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Marathi, an Indian-style dining concept by Amaya’s Hemant Bhagwani in Toronto (Terminal 1, International). (Renee Suen/Renee Suen)
Marathi, an Indian-style dining concept by Amaya’s Hemant Bhagwani in Toronto (Terminal 1, International). (Renee Suen/Renee Suen)

Airport dining goes upscale: An eater’s guide to Pearson’s restaurant boom Add to ...

In the spring of 2012, Pearson International Airport announced it would soon be home to a wave of restaurants from some of Toronto’s best-known chefs.

The effort, led by a New York-based airport food company called OTG Management, would include more than a dozen new places by Mark McEwan, Pizzeria Libretto’s Rocco Agostino, the Amaya restaurant chain’s Hemant Bhagwani, the celebrity chef Guy Rubino, and others.

These were consulting deals, effectively; although there were assurances the chefs would be involved in menu development, quality control and hiring, OTG’s staff would take care of daily operations. Still, it was good news. After years as a dining dead zone that didn't begin to reflect the deliciousness or diversity around the Toronto region, Pearson would soon rival downtown for quality and choice, Michael Coury, a top manager at OTG, boasted. “You’re going to get a real restaurant experience.”

Better yet, that announcement spurred a race to the top for airport diners’ dollars. Pearson’s other food companies, HMS Host and SSP Canada, soon announced their own restaurant deals with star chefs. HMS signed with Lynn Crawford (Ruby Watchco), Susur Lee (Bent), Roger Mooking (ex of Nyood and Kultura) and Zane Caplansky (Caplansky’s Deli), as well as with Paramount Fine Foods, a top Middle Eastern deli and bakery. Those spots are expected to begin opening this summer.

SSP brought in Massimo Capra of Yorkville’s Mistura, who launched a cheery trattoria in the domestic departures area of Terminal 1 and a grab-and-go spot in international departures.

If you plan to fly out of town this March break, consider this: You can now get proper brick-oven pizza as you wait for your flight, as well as freshly made ramen and sushi, Indian chana masala, Italian calamari fritti, a signature Bymark burger from Mark McEwan, or French toast seasoned with five spice, served with real Ontario maple syrup.

In many cases, the food and drink is served in soaring, elegant spaces that come complete with an iPad at every seat, for ordering or browsing while you eat.

Over the past few months I’ve eaten at all these restaurants. My goal was to answer two simple questions: Do they live up to the promises? And, at last, is it worth arriving hungry for a flight?

Before the goods, a note. This article is based on a single visit to each spot. The restaurants are all located after security, in four separate parts of the airport. Barring a massive outlay on airplane tickets, the only way to eat in all of them was with visitor passes, which Pearson’s management agreed to provide.

Nonetheless, the results have been surprising. A few of the places with the biggest names attached were by far the weakest, little better than airplane food. Yet, there were also unexpected standouts, one of them so delicious and reasonably priced, I’d be grateful if it opened around the corner from my home.

Looks good, tastes…

The first rule of Pearson’s new dining options: high ceilings, lounge seating and striking design don’t necessarily mean good cooking.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the long and light-filled international departures concourse of Terminal 1, where four places run by OTG Management – Mark McEwan’s Fetta panini shop, baker Devin Connell’s Heirloom Bakery Café, master sommelier John Szabo’s Vinifera wine bar and Hemant Bhagwani’s Marathi Indian restaurant – are lined up in an almost painfully beautiful row. (Ms. Connell and Mr. Szabo’s contracts with OTG recently expired; they are no longer involved.)

Because the terminal’s ceilings are so high, the company couldn’t install commercial exhaust systems for cooking fumes. And so none of them have real kitchens.

When I ate at Fetta on my way out of town last fall, the place seemed to be getting along very well all the same. The sandwiches were well-prepared and tasty, none more than the one with aged white cheddar, fig marmalade and arugula. A dish of roasted cauliflower wasn’t all that roasted-tasting, but it was fine. The wine selection was impressive – sparkling Riesling from Hinterland in Prince Edward County, nice local reds. Even the kids’ food was good – my six-year-old loved the ham and cheese sandwich. How civilized.

Yet, the offerings earlier this month at Heirloom Bakery Café fell far short of that standard. A plate of sautéed chard and kohlrabi was barely warm and greasy. One of the stalks had turned rusty brown from age.

The “herb roasted” chicken sandwich, a special that day, arrived without the chicken. It was better that way, I learned; the meat, evidently reheated in a panini press, was nearly as dry and tough as pleather. The clam chowder and grilled cheese sandwich were good enough.

That is more than I’d say about Mr. Bhagwani’s Marathi. The cooking was uniformly dreadful.

At Vinifera wine bar, where the by-the-glass offerings include an incredible 60 selections, our server couldn’t describe a single wine. When I eventually settled on a red from Greece, he seemed surprised. He’d never heard of it until then, he said. It felt like being lost on a treasure island without a shovel or a map – a very expensive treasure island. In several cases, the cost of a glass was just $1 or $2 short of a full bottle’s retail price. And all those iPads weren’t much help. To read descriptions of the wines (or of dishes), you click on whatever you’re interested in, wait for the description to load, then click out when you’re done. Worse, every time you order something, there’s a pop-up box with a set of up-sells that you need to click away.

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