The finest dining in the city
2016 was a big year for Toronto's ever-vibrant food scene. The Globe and Mail invited food writers Chris Johns, Suresh Doss and Andrea Chiu, food advocate and chef Joshna Maharaj and Chewstreet blogger Charlene Theodore to lunch to ask them where they eat, what they love (and hate) and how the city's dining scene needs to adapt in 2017
The best new restaurants
The panel was unanimous on this year's best addition to the city. The thing is, you probably missed it.
For two weeks in June, during Toronto's Luminato festival, the control centre of the decommissioned Hearn Generating Station transformed into Le Pavillon, a 1950s-style French bistro. Conceived by Frédéric Morin of Joe Beef and Honest Weight's John Bil, the pop-up hosted an array of impressive guest chefs, including Daniel Boulud. It was the hottest reservation in town while it lasted, and the only debate for the panel was whether they preferred the atmosphere or the menu (a highlight: poulet en vessie, chicken poached with truffles inside a pig bladder).
"What Fred and John did for those two weeks, it was just such a special place," Chris Johns says. "There was a such a vibe, I honestly think there was no better place to eat in North America, maybe the world, for those two weeks."
So what opened that you can still enjoy?
Mr. Johns is a fan of chef Victor Barry's revamp of formally hyper-formal Splendido into the family-friendly Piano Piano (88 Harbord St., 416-929-7788). While there's a formal dining room upstairs, he likes that his two-year-old daughter can enjoy a downstairs pizzeria with a playroom while adults indulge in the chopped salad (dandelion, shredded Brussels sprouts and salami start the ingredient list), pumpkin agnolotti or a spicy Sicilian pizza from the wood-burning oven in the open kitchen. "The food is simplified," Mr. Johns says. "He's lowered the price and he's lowered the fussiness, but he's maintained the standards of fine dining. Everything else is relaxed."
For Suresh Doss, it's Yorkville's Chabrol (90 Yorkville Ave., 416-428-6641), the new French restaurant from Doug Penfold and Ian Clarkson of the midtown, tapas-focused Cava. "Everything's weird," he said of the wine list (meaning that as a compliment). "You could hang out for hours. It's tiny … it's really hard to get into. It's different than everything else in Yorkville." And that's exactly what makes it special, Charlene Theodore agrees, noting that while most of the neighbourhood's restaurants aim to make a big statement, Chabrol is hidden down an alley. "It's very quiet and small," she says. Out of one of Toronto's smallest open kitchens come main dishes such as braised lamb and leg of Muscovy duck.
The transformation of a former Hudson's Bay doorway into Lena at Saks Fifth Avenue (176 Yonge St., 416-507-3378) by Chef Anthony Walsh also caught the panel's attention in 2016. Adjectives flowed freely about the decor – glorious, gorgeous, stunning – but reviews of the Latin-inspired food and service were mixed. "You feel like you're in The Great Gatsby," Joshna Maharaj said of the atmosphere, before questioning the restaurant's diverse pan-American menu. "I don't know that Lena knows what it wants to be yet." Ms. Theodore concurred. "The room is … well, I'd move in tomorrow, but I feel like they need some time to work out the kinks," she said. For her, the restaurant can have some more time to do that, because it's part of the Oliver & Bonacini chain. "They have such a track record." But for Mr. Doss, that backing was what made his bumpy visits harder to excuse. "With a team like O&B, they should be ready from Day 1." Still, he'd go back for the rabbit and snails on rice ($34) and empanadas ($13, and the best Mr. Johns says he's ever had).
On the more affordable end, Andrea Chiu recommends Jackpot Chicken Rice (318 Spadina Ave., 416-792-8628), for its addictive Hainanese chicken rice, and Imanishi (1330 Dundas St. W., 416-706-4225). The second is the Japanese equivalent of a gastropub, where appetizers such as agedashi eggplant and tako celery (octopus with a celery, garlic and ginger marinade) will cost you under $8, while mains (think katsu curry rice) are around $12. "It's a chill izakaya," Ms. Chiu said. "Not one where they yell at you."
Ms. Maharaj got her fill of "Indian train food" at Ji (760 St. Clair Ave., 416-792-5550), where Bollywood films play silently as she enjoys what she calls "delicious brown trash food." That means macaroni makhani (essentially a mac and cheese spiked with butter-chicken sauce), brisket poutine spiced with curry and topped with paneer and naanchos, deep-fried mini naans topped with lamb keema and kachumber.
The best fine dining
"I think there's really only one answer," Mr. Doss said. "Me too!" Mr. Johns said. However, their picks weren't the same.
Mr. Doss named Edulis (169 Niagara St., 416-703-4222), calling it "a place where you can go in for a three- or four-hour lunch on a Sunday and top to bottom, from the way the service is handled, to the food, to the wine pairing, to the ambience, it's perfect."
"It's a great restaurant," Mr. Johns said, "but I immediately thought of Scaramouche."
Since the eighties, Scaramouche (1 Benvenuto Pl., 416-961-8011), co-owned by Carl Corte and Keith Froggett, has topped Toronto's best-of lists with its upscale French cuisine. It has inspired and taught some of the city's top chefs while maintaining its reputation for quality and consistency, which the panel agreed are the most important qualities for any restaurant.
"I look at history and legacy," Ms. Theodore said. "So for me it's Scaramouche or Canoe [66 Wellington St. W., 416-364-0054]."
