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Editor's note: The Globe will release its 2015 best new restaurants list on Friday, Dec. 11.
Hummus was transformed from a deli-aisle afterthought to a bona-fide, and yes, even decadent restaurant dish this year. "Middleterranean" became the most dominant dining trend of 2014, with nearly enough tahini, pomegranate, sumac and za'atar around town to rival the great Spanish and ramen crazes of 2013.
You could hardly go out in the last 12 months without being offered a barrel-aged negroni or wine on tap, while roasted cauliflower entered its second year as the single-most overused (and granted: pretty delicious) vegetable dish in town. And drinking water finally lost its hard-earned status as restaurant going's most pernicious bill-padder, to be replaced by olives and bread, and the once-humble oyster on the halfshell. Of course we'll have some oysters, you'd answer as you were seated; "market price" you'd later realize, is menu-speak for $3.50 a piece.
The level of cooking and the range of cuisines around Toronto continued their upward climb; the city got its first unequivocally excellent Indonesian restaurant this year, as well as a brilliant backwoods Southern Italian snack spot, while weird but tasty (and totally Toronto) hybrids like Chinese-Jamaican and Cantonese-Jewish also took off. The price of real estate became the most challenging issue for many restaurateurs; rents on prime downtown strips like King West have more than doubled in the last two years. The Grove, Yours Truly and Ursa – respected restaurants, all of them – closed, not even waiting until after the holiday rush, and a few fading downtown giants look close to toppling any day.
But the best news for diners was how many talented chefs and front-of-house types were still eager to test their ideas on a voracious city; even as I was nailing down the contenders for this year's best list, the openings kept on accelerating, with new spots from the partners behind Bar Isabel, Buca and Oddseoul either just opened or about to, and highly promising launches from a few of the most interesting culinary talents in town. (I'll be getting to them, soon.)
Chris Nuttall-Smith hosted an Ask Me Anything on Reddit Friday afternoon, answering questions on everything from dining trends, restaurant recommendations and food poisoning. Read it here.
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10. King Place
Three chicken combo with naan and eight-piece tandoori. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
It is not by any means a classy restaurant. Most of the trade here is brisk and takeout, conveyed in Styrofoam containers. King Place’s gregarious chef and owner (“Mr. Butt,” the regulars call him; Mr. Butt chuckles whenever he says this) keeps a bank of gleaming white microwaves behind the counter for customers who opt to eat in. Even the name is problematic: it’s a direct rip-off of arch-rival King Palace, up on Church Street. If you can look past all that though – and really, you ought to – the cooking is something special. King Place serves the most richly nuanced, precisely flavoured, gloriously delicious Pakistani cooking I’ve had around the GTA. Get the pakora curry – that’s spinach and chickpea dumplings in tangy yogurt gravy – and the wobbly-textured beef nihari that thrums with deliciously sour-bitter-savoury-spicy tension. The chana masala and the okra are masterpieces of seasoning and precision; the beef and lentil puree called halleem, meantime, is one of the most genius cold-weather dishes I’ve found. It comes buried in fresh ginger, coriander and a warming floe of fiery red oil – breathtaking when scooped up with the kitchen’s fluffy naan.
Dim Sum. ( Merle Robillard/For The Globe and Mail)
While Susur Lee’s dull dim sum vanity project sucked up most of the attention this year, this elegant new tea house at Yonge and St. Clair quietly showed the way to do Cantonese cooking right. Dinner service, run by the former Lai Wah Heen chef Ronnie Lam, reaches an all-too-rare level of refinement; classics like two-course Peking duck and e-fu noodles with crab are exemplary, the flavours sharp and textures laser-focused. The daily dim sum, meantime, isn’t as rococo as you’ll find in the finest banquet halls farther north, and that’s a good thing. Kwan does tasty, well-made, inexpensive little dishes: light-as-lace char siu pastries, superb egg tarts, very good dumplings and turnip cakes and sublime red bean and custard-filled dough balls to finish, shaped like bumblebees and porcupines.
Fish and chips. (Danielle Matar/For The Globe and Mail)
Keep your fancy, modern fish and chips shops – I’ll take the grease-caked dive with beef dripping in the deep fryer over the soulless canola oil progressives every time. Sea Witch opened on St. Clair West this summer; it is bright and clean and family friendly, a model modern fish and chips shop that just happens to fill its bank of fryers with boiling beef fat. Sea Witch’s fish comes out of those fryers moist and substantial, locked in a crunchy, bubbly crust that’s nearly as dark and intoxicating as a pint of Newcastle stout. (Sadly, the room isn’t licensed.) Though it may be new, the place is one of the last of a breed: a properly English chippy that makes fish and chips the way good taste and decency and a century of working-class history intended them. To my mind that’s the most progressive thing of all.
