Alo sets all-new benchmark for Toronto dining to lead 2015 list
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- 1Alo 163 Spadina Ave., Toronto
- 2Bar Raval 505 College St., Toronto
- 3Boralia 59 Ossington Ave., Toronto
- 4Buca Yorkville 53 Scollard St., Toronto
- 5Dandylion 1198 Queen St. W., Toronto
- 6Nana 785 Queen St. W., Toronto
- 7The Drake Devonshire 24 Wharf St., Wellington
- 8Tich 2314 Lake Shore Blvd. W., Etobicoke
- 9Honest Weight 2766 Dundas St. W., Toronto
- 10Hanmoto 2 Lakeview Ave., Toronto
Note: Restaurant critic Chris Nuttall-Smith will participate in a Facebook Q&A session with readers on Friday, Dec. 11 at 12 p.m. ET. Start leaving your questions here
It might have been last May when the great 2015 snack bar fauxpocalypse first hit me. Good restaurants were closing, and young chefs who hoped to go out on their own complained that the overheated real estate market had shut them out of the game. But of course you could get cheap fried chicken and watery beer at brand new snack bars on seemingly every Toronto street corner – which was demoralizing for a while, until I took a look at everything else that was opening up.
For every bandwagon-jumping enterprise that opened this year, there were another two, at least, where hungry and talented chefs and managers, bakers, bartenders, sommeliers and top-shelf servers poured their hearts into new and ambitious businesses, building Toronto's food scene. They opened in Little Italy and in Yorkville, at Queen and Spadina and in Prince Edward County (which, yes, I realize isn't in Toronto exactly; get over it) in Parkdale and the Junction and even in deepest Mimico. For the first time in my career writing about restaurants, 2015 was the year I wished I could choose more than 10.
The places that follow are my picks for the year's most original, most extraordinary restaurants. What they all have in common is that the people who run them took inspired risks and defied the usual ways of the restaurant business – and that in doing so they made an already terrific dining town infinitely more delicious. Believe it or not, there's even a couple of (seriously terrific) snack bars in the mix.
Been there, dined that
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2 Lakeview Ave. (at Dundas Street West), no phone, no web
Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail
Leemo Han's hip-hop-fuelled homage to izakaya culture is hidden in a signless, bamboo-clad building with a Civil War-era U.S. flag in the window and a constellation of empty sake tins hanging from the ceiling by kitchen twine. Its signature dish is sweet-glazed chicken wings stuffed with rice and fried pork – bender cooking, I like to call it, because everything at Hanmoto is meant to be consumed after half-a-dozen gin-and-tea sours or PBR tallboys. Yet under the trust fund-degenerate aesthetic, there is some seriously brilliant thinking. How else to explain Hanmoto's uni bomb, a majestically delicious agglomeration of sticky rice, oven-crisped chicken skin, the juicy pop of salmon roe and the saline mineral twang of sea urchin? And there can be no other explanation for Mr. Han's katsu bun, a deliriously tasty play on the Filet-O-Fish, but made with pork belly that's been poached for 24 hours in ginger beer. The kulfi-style sweet miso ice cream, meantime, is the sort of dessert that leaves people red-cheeked and talking extremely loudly – and that's before you factor in all the drinks.
Read the full review from March: Hanmoto: The city's most annoying izakaya is also one of its best
9. Honest Weight
2766 Dundas St. W. (at Indian Road Crescent), 416-604-9992, honestweight.ca
Chris Young for The Globe and Mail
The first time I ate at John Bil's 20-seat fish shop, he carried a fat, glittery-skinned steelhead trout to our tableside. "It's still got its slime!" he said. "Check out how nice that is." Mr. Bil, a much-in-demand oysterman, fishmonger and itinerant restaurateur, roasted it simply with oil, salt and lemon, so that its flesh was opalescent ruby along the spine. We ate a bowl of B.C. clams that had been lightly steamed with fish stock and pork, as well as a superb seafood and mountain yam okonomiyaki pancake, and an easy but brilliant chowder that consisted of little more than first-rate seafood, fish stock and organic cream. The wine list is short but great, with a few good local producers, including Norman Hardie magnums for $90. And because Honest Weight is a fish shop first, they'll cook up whatever treasures they have in the refrigerator case. The service is more clubhouse than restaurant; Mr. Bil often patrols the place with a glass of Sancerre in hand, declaiming on any and all matters shelled or finned. He joked, "I try to make the service bumbling when I can."
