For a moment the other week I couldn’t believe what I was eating. We ate sweet Thai pumpkin dumplings perfumed with the smell of star anise and banana leaves, and intricately layered puddings made with whole fresh corn kernels and just-whipped coconut cream. There were tiny toddy palm cakes that you rarely find outside Southeast Asia–there were dozens of desserts here, none of which I’d ever seen around the city. Best I can tell, that little shop, which opened a few months ago, is the only Thai bakery in Canada. Better still, we hadn’t even ventured north of Bloor Street to find the place.
What follows is a list of 10 extraordinary international restaurants that are either in or near Toronto’s downtown. Many of them, like that Thai bakery, and the brilliant Egyptian brunch spot on the eastside, or the must-try Sri Lankan takeout counter in the downtown core, are new to the city and one-of-a-kind, while others are undeniable classics. What they all have in common is how delicious they are, and that they’re worth the trip, no matter where you’re coming from.
Saffron Spice Kitchen
459 Queen St. West (at Spadina Avenue), 416-203-0222, saffronspicekitchen.com
Chef and owner Johnne Phinehas’s signature offering is kothu roti, a hash of red and green chilis, onions, leeks, whole curry leaves, meat, spice-laden gravy and – the key ingredient – day-old roti, all of which he chops together on a flat-top griddle. The bread soaks up the spice and the gravy and the flavours marry as the mixture cooks; you eat it with a squeeze of lemon and chunky cucumber raita. It’s exhilarating stuff. The dish is a staple in Sri Lanka, as well as in some of Toronto’s suburbs, but it took Phinehas’s tiny kitchen and takeout counter, open since 2013, to popularize kothu roti downtown. His spicing is generally mild (if you’re used to the kothu roti in Scarborough, you may find Saffron Spice Kitchen’s distressingly meek; ask for more green chiles). The protein options offer something for everyone: you can order it vegetarian or vegan, with seafood or even with butter chicken, which isn’t Sri Lankan, exactly, but you can’t blame the chef for hedging his bets. Have a mango lassi to drink, or if you’d like something more interesting, go for the faloodeh, a gluggable dessert made with rose milk, strawberry jelly and chia seeds, and said to have origins in ancient Persia some 2,500 years back. It’s huge in Sri Lanka, as the cool kids like to say.
Maha’s Fine Egyptian Cuisine
226 Greenwood Ave. (at Sandford Avenue), 416-462-2703
Eastside food types went gaga pretty much as soon as chef Maha Barsoom and her kids Mark and Monika Wahba opened their cheery Egyptian café and brunch spot last September, and since then, the you’ve-got-to-get-there clamour has only grown. Barsoom’s cooking, a blend of classic Egyptian tastes and Western twists, is unlike any Middle Eastern cooking I’ve found around the GTA. Her “mind-blowing chicken sandwich” combines the roasty crunch and spice of shawarma-style chicken with the freshness of chopped tomato, parsley and oregano, with the shirt-staining maximalism of a sloppy joe – all on a soft, sesame-seeded egg bun. The “pharoah’s po boy” piles fried battered shrimp and tahini into a softly charred pita; this is also a total bell-ringer. For a more classically Egyptian start, try the chef’s appetizer platter. There are a dozen different tastes on it, including house-made hummus and bright, clean-tasting baba ghanouj, punchy home-made feta (“My mom makes it from scratch, it takes about nine months to ferment the cheese,” Mark told us one morning), wedges of the Egyptian whole-grain pita called aish baladi, salty-sweet chopped beets, and pickled lime quarters that you pop, skin and all, like summer cherries. The falafel on that platter, made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, clinched it: Barsoom does them fried-chicken crisp on their outsides and impossibly loose and moist and fragrant with fresh green herbs in their middles; they’re studded with toasted coriander seeds. We were raving like eastsiders by the time we were done.
949 Gerrard St. East (at Pape Avenue), 416-462-9666, pizzapide.ca
The “pizza” part of this standout east-side pie shop’s name should not be taken literally; the meat, cheese and spice-topped Turkish flatbreads called pide are their own thing, with their own traditions and tastes. And in any case, the comparison is hardly fair: Pizza Pide’s offerings put most city pizza joints to shame. The feta and spinach, roast lamb and mozzarella, and ground beef and sunny-side up egg pide are all excellent, as are the (rounder, thin-crusted) flatbreads called lahmajun, which come topped with spicy beef, and are meant to be eaten rolled up with parsley and fresh lemon inside. My favourite is the Turkish sausage pide called sucuklu kaçarli; the sausage combines the peppery, smoked chilli flavour of chorizo with an assertive cumin kick. The pies here come with stacks of chopped onion and tomato, lemon wedges, curly parsley and pickled peppers on the side, which you’re meant to crunch through as you go along. (And don’t neglect to buy a few cans of the sour cherry juice.) “This place just wrecked ordinary pizza for me,” a friend said when we ate there recently. “Exactly,” I replied.