Chiles en nogada (Danielle Matar/For The Globe And Mail)
Elia Herrera had established her reputation as a top city pastry chef when the backers of a new, spare-no-effort Mexican spot in the theatre district came calling. Until that point, though, the Cordoba-raised chef never had to run an entire restaurant – to bang out 200 or 250 full dinners in a night. Seven months after Los Colibris’s debut, Ms. Herrera has obliterated any doubts about her abilities; it’s the first upmarket Mexican place I’ve been in Canada with polished service and genuinely uncompromising cooking, executed with love and craft and finesse. (Every bit as praiseworthy: Ms. Herrera’s kitchen is majority female, no small accomplishment in such a bro-dominated industry.) Her chiles en nogada is a go-to dish: a fat, fried poblano pepper stuffed with meat, fruit and spices and napped with pomegranate and walnut sauce. The torta de elote – corn cake with beef brisket – is another stunner, along with the soulful chicken and masa dumpling stew called tesmole de pollo. There’s Mexican craft beer and a good wine selection; everything about this place is designed to appeal across tastes and ages. And don’t forget that no matter how superb Ms. Herrera and her kitchen’s savoury cooking is, she’s a pastry chef by training. Under no circumstances should you skip dessert.
Egg net salad. (Danielle Matar/For The Globe and Mail)
The chef Nick Liu spent an eternity trying to build this fun, cheeky Cantonese-inflected restaurant. The city should be thankful he got it done. The room, expertly run by front-of-house pro Anton Potvin, is done up with hand-painted Chinoiserie landscapes on bare plaster walls, and globe lights inked with angry red dragons; it’s the most beautiful new restaurant space this year. The new-Asian cooking, meanwhile, is some of the freshest and most original around town – this providing you catch Mr. Liu’s kitchen at the peak of its form. I fell hard one night when dinner came in a blur of smart and breathtakingly tasty dishes: smoked trout and satay sauce wrapped in betel leaves; red-braised pork and octopus on jicama; a whipsaw fresh and savoury pomelo and fried pork salad. Another time I was less impressed; consistency is always the hardest thing. The Big Mac bao, made with 90-day dry-aged beef, is a stroke of genius, though; if you prefer your steak less processed, order it straight-up, alongside the fried rice dish that arrives under an avalanche of truffles. It’s one of the more baller steak spreads I’ve tried. (Mr. Potvin has built a wine geek’s dream of a list for pairing.) For dessert, there’s coconut cream cake made with the cheese-like byproduct of sake brewing; it’s a strange, sweet epiphany in five perilously easy bites.
Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth’s comfortable new restaurant gathers the spice market flavours of the Middle East and North Africa into a single kitchen, and polishes them with verve and deftness into unforgettably delicious plates. You should start with the soft-roasted beets that come sprinkled with fennel pollen and pistachios, set over swoon-inducing house-made labneh. Have the kibbeh – spiced, date-studded duck nuggets, fried to the colour of weathered bronze – and the fig salad, and the hand-rolled couscous, and the wood-oven baked flatbreads that Persians call barbari. Have the grilled Cornish hen and the deep-fried eggplant too. Byblos is set over two levels, bright and cheery downstairs, a little more clubby up; it’s the only restaurant I’ve ever seen Bay Street types glugging nebbiolo next to Rosedale househusbands, next to tables of young, Arak-quaffing Turkish men, next to women wearing head scarves. Desserts are just one of executive chef Stuart Cameron’s strengths (he also runs last year’s No. 2 pick, Patria; the guy is an all-star). Watch for the hand-pulled Persian candy floss, among the coolest things I ate in 2014.
Grilled mustard greens with sambal oelek chili sauce and ketjap manis; counterclockwise a little jar of turmeric cucumber pickles; satays and babi panggang. (Danielle Matar/For The Globe And Mail)
The kitchen at this groundbreaking Dutch-Indonesian spot takes a strange approach to Southeast Asian punch and spice, at least by city standards. Rather than tone down the Indonesian archipelago’s exhilarating hots and layered sweets and dusky, warm-spice depths, they cook with love-it-or-leave it confidence. A dish as seemingly predictable as ground chicken satays builds up at Little Sister from softly floral galangal, turmeric and lime leaf to flame-charred sweet and meatiness to puckery, citrus and coconut highs; all for the price of a $6 starter. The flavours only become more complex as you work down the menu: the fried beef croquettes that are hitched with cloves; the smoky, wok-frazzled nasi goreng; the Arctic char in beguiling lime broth; the strange but indecently tasty tacos filled with rendang beef. The best way to eat here is with a group of four or six, and to order the entire menu. A meal at Little Sister is the rare restaurant experience that engages every one of your senses. I’ve never left feeling less than delirious with gratitude and joy.
