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The ceviche taco with shrimp, fish, red onions, salsa and avocado on a yellow corn tortilla at Seven Lives Tacos-Y-Mariscos restaurant in Kensington Market, Toronto, on October 09, 2013. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

The ceviche taco with shrimp, fish, red onions, salsa and avocado on a yellow corn tortilla at Seven Lives Tacos-Y-Mariscos restaurant in Kensington Market, Toronto, on October 09, 2013.

(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

The 10 best new restaurants in Toronto Add to ...

This was the year of the Latin invasion. It was the year of the taco, of Spanish-style taberna cooking, of patatas bravas and char-grilled, paprika-freckled octopus. But 2013 was a boom year for ramen, also, and for izakaya food, and for Osaka-style takoyaki balls, which are also made with octopus, come to think of it.

It was the year that Filipino, Persian, Malaysian and Haitian food, to name just four cuisines too long dismissed as “ethnic,” and “suburban,” made serious in-roads with Toronto diners. (My wish for 2014: great Portuguese.) The flow of ideas went the other way, also: In 2013, more and more urban food-lovers streamed into Scarborough, Markham, Brampton and Etobicoke to see what they’ve been missing. And it was a year when 70 per cent of restaurants were still too bloody loud—major progress, to my mind.

The most heartening dining trend, however, was that restaurateurs fought harder than ever for top service and kitchen talent. They had to, but not because there’s less talent around the city all of the sudden. There’s more of it — far more, I would argue. They had to because the competition’s fierce out there, because the greatest restaurant boom of Toronto’s history only gathered speed in 2013. They had to because above any other thing, this was the year of the diner.

These are my picks for the 10 best new restaurants of 2013.

(Share your pick and join the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #TOtop10 or in our online comments, and pick up the weekend Globe newspaper to see the list in print.)

ClickTap any marker to see more information.

10. ELECTRIC MUD BBQ

Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail

The bourbon is cheap ($4 shots!), the sound levels crippling, the prime-time lineups interminable. The aesthetic, meantime, is best described as “Alabama Hillbilly Keg Party.” (A new feature at the restaurant: Monday night beer pong on the patio.) But damn if the cooking – hot dinner rolls smeared with smoked, porky butter; South-Asian tweaked pork ribs; fried cauliflower nubs sauced up like Buffalo wings – doesn’t almost make it all worthwhile. This isn’t your typical barbecue enthusiast’s ribs and chicken joint. Freed from the pressures of so-called “authenticity,” chef-owner Colin Tooke and partner Ian McGrenaghan (they also own Grand Electric, around the corner) have built a barbecue spot to reflect the punchy, polyglot flavours of Toronto. So slug a couple of bourbons. Play a little beer pong even. Surrender. Once your ears stop ringing you might even admit to having had a fantastic time. 

5 Brock Avenue (at Queen Street West), 416-516-8286, electricmudbbq.com

Read the full review

9. ODDSEOUL

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail
A pair of hip-hop loving, Korean-Canadian brothers who grew up in Philly open a dive bar and kitchen on Ossington Avenue. They use corrugated metal roofing and gutted 1980s boom boxes in place of décor, pack the menu with the foods of their misspent youth. A recipe for disaster, isn’t it? That’s what I thought before I went. Their “loosey” sandwich – a freshly ground beef patty griddled with onions, napped with kimchi-spiked hollandaise, and set between toasted, buttered, nutritionally nugatory white bread slices – is to my mind the single greatest sandwich in the city. They do bulgogi cheesesteaks, Korean moonshine cocktails (clear your calendar for the morning after) and poutine made from deep fried squash, among many other contenders for The Stoner Hall of Fame. It is fast, cheap and out-of-control delicious­, all the wrong things done extremely right. 

91 Ossington Avenue (at Argyle Street). 

8. SEVEN LIVES

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail
If you think you’re tired of tacos, you haven’t tried the ones at this little shop in Kensington Market. Run by Sean Riehl, a transplanted San Diegan cook, Seven Lives does SoCal-style surfer tacos. They’re double-wrapped in warm, gently smoky corn tortillas, stuffed to sloppy, synapse-jacking excess and then served across a narrow kitchen countertop the second they’re ready, the way great tacos ought to be served. The fish taco is to my mind the new city benchmark, while the nopal cactus number plays hard-seared vegetal brightness against a comforting mulch of deep-caramelized mushrooms and the tang of fried halloumi. It might be the best $5 you ever spend. 