6125 Yonge Street (at Centre Avenue), 416-221-7558, khoraksupermarket.com
Before you even think about eating, you should wander through this old-school Iranian supermarket’s produce section, with its crates of tiny table grapes, its downy stacks of mint and tarragon, its bins of snacking cucumbers and its whole, shell-on favas. Head from there to Super Khorak’s bakery (you will know it by the wheat- and yeast-perfumed updrafts), where they roll out long, soft, oven-hot sheafs of lavash and barbari bread. You must pop through the nuts section (check out all those pistachios!), and breeze, at very least, past Super Khorak’s deli counter (a friend of mine, who is married to an Iranian-American, described the texture of a signature product here as “cream Cheese Whiz”).
But no matter how you approach the place, all paths lead to Super Khorak’s outstanding hot table and takeout counter, laden with jewelled rices, delicate, spice-braised meats and sublime vegetable stews. The celery stew, called khoresht-e karafs, makes a superhero of the stalks; it’s richly bittersweet and vegetal, but with mint, parsley and nubs of beef for balance and fullness. The beef kebabs are good, if not exceptional (the ones just down the street at Super Arzon are done over charcoal instead of gas, and the selection’s far better); there are condiment packets filled with sumac to go with them. The rice varieties include a superb fava bean and dill number and another that’s dotted with pistachio nuts and sour cherries. (That Iranian-American friend complained that the sour cherry rice, called albaloo polo, was nowhere near as good as it ought to be. I nodded sympathetically and kept on plowing food into my face.)
Yet the best thing here by far is the tahchin: a fat, wide cake of saffron rice that comes toasty golden brown on its outsides and moist on its insides from torrents of sour Middle Eastern yogurt and chicken bits that are baked right in. Afterward, head one plaza south to Super Arzon, if not for kebabs, for the soft-serve machine, which they keep filled with saffron sweet cream ice cream. You can get it in a cone or in a cup, or better still, doused with fresh-pressed carrot juice.
Patchmon’s Homemade Thai Desserts
2463 Bloor Street West (at Jane Street), 647-882-5250, thaidesserts.ca
Patchmon Su-Anchalee took a job with Ace Bakery after moving here from Bangkok 12 years ago. She stuck with it for a few years, but a problem nagged at her through all that time. Though Thailand has one of the richest, most complex desserts cultures on the planet, Su-Anchalee couldn’t find a single Thai bakery in Canada, much less around the GTA. This spring, she opened Patchmon’s, a bakery and sweets shop on Bloor Street West. There are dozens of selections: one-bite steamed banana and cassava cakes; taro custards made sweet and savoury with supercaramelized shallots; a breathtakingly delicious layered pudding of coconut cream, fresh corn and pandan leaf jelly, served jiggly tender inside a pandan leaf bowl.
Others feature sticky rice, finger bananas, duck eggs, toddy palm fruit, Thai pumpkin (this is formed into a sort of dumpling skin around sweetened mung beans; the treat is served inside a banana leaf packet), and even mackerel. There are samples for many of them; Su-Anchalee’s friend Wadee Deethongkham, who works the counter, will ply you with tastes before she lets you buy. (Many of the more intricate steamed desserts are made to order; they can take a good 30 minutes.) What unifies Su-Anchalee’s treats is their clarity of flavour and the extraordinary range of tastes and textures so many of them contain. These are nothing at all like your typical takeout sweets.
1569 Eglinton Avenue West (at Oakwood Avenue), 416-781-5313
After 36 years of gangbuster business, this beloved Little Jamaica takeout counter is as much a classic as you’ll find in the city. Randy’s owes much of that success – not to mention the lineups, which often stretch well out onto Eglinton Avenue West – to just four or five staples, each of them a brain-scrambling benchmark for value and for taste. The Jamaican patties are quite possibly the best in town, the beef version dark, drippy-moist and redolent with scotch bonnets and black pepper, and the veg ones (the go-to here) stuffed with potato, peas, the spinach-like green called callaloo and a complex, buttery-textured gravy that’s imbued with near-miraculous decongestant properties.
These are baked into flaky turnover crusts (praise be the beef suet), and sell for around $1.50 each. But you also shouldn’t miss the goat and oxtail curries, which are braised to melting and piled onto rice and peas and a palate-refreshing tuft of vinegared cabbage slaw. The best way to do the place is to bring a group directly after work on a Friday (Randy’s closes at 8 p.m.; many other nearby places stay open late) and use it as the starting point for a jerk chicken crawl; the strip’s sidewalks come alive with charcoal grills after around 6 p.m.