Read the full review from May: Seeking seafood? Two new Toronto restaurants keeping it fresh
2314 Lake Shore Blvd. W. (at Burlington St.), Etobicoke, 647-349-8424, tich.ca
Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail
Toronto-style "upmarket Indian" nearly always means limp flavours and pretty plating, but at Karan Kalia's cool Mimico hotspot, the Delhi-raised first-time restaurateur obliterates that timeworn mould. That is thanks to two of the city's most outstanding chefs, in curry boss Sujoy Saha and tandoor man Mandy Jawle. Mr. Saha cooks with rare deftness and complexity: his Hyderabad-style baby eggplant, for instance, that gets a quick braise with ginger, tamarind, spices and coconut milk, so that the flavours marry and the fruit's flesh transforms into sweet, savoury, spice-imbued custard, but doesn't entirely collapse. His dals are among the best I've had, and his Southern Indian braised lamb shank is a veritable work of jiggly-tender genius. Among Mr. Jawle's many tandoor-borne hits are his hara mirch tikka – that's green chili and coriander–marinated chicken – that comes out simultaneously sweet and sour, rich and spicy, juicy in its middle but with a wisp of welcome bitterness from well-judged oven char; it's meant to be dipped in the house mint chutney. That chicken was one of the most delicious things I ate all year.
Read the full review from June: Head to – yes – Mimico for the best new Indian restaurant in Toronto
7. The Drake Devonshire
24 Wharf St., Wellington, 613-399-3338, drakedevonshire.ca
Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail
There are novelty board games and a beanbag toss for after-dinner escapades. On Tuesday nights, at least half of Prince Edward County's banjos come out for the open mic. If you'd like s'mores for dessert, you'll have to head to the beachfront fire – just watch out for the eerie outdoor player piano, which loops a woozy take on Chopin through the sound of pounding surf. The Drake Hotel company's soaring farm country satellite, cantilevered over a beach on Lake Ontario, is a boutique inn and a booming, local-focused restaurant that just happens to feel like a living art project, modelled on a hazy fantasia of summer camp. It is also one of the most magical and coolly Canadian restaurant spaces I've encountered, with cooking that's often good enough to match. Chef Matt DeMille's menu is simple, a lot of it, but superbly executed: the soothing, flaky-crusted chicken pie; the battered local pickerel; the profoundly beefy house burger that's buried under a tart farmhouse pickle and slathered with creamy Russian dressing. My favourites, though, were the more complex – the fried artichokes late last winter, for instance, that came dressed with lumpfish caviar and crisp, translucent blood orange rounds. Desserts are stellar, as are the cocktails, which might be an issue, as you're going to need steady hands. There's an Operation tournament in the games room once you're done.
Read the full review from May: Three reasons you should make the drive and eat at Drake Devonshire
785 Queen St. W. (at Manning Avenue), stnnana.com
Danielle Matar for The Globe and Mail
While the city's Thai restaurants usually try to market themselves as Toronto's most authentic, the chef and owner at Nana took a different approach – he promoted his new Bangkok-style street-food spot as its most foreboding. "The spice levels are not adjustable," Monte Wan said before the place opened. "I want to try and challenge Toronto," he added, in case it wasn't clear. He was right on the mark: The cooking in that street-market-casual Queen West room is in a few cases incendiary enough to sizzle lips and inspire Lamaze-style breaths. Suck it up, and soothe your palate with one of Nana's cheap Thai lagers: That's the nature of some of Thailand's best food. Nana's som tam papaya salad is a fever dream of fruity and citric sours, dark, roasted peanuts, incandescent red chiles and long, deep fish sauce savouries. The tom yum is richly hot and mellow and floral-sharp, all finely-tuned intensity; its flavours are more gloriously tropical-herbal, even, than the versions I've tried in Bangkok. There are superlative noodle dishes and curries (the nicely refined green curry in particular), as well as spring rolls, among other things, for the spice-adverse. Which, granted, runs counter to that early marketing, but Mr. Wan has made his point. He's built the best Thai spot in town.