69 Kensington Ave., sevenlives.ca

7. DAYALI BEIJING ROAST DUCK

Renee S Suen
Your fingers will get sticky. Your tongue will turn fiery-numb, provided that you order well. Over the course of an evening here, you will in all likelihood swill too many pots of too-strong tea – or far better, a few too many lagers. And if you’re at all like me, you will love every second at this first Canadian outpost of a top Beijing-based Peking duck chain. You will love it because of the Dungeness crab, steamed to tender and then doused with torrents of chile oil and Szechuan peppercorns. You’ll love it because of the sweet potato sticks that are battered with savory salted duck yolks, and because of the mountains of creamy scrambled eggs that come studded with fat, steamed shrimp. But the best reason to come here, the reason that half of Markham queues up outside Dayali most evenings, is for Dayali’s famous Peking duck. Get the Gold Medal Roast Duck for $38.88. Roll the duck skin – the crazy-crisp, psychotropic little shards that look like polished mahogany – through the dish of white sugar, mop them through the hoisin sauce and then wrap them with some meat and scallion slivers and cucumber into a tissue-thin Chinese pancake. Drink your beer. Lick your fingers. Gambei! 

20 Gibson Drive (at Warden Avenue), 905-604-8680

6. PORZIA

Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail
I ate three times at the chef Basilio Pesce’s stylish southern Italian spot last spring, and though it was far from a perfect restaurant, I couldn’t get the little Parkdale room out of my mind. Mr. Pesce made the lightest, most beautifully seasoned chicken liver agnolotti I’d ever encountered. He served a citrus, mint and olive salad that was nearly as uplifting as a non-stop flight to Sicily, and a cavallo tonnato – that’s vitello tonnato, the classic veal and tuna dish, but made with slow-cooked horse shoulder – so original and so spectacularly delicious that it remains one of the best things I ate all year. But for every one of the knockout dishes in those early days, there was a thundering dud. Eight months after my initial visits, I went back. The duds are gone now, and the room – too loud, too jam-packed in its early days – has been given a rethink. What remains is a sweet and big-hearted neighbourhood restaurant – and some of the tastiest Italian soul cooking in town. 

1314 Queen Street West (at Brock Ave.), 647-342-5776; porzia.ca

5. BERO

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail
When all but a handful of hardy Toronto restaurateurs had abandoned white tablecloths and complex, chef-driven tasting menus, Matt Kantor and his partners at Bero, an intimate, 28-seat room in Leslieville, bet that they could defy the odds. It’s not a bet I would have made, frankly – Mr. Kantor, a computer programmer before he took up cooking, had a diploma from an elite U.S. chef’s school but little real restaurant experience. Yet somehow, the 44-year-old chef has created one of the most original, playful and satisfying new dining experiences in the city. Mr. Kantor’s skill is in reimagining the tastes and traditions that most other chefs take for granted: a summery gazpacho soup made with fresh peaches and sherry vinegar instead of the usual tomato; seabass crudo paired with burnt scallions and grapefruit granita; decadently gooey chocolate cake set beside crumbled halva and a quenelle of eggplant frozen yogurt – which, yes, does in fact sound ridiculous (but it tasted like a dream). 

889 Queen Street East (at Logan Avenue), 416-477-3393; 

4. THE CHASE/THE CHASE FISH & OYSTER

Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail
If you were to judge the world’s business districts by their restaurant openings, Bay Street of late would come off more like a sleepy Midwestern mall town than a global financial capital. The Chase and The Chase Fish & Oyster, an upstairs-downstairs pair of ambitious new power restaurants, almost single-handedly rectify that situation. Not content to take just any old retail space, investor Michael Kimel and front-of-house whiz Steven Salm – both in their twenties still – built The Chase, their high-end, Montauk-by-way-of-Manhattan flagship, from scratch. The location: the top floor of a heritage building on Temperance Street, where the views would stretch to 270 degrees. They filled that room with one of the most experienced service teams in Canada, and hired Michael Steh, a top city chef who still has something to prove, to run the kitchen. Mr. Steh’s cooking – supernally creamy, house-pulled mozzarella; foie and pistachio stuffed, whole-roasted chickens; silken gnocchi tossed with crab and beurre blanc; one of the dreamiest lemon and marshmallow cakes imaginable – balances nonthreatening flavours with luxe ingredients and high-French cooking skills; it’s comfort food that even food snobs can get excited about. The more casual, more affordable Chase Fish & Oyster plies a classic Northeastern crab shack formula, polished for the C-suite titans – and their staff. Together, they’re two of the greatest new Financial District restaurants in more than a decade.