503 Oakwood Avenue (at Vaughan Road), 416-656-7349
Chef Horace Wilson’s friendly Oakwood Avenue spot combines Jamaican flavours with a neighbourhood diner format; you can get jerk chicken with your French toast here, and plantain with your salt-cod omelette, and both are very fine ideas. His chicken is not your typical jerk: it is braised slowly instead of grilled, so it comes out juicy and round-tasting, with warm, sweet spicing instead of the more common chili hots. (Another difference: he doesn’t chop the bones.) I’m still partisan to the scotch bonnet-peppery, hard-grilled style you find at Rasta Pasta in Kensington Market and along Eglinton West, but I quickly succumbed to Seg’z mellow charms.
Be sure to get a side of the fried plantain, which comes custard-soft and deeply concentrated, but with a whisper of char from the flattop. And don’t miss the excellent (but not at all typical) cabbage slaw, which the chef dresses with dill and broccoli. As for the restaurant’s name, “When I was three, I used to sing this song that went ‘sega degga duggo doo,’ ” Mr. Wilson said. “When I grow older I become Seg.” For dessert, you’ll want to head across the road to JR Sweet’s.
605 Rogers Road, Unit 1 (at Keele Street), 416-657-4343
Even in a city that’s been shaped by Portuguese immigrants it can be hard to persuade diners there’s more to Portugal’s cuisine than grilled chicken and egg custard tarts. The menu at this cavernous, affordable and deceptively casual grillhouse runs from gleamy-eyed whole fish to Alentejo-style pork with clams, to superlative chouriço sausage and the (vastly underrated) rice dish called arroz de tamboril. It all makes a convincing argument. The carne de porco à Alentejana is true to the classic here, the clams and cubed pork bathed in garlic, white wine and gentle aromatics. The grilled picanha steak – it’s a coulotte, but with its fat cap – was excellent with good fries for $23, and the chouriço, brought to table on a flaming dish of aguardiente, is beautifully spiced and nubbed with cubes of fat. I liked the churrasco chicken, though if you prefer an aggressive piri piri you’re better off at Costa Verde on Oakwood Avenue. The whole grilled fish are done with a light touch, which is to say Martin’s kitchen doesn’t grill the bejeebus out of them. And do not miss the arroz de tamboril, a decadent stew of long-grained rice, vegetables, spice and monkfish – the one here is better even than the versions I’ve had in Portugal.
522 Oakwood Ave. (at Vaughan Road), 416-913-0110
The sign outside this Oakwood Avenue scoop shop says “Jamaica Inspired Ice Cream.” When I asked what that means, precisely, owner Claude Fearon began passing out samples. Some are made in-house, others brought in; once we started tasting, I couldn’t have cared any less. There’s a very good soursop, malty Guinness ice cream, cream soda-like cola champagne and a Grape-Nuts flavour that tastes exactly how it sounds. (I loved it.) Ice-cream aficionados may quibble about texture here (a few of the varieties showed a touch of icy-graininess, and others a hint of stabilizer chew), but in my book, the flavours overrode all that. The show-stealer is Fearon’s coconut rum ice cream, which starts out nearly as light as coconut water, and finishes like a nip of barrel-aged booze.
Super Noodle Express
358 Spadina Avenue (at St. Andrew Street), 647-346-8588
Who, or more to the point, what makes better noodles: robots or human beings? At this new, northwestern Chinese-style noodle joint in Spadina Chinatown, you have to choose. The human element is on display in the back, where a spry, flour-dusted man rolls, twists, kneads, thwaps and stretches fat lengths of dough into satisfyingly chewy handmade noodles. Directly behind him, a malevolent looking noodle robot – complete with light-up kaleidoscope eyes and a furrowed unibrow – cuts lengths of dough into satisfyingly chewy machine-made noodles and issues them down a conveyor into a boiling vat.
I loved the house special hand-pulled ones, which were broad and flat and had a wheaty, satisfying firmness to them; they came in a light beef broth, with a few bits of meat and a passel of greens; the chili sauce and black vinegar on the table are worthy additions. But I also loved the robot-sliced noodles with pickled cabbage and beef, which were even thicker and chewier but also ragged-edged, as though they’d been cut with a hatchet, which, what the hell, robot? If you know Sun’s Kitchen, in Pacific Mall, or Scarborough’s Magic Noodle (or any number of hand-pulled noodle shops that have begun springing up around town)the ones here will be familiar. Hence the market-differentiation of the robot, a cynic might suppose. The menu, which includes barbecue and cold dishes as well as noodle ones, is enormous; I need more time to reach a verdict on the man or machine imbroglio. Meanwhile, it’s a worthy quest; you may want to find the answer for yourself.