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.
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10. ELECTRIC MUD BBQ
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
8. SEVEN LIVES
7. DAYALI BEIJING ROAST DUCK
4. THE CHASE/THE CHASE FISH & OYSTER
3. TAKHT-E TAVOOS
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
1. BAR ISABEL
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