spicy, beautiful power, but I simply can’t ignore the obvious: Cinnamon hearts! Like in Grade 4, Valentine’s exchange, cute boy kinda way. But super complex.”
At Charles Khabouth’s blessedly over-the-top Weslodge, on prime King St. West, even the cocktails got menu descriptions. Of the barrel-aged negroni, the menu said, “Rich, bitter grapefruit, deep-toasted orange peel and the subtle spiced vanilla-oak finish.” Helpful? I think so. And I’d bet those descriptions sell a hell of a lot of booze.
Weslodge was ground-zero for trends in cocktail culture. Take that negroni, which was one of 2012’s most ubiquitous drinks. At Weslodge they premixed the drink and aged it – a process that’s increasingly popular, as the cocktail’s vermouth takes on nutty, oaky flavours as it oxidizes. You could buy that cocktail by the glass (for $14) or by the pitcher ($120; see “large format,” above), and either way it came in tweelightfully antique cut-crystal glassware. In case you haven’t noticed, everything old is fashionable again. Don’t be surprised if needlepoint aprons are 2013’s next big thing.
TOP TORONTO CHEFS OF 2012
1. Matt Blondin
The Sudbury-raised chef at Momofuku Daisho took a made-in-New York superbrand, then applied original ideas and brilliant execution to turn it into something more local, more Ontario – and more delicious – than the usual city standard. The culinary birther brigade isn’t happy about Momofuku’s success, of course: How dare a place from New York try harder and execute better than Toronto’s pure laine! But screw ’em. The city and its food scene are far, far richer thanks to Mr. Blondin and the Momofuku chain. We all win.
2. Patrick Kriss
Acadia’s Patrick Kriss is one of the smartest guys in cooking, with a diamond-sharp palate and the hard-earned skills to back it up. I loved his intelligent, playful French-by-way-of-southern-U.S. cooking. He’s also humble enough to know how much he doesn’t know and what he has yet to master. This guy is going far.
3. Michael Caballo
When the whole town was still in thrall to rustic Italian, Mr. Caballo, who runs Edulis with Tobey Nemeth, focused on seasonal French and Spanish country food, made with pristine ingredients and done spectacularly right. It’s the sort of cooking you can’t copy without crazy talent, coincidentally. His cooking is one of a kind.