Ms. Chiu tipped the vote firmly in favour of Scaramouche, but only on a technicality. Her favourite restaurant is Edulis, the tiny neighbourhood bistro, run by husband-and-wife team Tobey Nemeth and Michael Caballo, that has drawn a cult following for its ever-changing menu that features wild and foraged ingredients. She just doesn't consider it "fine dining."
"It's so down to earth. It's so accessible. The Sunday lunch is the best deal in the city if you can get a table. I don't think it has to be a special occasion. Which is why I think of Alo [163 Spadina Ave., 416-260-2222] and Scaramouche, white tablecloths, when I think of fine dining."
The trend that needs to die
Here, the team was unanimous: 2016 was the year of poke, a Hawaiian raw-fish salad that showed up in at least half a dozen downtown spots. And poke has got to go.
"I get that it can be delicious and I've had good poke," said Mr. Doss, who objects in part because the ingredients to make authentic poke aren't available in Canada. That doesn't bother Mr. Johns, who argued the dish is meant to be a hybrid, but he too hates the sudden explosion. "It's no longer just a trend, it's a full-fledged fad," Mr. Johns complained. "And those kind of fad foods are kinda tiresome inevitably."
The panel was also not enamoured of the increasing number of seafood boil spots (where boiled seafood is eaten off a plastic-covered table), noting that the growth in popularity directly contradicts a simultaneously growing concern about ethical seafood. "What's next is someone who does a seafood boil with poke in a bag," Mr. Doss said.
There was also general confusion over why people would want to sit on toilet seats to eat out of toilet-shaped bowls at the new Poop Café (706 Bloor St., 416-535-7667), Toronto's first "toilet-themed dessert bar," which thankfully isn't a trend, yet. "One is more than enough," Mr. Johns said.
And while the Luminato pop-up earned top marks, Ms. Maharaj had harsh words for other small, temporary operations. "I love fun things. I love surprises," she said. "But I don't love when people have sacrificed a lot of service and hospitality just to say they're doing something interesting." Experimenting is cool, but paying a premium to eat fried chicken off a paper plate in a parking lot is not.
The food confession
Mr. Johns doesn't like the term "guilty pleasure," but "comfort food" is okay: For that, he goes to King's Noodle (296 Spadina Ave., 416-598-1817). "That's the place I go to the most and I have the same thing every time, wonton noodle soup and a rice-flour roll with donut," he said. "And I feel kinda gross afterward, but I love it."
Mr. Doss's heart belongs to the Ritz Caribbean (multiple locations, 647-348-7489) for jerk chicken with rice and peas with three scoops of oxtail gravy. "The rice has to be swimming," he explains. "I top that off with two orders of fried plantain so I feel extra bad for a day."
If Ms. Chiu has a dirty food secret, it's that her year has been all about food delivery, specifically services that send prepped ingredients and a recipe to her home. Her favourite is HelloFresh. She loves the quality of the ingredients (hormone-free meat and ethical seafood) and proportioned ingredients (because who ever uses the entire bunch of parsley?), but feels shame that she isn't finding her own recipes and grocery shopping. "I'm really embarrassed because I should be cooking," she said.
As the discussion flowed into Ms. Maharaj's terrible food-delivery experiences (highlight: The Burger's Priest bun can't survive the journey), Ms. Theodore blurted out her own burger-related confession.
"It's not McDonald's?" Mr. Doss asked.
"I really don't want this in print … I love the Keg burger," Ms. Theodore said. No one else understood why that was embarrassing.
Where to go for lunch
"If I can make it out to Maha's, then Maha's," Mr. Doss said of the east-end Egyptian brunch spot (226 Greenwood Ave., 416-462-2703). All dishes, from the basturma scramble (thinly sliced and spiced beef sautéed in butter and mixed with eggs) to lentil soup, are under $12.
Mr. Johns is a fan of chef Anna Chen's work at Figo (295 Adelaide St. W., 647-748-3446), calling her scallop crudo with chili and basil "pretty much an ideal lunch food." If you're signing a deal, he suggests heading to Nota Bene (180 Queen St. W., 416-977-6400), which is "a destination lunch restaurant."
Ms. Chiu likes to order her takeout lunches through the Ritual app, so it's ready when she arrives at the spot. "Once in a while, I might treat myself to Pusateri's fantastic steak sandwich," she says. "It has the perfect amount of horseradish and comes in a long submarine sandwich. You order it by the inch at the deli counter, so you can pre-emptively portion-control."
Ms. Theodore works in law at Yonge and St. Clair, where there are fewer lunch options. Her favourite is Kwan Dim Sum (1496 Yonge St., 416-901-6618) and she recommends the deep-fried squid.
What Toronto needs in 2017
"Be more thoughtful," urged Ms. Theodore, who also challenged restaurateurs to embrace the movement toward less waste. "I think when you're more thoughtful and you're not the seventh poke place in four weeks you get better food."
Mr. Doss's great disappointment is a lack of great wine bars: He pines for the return of the Jamie Kennedy-style wine bars of the mid-2000s, and thinks only Archive 909 and Midfield are worth noting in the city right now. "Look at Montreal, they're kicking our ass when it comes to wine culture," he moaned.
Ms. Maharaj ended with a simple request: that Toronto's finer restaurants bring back the custom of serving a tiny sweet with the bill. Her favourite lunch spot, Richmond Station (1 Richmond St. W., 647-748-1444), gives you a little bit of fudge. "I like the idea you are considering your bill with a sweet taste in your mouth," she says.