Canada’s largest city, Toronto, a vibrant mix of hipster bars, classic old school restaurants, ethnically diverse mom and pop eateries, bakeries, and much more. With cultural diversity that seems limitless, how does once choose from such a gastronomically glorious city?
I turned to my best friend, the internet, for this arduous task. A quick search listed a cornucopia of established neighborhoods: Yorkville with it’s historic charm and fashionable restaurants, Chinatown where the sidewalks boast an endless supply of exotic spices and fresh produce, Little India (the best Indian I have tasted west of the Indian Ocean), Little Italy, Greektown, Leslieville where brunch seats are impossible on weekends, Financial District with it’s upscale restaurants, heck even an historic space dedicated to breweries – Distillery District, Kings West sprawling with coffee shops, trendy bars, and young professionals. For a comprehensive list, check out BlogTo.com.
The vetting process after gut-wrenching deliberations narrowed the city down based on local recommendations, ethnic cuisine, and hot digs with a few pleasant surprises. Toronto being built on a rectangular grid system made it relatively easy to navigate on foot. I was literally clocking 10 miles a day, walking (my work out in lieu of the upcoming gluttonous trip.) At the end of the day though, my tired muscles took full advantage of the conveniences of Uber select/black.
Without further adieu, I present to you Toronto’s tantalizing bites, in random order.
Bar Raval: My first stop, literally seconds after checking in at the Westin Harbor Castle. Sister restaurant of Bar Isabel, brain child of Chef Grant Van Gameren with partners Michael Webster and Robin Goodfellow in Little Italy. From low octane cocktails, gastronomical quickies thoughtfully curated in the form of Basque Pinxtos, to finger-licking sugary goodness, Bar Raval transported me to our infamous pinxto crawl in San Sebastian, Spain. Do yourself a favor and grab an espresso and Spanish Donut to go at 8 am or stop by for exciting cocktails at midnight, Bar Raval is open from 8 am. to 2 am.
With infinite rib sticking interpretations, a trip to Canada is inconceivable without the landslide of crispy french fries smothered in flavorful gravy and topped with soft cheese curds endearingly called Poutine. You can’t cross a few blocks without spotting to go Poutine boxes or Poutineries! Our pit stops included Nacho Grande and Pulled Pork at Smoke’s Poutinerie, Hangover Cure at Poutineville, and Montreal Smoked Poutine at Mill Street Brewery was enjoyed around a flight of their seasonal taps.
Located adjacent to Bar Raval, DaiLo produces one of the best fusion in the city with their Chinese-French ambitious renditions. The Smoked Trout Betel Leaf, bean sprouts, basil leaves, pickled melon rind, pork floss, a culinary masterpiece compared to the betel leaf Paan we grew up watching Indian men chew them like cows. I consciously make an effort to stay away from fried food. That said, the Fried Watermelon with bean sprouts, basil leaves, pickled melon rind, pork floss had me squealing in delight. Crunchy, refreshing, sweet, and savory – it hit all the right spots.
Carpaccio such a simple dish was elevated to new heights of complexity and depth with Ponzu Beef Carpaccio, 90 day Olliffe rib cap, yuzu soy caramel, truffle dwarf peach, pickled chili, fried garlic, cilantro. Incontestably, one of the best things I ate in 2015.
The Mapo Doufu Halloumi, Montforte halloumi, ground pork, grilled scallions, black bean chili sauce, fried chilies and garlic, sadly was rather salty and concentrated for my palate. The Truffle Fried Rice, black truffle, egg, carrots, edamame, puffed rice, XO sauce, a luxurious comfort dish. Reservations are hard to come by, plan early.
With it’s bustling South East Asian districts, we couldn’t pass our chance to experience Dim Sum. A far cry from the standard cart fare, Kwan located in the fashionable part of Yongee Street treats dim sum like fine art focusing on superior quality and freshness. Baby Bok Choy with Goji Berries & Enoki Mushrooms, Steamed Shanghai Style Pork Dumplings, Steamed Dumplings with Duck Meat, Tender Beef wrapped with Steam Rice Flour Noodle, and Pan-fried Turnip Pudding was all what we could manage to order in the short period of time we had. These bite-size treats won brownie points not just for maintaining superior quality but also for their pleasing prices.
