Thursday, July 02, 2009

Toronto Notebook

For the most part I was there to hunker down in the archive of a library

robarts fig. a: Space: 2009

so that I could do some research on some pioneering figures from the early history of Canadian cinema,

picture perfect fig. b: les glâneuses et les glâneurs

but I was there for five days and four nights, so I also had a chance to do a little snooping around.

snail fig. c: mobile home


I'd been reading great things about Pizzeria Libretto for a while, and I'm pretty much always in the mood for a good pizza, so when I found out my host hadn't been yet and was intrigued (if highly skeptical), it seemed like a natural.

Man, has Ossington ever changed. I remember staying out there with friends in the mid-1990s and things were pretty quiet--mostly just the odd Portuguese and Vietnamese establishments and a bunch of garages. Well, those days are gone. Ossington is lined with hip bars, restaurants, and boutiques, it's a full-on mob scene on Saturday nights (of course, the fact that it was NXNE at the time probably contributed to the mayhem), and the garage that sat next door to where my friends used to live is now some kind of post-industrial nightclub. Pizzeria Libretto is equally emblematic of the new Ossington. It's young, it's happening, it's packed to the gills, and house music throbs throughout the premises. There was a healthy line-up when we got there, but we were a party of two, so 45 minutes later (after we'd slipped out to kill a couple of beers at The Communist's Daughter, a great little neighborhood watering hole) we were seated at one of their communal tables, menus in hand.

It's not 100% clear that the crowd is there for the pizza or for the ideology*--it seemed to me like the clientele was more scenester than pizza connoisseur--but that's too bad because Libretto's pizzas really are great.

toronto 2 fig. d: the people have spoken 1

They've got a lovely crust, they're perfectly baked and blistered, and their toppings are well balanced and of premium quality. We both loved the House-made fennel sausage with caramelized onions and Ontario fior di latte, but the prize-winner might very well have been the basic Marinara D.O.P. with a bright San Marzano sauce, garlic, oregano, and a few basil leaves. That was certainly the one K. liked the most.

Think local, eat Universal

universal fig. e: Universal Oriental

The next evening I found myself attending Saloon Sundays (so called because they have a BYOB policy in effect on Sundays with no corkage fees to boot) at Universal Grill, a friendly, low-key neighborhood joint that's situated in a beautiful old diner space, one that dates back to the first half of the 20th century. M. ran (nay, speed-walked) back to her place to pick up a bottle from her cellar so that we could take full advantage of the free corkage, and we sank our teeth into Universal's tasty assortment of comfort food classics and neo-classics (crab cakes, jerk chicken, blackened snapper, finger-lickin' dry baby back ribs, and Key Lime pie).


Some of you may recall that Michelle once had the following to say about Manic Coffee: "The best coffee ever! The best! Ever!" Well, I wasn't about to pass that up, so I went and had a Manic macchiato.

toronto 13 fig. f: Manic macchiato

"The best coffee ever!" is a helluva claim, but after sampling the goods, I could understand Michelle's fervor. Later that night, 12 hours after what turned into an afternoon threepeat, I could still understand understand Michelle's fervor.

Enter Sandman

One afternoon I found myself wandering around Chinatown,

toronto 14 fig. g: since 1943

admiring the contrasts,

since 1961 fig. h: since 1961

when I suddenly felt the lure of Kensington Market. Actually, more than anything, I was jonesing for another coffee and I remembered that I'd once had a pretty fine brew at Ideal Coffee. So there I was, heading down Nassau towards Ideal, when who should I run into but our good friend Sandy.

He invited me into his pad to hang out for a while, and while we got caught up, I sat there and admired the collection of wall-mounted pizza crusts he had on display in his well-appointed kitchen.

toronto 12 fig. i: better homes & kitchens

Then I picked poor Sandy's brain about local food & beverage finds. There are at least 2.7 million stories in Hogtown, and Sandy didn't want to overwhelm me, so he limited himself to two choice tips.

