Why 2012 will be remembered as the year that changed Toronto dining

The Globe and Mail

Hootenanny dessert from Shoto at Toronto's Momofuku restaurant. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

It can seem so quaint, if you’re in the business of tracking this city’s booming restaurant scene, to hark back just a year or two, to when everybody seemed to be opening burger joints and trattorias – to when “safe” seemed the watchword of the day. In 2012, the word would have to be “plenty.” Toronto’s dining scene expanded, evolved and improved at a pace that no Canadian cultural industry other than pop music could even dream of, with a return to good service, an influx of new noodle spots, the entry of not just one but two New York-based superchefs, and so many new and promising restaurants that it was hard to keep track of them all.

Story continues below ad

The year brought a wave of Japanese imports from the west coast and from Tokyo: thumping izakayas and cheerful little ramen shops, a few of which became so beloved, so instantly, that it’s hard to imagine how we got by before they arrived.

A string of chefs-to-watch, the young(ish) and talented cooks who’d been circling, watching, waiting for the past few years, finally locked into their own restaurants: Geoff Hopgood (Hopgood’s Foodliner), Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth (Edulis), Carl Heinrich (Richmond Station), Ben Heaton (The Grove), Colin Tooke (Grand Electric) and many others.

The city gained not just one but two international superchefs, in the restaurants of David Chang (Momofuku) and Daniel Boulud (Café Boulud), both of whom installed superb Canadian talent at the top. And even Pearson Airport, pretty much the last place you’d expect to find something decent to eat, announced a slew of new places by top Toronto talent; they’re slated to start opening in the next few weeks.

The word “plenty” translated into what went onto restaurant tables, also, as more than a dozen new rooms, from Bestellen (whole-roasted suckling pigs) to Patria (paella for four) offered huge cuts of meat, whole fish and heaping platters – large format meals – meant to be shared among groups of ravenous diners. (My favourite, on principle, though I admit I haven’t tried it: Catch restaurant’s $500 “The Gout,” in which a whole trout is filled with oysters and roasted inside a whole goat.) That large-format style made going out feel like a social experience again.

I’m relieved to announce that the tired, pissy, you’re-lucky-to-be-our-customer service style that besieged the city (and much of the continent) in the past few years began to give way in 2012 to genuine care and hospitality. I felt this nowhere more than at Edulis, where it often seemed like you were in the home of a gracious and talented host, as opposed to a place of business. (Another service standout: the supremely welcoming Farmhouse Tavern.)

At the Momofuku complex, David Chang, whose original New York noodle bar helped, for better or worse, to kick off the every-man-for-himself service trend, the chef zagged, training his floor staff to an admirable polish, and hiring a French-born maître d’ to work the door with style and aplomb.

Momofuku Shoto, meantime, the chef’s $150-per-head, 21-seat tasting menu joint, got pretty much everything right, from top-notch service (but with a deeply Changian dose of youth and unpretentiousness; be warned), smart design, and a superb wine and drinks program, to the original, intelligent and spectacularly tasty cooking. Local chefs and restaurateurs – a few of whom responded to Shoto’s success with a sudden, ugly upwelling of nationalist petulance and naked envy – dismiss the place at their peril.

More and more restaurants took design seriously, building spaces where you wanted to spend your time: the warm, olde-pubby Oxley, the lavish modern saloon called Weslodge, Susur Lee, Brenda Bent and family’s intricately detailed Bent (minus the volume; it was easily the year’s most deafening room); the sumptuous-modernist Momofuku complex, particularly the glass-wrapped Daisho space.

In food and drink, chefs took familiar smells and flavours and messed with them just enough to make them exciting again. At Edulis, Mr. Caballo baked Copper River sockeye salmon in a wrapping of intensely woodsy cedar fronds for one of the most wondrously West Coast dishes I’ve eaten anywhere. Momofuku Daisho’s Matt Blondin turned cedar fronds into my favourite ice cream flavour of the year.

The vegetable of the year? The lowly radish, which found a town full of long overdue love. Icicle radishes, Easter egg radishes, French breakfast radishes and long scarlet radishes were everywhere this year, and often as more than mere supporting actors. At The Grove, chef Ben Heaton served them as Scandinavian-style, fat-of-the-land crudités, with little bowls of creamy dill aioli. (The New-Scandinavian aesthetic turned up on plates everywhere, but nowhere more than at Ursa, on Queen St. West. It worked well at times and seemed like parody at others. What was with that garnish of “Icelandic moss?”) At Richmond Station, radishes were served as the peppery, pleasantly surprising stand-in for the potatoes in potato salad, while at Edulis they got the decadent treatment, through a long braise in butter.

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.