10 Temperance Street (at Yonge Street), 647-348-7000; thechasetoronto.com

3. TAKHT-E TAVOOS

Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

Heads swivel as the dishes float past. There are little bowls of olives tossed in walnut paste and jewelled with pomegranates, and tall, stone pots that trail the scent of slow-cooked lamb and orchard fruit from beneath their heavy lids. One group – first-timers, by the look of it – takes all of 15 seconds before diving into their kalleh pacheh, a thick, cinnamon-dusted soup that’s made with sheep’s tongues and trotters, that’s spritzed with lemon and scooped up with Persian flatbread. Another 15 seconds passes, and now they are all speechless, too consumed with the haunting deliciousness of the dish to speak. I’ve seen this scene unfold at the little College Street restaurant half-a-dozen times now; I see it every time I eat at Tavoos. It is run by Alireza Fakhrashrafi and Danielle Schrage, who also own Pomegranate and Sheherzade farther east on College Street. The specialty here is Persian comfort cooking. And its success speaks volumes about Toronto’s evolution as a food town. Where once this sort of cooking was considered strictly suburban, today Persian ex-pats drive from the suburbs to eat here. You should join them. It is some of the freshest, most complex, most vividly flavoured cooking in the city right now, sold for ridiculously cheap. 

1120 College Street (at Dufferin Street), 647-352-7322

Read the full review 

2. PATRIA

Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail
Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth’s meticulously realized latest feels exactly nothing like Toronto. Mr. Harji and executive chef Stuart Cameron sourced everything from Patria’s sangria jugs and cookware to its hams, olive oils and wines from Spain directly. The soaring, 120-seat room off King Street West is one of the most gorgeous (and yet, somehow also comfortable) in the city. The service is attentive and obtrusively Spanish – I’ve been to less authentically Spanish restaurants in Spain. Where the cooking was merely very good in Patria’s first few months, it has improved dramatically in recent months. (I’m going to credit that to Janet Hoediono, the restaurant’s extremely able chef de cuisine). Today it is just a little shy of breathtaking. From Patria’s crusty, beautifully developed hearth breads to the simple, spectacular desserts and fish dishes and the whole Cornish hen that came juicy, crisp-skinned and sizzling from the restaurant’s wood oven late last month, this is straight-up, traditional Spanish cooking, executed with skill and served with uncommon grace. Does a town with more than its fair share of extraordinary Spanish-rooted restaurants need another? Absolutely, when it’s this good. 

480 King Street West (at Spadina Avenue), 416-367-0505, patriatoronto.com

1. BAR ISABEL

Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail

You can’t help but feel lost as you walk in off College Street for the first time. Though this is by all accounts the west side’s hottest restaurant, the early evening soundtrack runs to 1930s rumba; you can even manage to converse with the other people at your table. The sommelier, one of the best in the city, wears a dark tie and formal vest, like a steakhouse waiter from the Diefenbaker era. Senior citizens eat happily alongside uptown party girls and extravagantly bewhiskered twenty-somethings. The wood-panelled room, meanwhile, might have been shipped intact from a forgotten Catalonian donkey town.

Yet the most disorienting of Bar Isabel’s charms is the cooking from chef and co-owner Grant van Gameren’s kitchen. It is Spanish-influenced, frequently exhilarating, rigorously inauthentic – loyal only to what tastes incredible. For every semi-authentic dish like Bar Isabel’s gloriously trashy patatas bravas Supreme-O (don’t ask; just order), there’s another like the smoked sweetbreads plated with raw tuna and persimmons, or the restaurant’s chorizo verde – a punchy, profoundly delicious Mexican sausage that’s stuffed with herbs and tomatillos. The first time I had it, the sausage came sliced into fat, deep green, char-grilled tranches, with Ontario asparagus and a voluptuous Mornay sauce that was spiked with cheese from the Balearic Islands. It was a mongrel of a dish, unlike anything you’ll find at any other restaurant. It was also the single most extraordinary thing I ate in 2013. Bar Isabel is a lot of things: A Spanish (ish) taberna, a late-night social club, a throwback to a time and place – a fictional one, perhaps – before Toronto diners segregated by class and age. But more than any of that, it is its own thing, and one of the greatest models I know for progressive Toronto cooking and hospitality. It’s a classic right out of the gate. 

797 College Street (at Shaw Street), 416-532-2222, barisabel.com

Read the full review 

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