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Hootenanny dessert from Shoto at Toronto's Momofuku restaurant. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Hootenanny dessert from Shoto at Toronto's Momofuku restaurant. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Why 2012 will be remembered as the year that changed Toronto dining Add to ...

It can seem so quaint, if you’re in the business of tracking this city’s booming restaurant scene, to hark back just a year or two, to when everybody seemed to be opening burger joints and trattorias – to when “safe” seemed the watchword of the day. In 2012, the word would have to be “plenty.” Toronto’s dining scene expanded, evolved and improved at a pace that no Canadian cultural industry other than pop music could even dream of, with a return to good service, an influx of new noodle spots, the entry of not just one but two New York-based superchefs, and so many new and promising restaurants that it was hard to keep track of them all.

The year brought a wave of Japanese imports from the west coast and from Tokyo: thumping izakayas and cheerful little ramen shops, a few of which became so beloved, so instantly, that it’s hard to imagine how we got by before they arrived.

A string of chefs-to-watch, the young(ish) and talented cooks who’d been circling, watching, waiting for the past few years, finally locked into their own restaurants: Geoff Hopgood (Hopgood’s Foodliner), Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth (Edulis), Carl Heinrich (Richmond Station), Ben Heaton (The Grove), Colin Tooke (Grand Electric) and many others.

The city gained not just one but two international superchefs, in the restaurants of David Chang (Momofuku) and Daniel Boulud (Café Boulud), both of whom installed superb Canadian talent at the top. And even Pearson Airport, pretty much the last place you’d expect to find something decent to eat, announced a slew of new places by top Toronto talent; they’re slated to start opening in the next few weeks.

The word “plenty” translated into what went onto restaurant tables, also, as more than a dozen new rooms, from Bestellen (whole-roasted suckling pigs) to Patria (paella for four) offered huge cuts of meat, whole fish and heaping platters – large format meals – meant to be shared among groups of ravenous diners. (My favourite, on principle, though I admit I haven’t tried it: Catch restaurant’s $500 “The Gout,” in which a whole trout is filled with oysters and roasted inside a whole goat.) That large-format style made going out feel like a social experience again.

I’m relieved to announce that the tired, pissy, you’re-lucky-to-be-our-customer service style that besieged the city (and much of the continent) in the past few years began to give way in 2012 to genuine care and hospitality. I felt this nowhere more than at Edulis, where it often seemed like you were in the home of a gracious and talented host, as opposed to a place of business. (Another service standout: the supremely welcoming Farmhouse Tavern.)

At the Momofuku complex, David Chang, whose original New York noodle bar helped, for better or worse, to kick off the every-man-for-himself service trend, the chef zagged, training his floor staff to an admirable polish, and hiring a French-born maître d’ to work the door with style and aplomb.

Momofuku Shoto, meantime, the chef’s $150-per-head, 21-seat tasting menu joint, got pretty much everything right, from top-notch service (but with a deeply Changian dose of youth and unpretentiousness; be warned), smart design, and a superb wine and drinks program, to the original, intelligent and spectacularly tasty cooking. Local chefs and restaurateurs – a few of whom responded to Shoto’s success with a sudden, ugly upwelling of nationalist petulance and naked envy – dismiss the place at their peril.

More and more restaurants took design seriously, building spaces where you wanted to spend your time: the warm, olde-pubby Oxley, the lavish modern saloon called Weslodge, Susur Lee, Brenda Bent and family’s intricately detailed Bent (minus the volume; it was easily the year’s most deafening room); the sumptuous-modernist Momofuku complex, particularly the glass-wrapped Daisho space.

In food and drink, chefs took familiar smells and flavours and messed with them just enough to make them exciting again. At Edulis, Mr. Caballo baked Copper River sockeye salmon in a wrapping of intensely woodsy cedar fronds for one of the most wondrously West Coast dishes I’ve eaten anywhere. Momofuku Daisho’s Matt Blondin turned cedar fronds into my favourite ice cream flavour of the year.

The vegetable of the year? The lowly radish, which found a town full of long overdue love. Icicle radishes, Easter egg radishes, French breakfast radishes and long scarlet radishes were everywhere this year, and often as more than mere supporting actors. At The Grove, chef Ben Heaton served them as Scandinavian-style, fat-of-the-land crudités, with little bowls of creamy dill aioli. (The New-Scandinavian aesthetic turned up on plates everywhere, but nowhere more than at Ursa, on Queen St. West. It worked well at times and seemed like parody at others. What was with that garnish of “Icelandic moss?”) At Richmond Station, radishes were served as the peppery, pleasantly surprising stand-in for the potatoes in potato salad, while at Edulis they got the decadent treatment, through a long braise in butter.

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