Polipo - baby octopus, soppressata and crema di patate. (Galit Rodan/For The Globe and Mail)
The proper thing to do in an Italian aperitivo bar is to down a nice vermouth and eat some snacks (but not too many) and flirt, egregiously, with the counter staff before moving on to a real restaurant for dinner. Nobody abides that at Bar Buca; the menu at this ram-packed, no-reservations spot from chef Rob Gentile and the gang behind King Street’s burgeoning Buca empire is too extraordinary to abandon for a regular dinner some place else. It’s drinking food from the rural Southern Italian vernacular, a lot of it: fire-grilled fennel sausage on smoked polenta; skewers of roasted ewe’s meat drenched in lemon juice; Calabrese-style crostini topped with drifts of burrata cheese and fermented smelts; the most exquisite cow’s stomach sandwich (it’s the cow’s fourth stomach, to be specific) you’re likely to ever eat. If your tastes run more straight-ahead, the gran fritto misto platter brings two tiers of fried and battered awesomeness (and none of the funny business), with frothy lemon zabaglione. Even the usual stuff – meatballs, say, and coffee (you can get your espresso topped with steamed water buffalo milk, from 7 a.m. daily), and the Sicilian cannoli, from pastry chef Cora James – reaches an unmatched level of deliciousness here. Bravissimo, Bar Buca. It’s an aperitivo bar you’ll never want to leave.
Salmon roe (Ikura) nigiri. (Galit Rodan/For The Globe and Mail)
I can’t say for certain whether Yasuhisa Ouchi is the best sushi chef in Toronto – beyond a certain level of skill and fanaticism with fish and rice the differences between sushi masters diminish rapidly. But the Osaka-raised itamae’s serene, 11-seat space on Harbord Street is without question the finest sushi counter in the city, if not in all of Canada. Mr. Ouchi’s trick, if you can call it that, is focus. He serves no more than 22 people most days, and the only thing he makes is traditional, Edo-style sushi: just-warm, vinegar-seasoned rice draped with the best seafood available, prepared to order in front of his customers, and served one single, sensational bite at a time. The last time I ate at Yasu, a slice of crisp, fall-apple-fresh amberjack gave way to sweet, creamy South Carolina grouper, to a smooth, opalescent scallop dusted with floral green yuzu shavings, to a sublime little sardine that blew up everything I thought I knew about oily fish. There was horse mackerel, urchin and milky-briny East Coast shrimp, 20-odd pieces altogether for $80, a steal by any standard. It takes just two or three courses to fall under the spell of all those tastes and textures. Mr. Ouchi has turned uncompromising focus into art.
Whole roasted head of cauliflower. (Matthew Sherwood/For The Globe and Mail)
You can’t help but love a restaurant that feels more like the world’s most welcoming kitchen party than a place of business. In summer, the wide, leafy patio out back heaves with young and old sipping fig liquor and the house vermouth made from Manischewitz, talking between tables and sharing dishes as if they’ve always known each other. In winter the little indoors space is loud and warm and packed in close, the service effortlessly generous. “Everything on the menu is large and in charge,” a waiter told a table of chortling newbies one evening.
The menu – chef Anthony Rose likes to call it “Tasty Jew Food” – plays sturdy, schmaltz- and caraway-laden European Jewish staples against fresh, vegetable-focused Israeli ones. For every (relatively) lighter dish like Fat Pasha’s supernally creamy hummus topped with apricot conserve and confited duck, or its spectacular array of variously chopped, pickled, garlic-poached and tahini-bathed vegetables that goes by the name salatim, there is another, like the can’t-miss tableside chopped liver service (it involves a pitcher of rendered chicken fat), that seems designed to stop hearts before anyone’s even tasted it. Falling somewhere between heavy and light, there are latkes with pastrami-cured salmon, an exceptional long-braised lamb dish, superb grilled fish and the tastiest cauliflower course (it’s a whole head, buried in pine nuts, pomegranate, tahini and roasted halloumi) in town.
What always stays with me though, beyond Fat Pasha’s excellent cooking, is its unshakeable spirit of fun and exuberance. One of the best desserts here is a Nutella babka smothered with shaved halva and maple syrup. It’s a ridiculous idea: northern Italian, Canadian, Israeli and European Jewish all at once. It is also the most wonderfully only-in-Toronto thing I ate all year.