Read the full review from January: That rare find: The Toronto Thai joint that (mostly) pulls no punches
1198 Queen St. W. (at Gladstone Avenue), 647-464-9100, restaurantdandylion.com
On a block of Queen West that's anchored by destination hotels and high-wattage bars, the veteran chef Jason Carter's understated and graceful modern bistro comes off like a quiet genius in a room full of peacocks. The service is self-assured and welcoming, the lighting warm, and most nights the music mercifully inconsequential. They make a point of not serving cocktails here, bless them, but the affordable wine, cider and beer lists are stocked with natural and hard-to-find gems. Mr. Carter, who ran Susur Lee's kitchens at the height of their acclaim, is a master of light, elegant and exquisitely delicious dishes that emphasize vegetables as much as fish and meat. You may find honey mussels from Salt Spring Island alongside richly smoky, charred Caraflex cabbage napped in silky beurre blanc. You may find a dreamy-textured vegan risotto made from dried barley and sprouted wheat berries, and seasoned with pumpkin and shiro miso paste. Dinner at Dandylion always begins with a small marble bowl of just-made fromage blanc and the excellent house sourdough; the best way to end a meal here is with one of the chef's little tea cakes – buttery toasted almond with poached mutsu apples and house vanilla ice cream, when I visited a few weeks back. It's a restaurant, yes, but also an antidote to the modern restaurant, and one of my most refreshing Toronto dining experiences of 2015.
Read the full review from January: Dandylion: A refreshingly vegetable-forward, and inexpensive, Toronto restaurant
4. Buca Yorkville
53 Scollard St. (entrance off Yorkville Avenue), 416-962-2822, buca.ca
Danielle Matar for The Globe and Mail
Maybe the bucatini carbonara will get you, with its shavings of smoked, cured herring roe that you stir with a quail yolk into pure deep-maritime lushness. Maybe it's a slice of chef Rob Gentile's preserved lemon and octopus sopressatta, kissed with parsley and chili, or the softly pink, pistachio-flecked mortadella sausage he makes from B.C. Sidestripe shrimp. There are more knee-weakening, euphoria-inducing dishes at the Buca company's superluxe modern Italian seafood spot than at the next five best Toronto seafood and Italian places put together. So what would the place be like with uniformly great service, un-ghastly lighting and acoustics that weren't best described as "industrial brutalist?" Great questions. But it's far better to focus on the excellent aperitivi and the wine and the cooking, like the spare-no-expense crudi di mare platters, and the singularly exquisite live Gaspé scallops they often bring in, and the deep-fried cod tongues that come soda-bubble light and golden crisp with a froth of garlicky zabaglione, as if from St. John's on the Sardinian sea.
Read the full review from January: Buca Yorkville: The best Buca (and Italian in Toronto) yet
59 Ossington Ave. (at Bruce Street), 647-351-5100, boraliato.com
Kevin Van Paassen/for The Globe and Mail
It takes moxie to build a restaurant devoted to historical Canadian recipes. What are they gonna make, I thought the first time I read about Boralia – salt pork and hardtack? Well no, it turns out, but the wife and husband chef-proprietors Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris do serve entrancing little chop suey balls that taste like Chinese-Canadian arancini, and deviled tea eggs with chopped Chinese sausage, and wobbly, braised sweet onions that they stuff with whipped, spiced carrots, after a recipe published in The Dominion Home Cookbook in 1899. They do extraordinary pigeon pie with wickedly deep-flavoured squab breast, as well as a showstopper of a mussels dish that Samuel de Champlain brought to the Atlantic coast in 1605. That one comes in a thick fog of pine-needle smoke; you'll know it by all the turning heads. Better still, they've imbued their welcoming Ossington Avenue room not just with first-rate cooking and the subtle scent of pine smoke, but also with uncommon polish and grace. Which you'll be happy for: It takes superbly trained staff to explain what kedgeree and syllabub and rabbit rubaboo are. You should order those. Before long you'll be asking for them by name.