Brunch an urban sport in big cities, can make it nearly impossible to find seats especially if restaurants don’t accept reservations. After careful deliberations we settled on Patria aptly located in the Fashion District. Instead of espresso I leisurely sipped on the the golden, nutty, rich Sherry flight while noshing on Pimentos de Padron, Bocadillo de Higado Graso de Pato, Pringa del Cocido, Croquetas de Jamon, Fideo con Tocino y Huevo, Coca de Boquerones y Piquillo, and Churros con Dulce le Leche. Each dish was beautifully flavored; what stole my foodie heart was the Fideo Pasta + Bacon + Egg + Hollandaise. Clarified butter, luxurious hollandaise, angel hair pasta with the consistency of vermicelli, accentuated with a perfectly poached egg, it was inexplicably exquisite.
Living in Florida leaves us desperate for real Indian food. But naturally we visited Lahore Tikka House on Gerrard Street. Indian family-style food is hard to capture via lenses. One bite of the Seekh Kebab was well worth the half an hour drive from downtown Toronto. The flavors at Lahore are the real deal, not watered down for Western palates. No frill restaurant where the only star is the bold, bright, addictive flavors of masala and spice. Succulent Seekh Kebab glistening in its own tenderness, supremely spicy Biryani cooled with spoonfuls of raita (yogurt sauce), soulfully nourishing Haleem, a cracked wheat-lamb-lentil stew garnished with fresh chilies, cilantro, and a healthy dose of lemon juice, quintessential Palak-Paneer, and hot of the tandoor, Naan shining in all it’s buttery glory. It was precisely what we needed to satisfy our hankering for truly Indian/Pakistani flavors.
The concierge at Westin Harborside managed to snag us seats at Byblos, an upscale take on Eastern Mediterranean cuisine nestled in the Entertainment District. Showcasing two unique ambiances, the second floor a sultry lounge and the main dining room a vibrant, ultra chic look. Creamy Labneh kissed with sweetness of fennel and honey; Barbari Bread drizzled with olive oil and dusted with dukkah; croquettes engulfed in Duck Kibbeh with dried fig and date molasses, Steak Tartare spiked with red chili and mint; stunning Spanish Octopus with fingerling potato swimming in biber chili vinaigrette and preserved lemon; show stopping Whole Boneless Brazino with vine leaf, chemoula (Morocoon herb sauce), saffron toum (Egyptian garlic sauce) gets an uplift with tangy eggplant pickle. A world-class culinary induction into to the unforgettable flavors of Lebanon, Egypt, Northern Africa, Greece, Syria, and Libya. Bravo chef!
Mother’s Dumpling House smack in Chinatown on Spaulding Avenue due to lack of time unfortunately got demoted to a pit stop only. Plump and juicy, delicately seasoned, wrapped around the lightest dough, the Pork & Chive Dumpling, Steamed Melon, Tofu, & Vegetable, Pan Fried Beef & Celery were equally ethereal.
University Avenue around Toronto General Hospital is swarming with ethnic food trucks around lunch time. And Randy’s Roti Caribbean truck lured us in with their intoxicating aromas. Follow them on Twitter for updated locations.
Kinton Ramen with multiple locations, however, was a disappointing experience. Insipid broth and soggy noodles, I failed to grasp the hipe. Showcasing tempting flavor profiles, Jelly Modern Doughnuts didn’t make the cut either. If I am throwing calories out the window, I expect to be reimbursed with mind-altering flavors. Sorry!
Another pleasant surprise residing on the ground floor of Brookfield Place was Marche Restaurant. Eight food stations including two wine and cocktail bars, including Italian, bakery, French, Juice Bar, and a Sushi joint and open late. Falafel and Shawarma lovers are in luck, as Toronto is busting in it’s seams with casual joints. Korean Bbq all you can eat/cook joints benefiting local college kids budget are abundant too.
Much hyped St. Lawrence Market serves the needs of the local residents better with their fresh produce/butcher market than tourists looking for local bites. The Distillery District housing art galleries by day and eclectic restaurants and artisan shops is certainly worth a visit to scoop up local art and chilled beer.
Three places that I had re-schedule due to unavoidable circumstances were the fashionable Italian Bucca, Pre-Fixe menu restaurant Edulis, and Scarmouche a French restaurant. Momofuku by Chef David Chang is also bookmarked for the next trip.
My short three days were filled with glorious gastronomical discoveries spanning all price ranges. Foreign travel without the hassle of jet lag or language barriers, my love affair with Toronto unbeknownst to me aptly refreshed and replenished my cultural-starved foodie soul.
Photo Credits: Toronto BlogTo, Byblos, Patria, Poutineville, and Kwan.