Dark Horse

Sandy mentioned that the crowd at Dark Horse might be interesting because of the fact that it's located in the Robertson Building, an historic Spadina Avenue building whose current mantra is "innovation, sustainability, community," and whose premises are something of a hub for Toronto's arts, design, and progressive politics communities. I didn't notice anything special about Dark Horse's patrons, but I did notice the Robertson Building's impressive Biowall,

toronto 9 fig. j: better buildings & gardens

and it was hard not to miss their gleaming white espresso machine.

toronto 11 fig. k: white heat

Even better: they knew how to use it.

toronto 10 fig. l: Dark Horse macchiato

Another day, another fine macchiato. Although, this time, fearing another night of involuntary jitterbugging, I limited myself to just one.


Mother's Dumplings is a 21st-Century Chinatown classic, Sandy told me, a small, underground establishment that's used the power of the handmade dumpling to build a fanatical following since they opened their doors in 2005.

toronto 8 fig. m: The Shadow knows

Just one taste of my first pork & chives steamed dumpling was all it took for me to join their ranks.

toronto 7 fig. n: the people have spoken 2

A real handmade dumpling can those of us who love them a little crazy, and Mother's Dumplings' walls were testament to this particularly pleasurable affliction.


With all the buzz surrounding the newly Gehry-fied Art Gallery of Ontario, I had to go and take a look, but Frankly it wasn't the new entrance, the glass & wood facade, the sculptural staircase, or south wing that impressed me,

toronto 6 fig. o: self-portrait

it was the elevators.

Balm on Gilead

Years ago now, Michelle and I had a superlative meal at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar that we wrote about in some detail in these very pages. When someone suggested that I visit Jamie Kennedy's Gilead Café, his café-cum-production kitchen in Corktown, I was only too happy to comply.

I loved the look of the place from the moment we entered.

toronto 5 fig. p: someone's been canning

I loved the atmosphere too. The counter staff was warm and knowledgeable, the setting had that no-nonsense vibe you get when you're in close proximity to a working kitchen. It was hot out that day, and just outside there was a loud, dusty construction site, but inside, things at Gilead Café were calm and welcoming, and I instantly felt at home.

toronto 4 fig. q: JK burger

Gilead Café's menu is all about the comfort food, but here the comfort comes not only from familiar favorites, but from the flavors of the very best locally grown produce, locally raised meats, and locally produced artisanal cheeses. Take their house hamburger: the beef is pasture-fed, the cheese is Ontario artisanal, the greens are local and organic, and the mayonnaise, the ketchup, and the bun are all homemade. In other words, this ain't your typical diner burger, but more importantly it tastes just as divine as a real burger ought to.

K. took the pulled pork sandwich, and while it came with the kind of thick, tomato-based sauce that is less to my liking, the pork itself had been masterfully smoked in the big rig they have out back.

toronto 3 fig. r: JK desserts

Dessert was great too: a homey coconut bar, an organic Ontario apple (the best one I'd had in about 8 months), and another excellent macchiato.

Plus, how many cafés can you think of where you can pick up a 2.5-kg bag of organic, stone-ground Red Fife flour for the road?

Libretto, 221 Ossington, (416) 532-8000,

The Communist's Daughter, 1149 Dundas St W, (647) 435-0103

Universal Grill, 1071 Shaw Street, (416) 588-5928,

Manic Coffee, 426 College Street, (416) 966-3888,

Dark Horse Espresso Bar, 215 Spadina Avenue, (416) 979-1200

Mother's Dumplings, 79 Huron Street, (416) 217-2008,

Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street W., (416) 979 6648,

Gilead Café, 4 Gilead Place, (647) 288 0680,


* In this regard, as well as others, Pizzeria Libretto appears to have been inspired by NYC's Una Pizzeria Napoletana (who can blame them?), although UPN's pizza manifesto is an outright smackdown by comparison.

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