Read the full review from March: Boralia: A history lesson in Canadiana that tastes unforgettably good
2. Bar Raval
505 College St. (at Palmerston Boulevard), thisisbarraval.com
Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail
The room is ringed in whorls of polished mahogany: in Gaudí-esque arcs and swooshes of warm, oiled wood that eddy into what must be one of the world's most stunning bars. And so of course the people flock and stare. But it's the spirit of the place, the vermut-fuelled laughter and the clatter of cream sherry and frankincense-filled cocktail shakers – the never-ending, La-Ramblas-on-College-Street sense of celebration – that draws the bulk of the standing room crowds to Grant van Gameren's groundbreaking Basque-style spot. It's that and the cooking, although "cooking" isn't entirely the ideal word. It begins at 8 a.m. daily, with crema-Catalan-stuffed burnt sugar doughnuts, cubes of Manchego and Majorero, and little plates of olives, fish, meats and pintxos: morcilla sausage and a fried quail's egg on bread, maybe, or slow-braised octopus and olive oil. Around noon, the fortified wines come out: soft, complex amontillado sherries and seductively round and bitter-edged vermouths; they go perfectly with the crustless Basque cheesecake that's oozy at its core. But it's at night that I love the place most, when a quick drink and a pan con tomate, or a couple of tins of the astonishingly tasty house-smoked mackerel almost always turn into a three-hour bacchanal. You eat that mackerel or some razor clams or the Galician cockles, and maybe some of the fresh B.C. shrimp they've got lately, and then of course you need a couple more tastes. When almost every second restaurateur in Toronto seemed to open a snack bar in 2015, Mr. van Gameren and his partners Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow were among the rare few to take that term not as an excuse but as a challenge to greatness. Every neighbourhood in the city should be so lucky to have a place like this.
Read the full review from April: Bar Raval: Why can't going out for drinks and snacks always be this sublime?
163 Spadina Ave., 3rd floor (at Queen Street West), 416-260-2222, alorestaurant.com
Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail
The elevator ride is three flights up into a world away, into a Hail Mary pass of a place that somehow became one of the greatest restaurants in city history. Alo's Queen and Spadina address is odd for fine dining, its partners, though prodigiously experienced, are first-time owners, and the tasting menu format to which it's hitched its fortunes is notoriously difficult with Toronto crowds. But none of that matters. Chef Patrick Kriss and general manager Amanda Bradley have built not just a blockbuster of a bar and restaurant, but an all-new benchmark for hospitality and wine service and full-on deliciousness, for ambitious high-end food. The menus are rooted in French farmhouse cooking, but with an eye to international flavours; they're finely calibrated processions of dizzying, comforting, time- and space-warping tastes. Mr. Kriss's cooks do ethereal wild-mushroom custards; rare-seared salmon with sauces made from the likes of roasted corn husks; little bowls of broken rice that walk a decadent line between grits and congee, and that they drown with butter from Normandy. One night there, I had a hearth-style stew made from duck legs, Okanagan plums and pickled chanterelle mushrooms, and that stew, served with a 12-year-old Roussillon, was probably the best five minutes of my year. Alo's pastries, from rising star Cori Murphy, are outstanding: to wit, her mind-blowing pain au lait and fresh-churned butter course. It's four bites of sheer magnificence: sweet and yeasty and as buttery-steamy as a proper croissant, with a seam of refreshing tartness from the butter bucket's leftover milk. We had much more after that: roast, dry-aged pork, fresh corn polenta and B.C. crab, bourbon canelés, all of them bits of brilliance. (The pitch-perfect wine pairings did not hurt one bit.) "I feel dumbstruck," my friend said. I'd been feeling that way for the last two hours. At just six months old, Alo has already left an indelible mark.
Read the full review from October: Toronto restaurant Alo goes all in on high-end dining – and wins
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