fig. a: Tonto prays for poor Toronto
Poor Toronto. It's spent decades trying to shake its reputation as "Toronto the Good," a city whose identity was primarily perceived as being strait-laced, upright, and, frankly, uptight--the capital of those dreaded "têtes carrées." For ages, it's also endured the resentment of the rest of Canada over its wealth, power, and success, and has been ridiculed mercilessly for having the nerve to consider itself the economic and/or cultural capital of the nation. It's home to an Original Six hockey team that's made its fans suffer since the end of the Original Six era (in spite of the city's wealth and power). And then there's all that ongoing nonsense with the Mayor's Office.
But, you know what? I've always thought Toronto is a pretty funky town, with some truly impressive architecture.
fig. b: Toronto the Great
And, regardless of all the haters with their darts and arrows, Toronto just keeps steaming along. In fact, in many areas (but certainly not all) things have never been better.
Take the city's food culture, for instance. In this department, from restaurants to bars, to microbreweries, markets, and purveyors of all sorts, the city seems more and more like "Toronto the Great" to me every time I visit.
Tastemakers like David Chang lament the fact that Toronto has "yet to produce any truly world-class restaurants," but I couldn't care less about any of that San Pellegrino business, and what I see is a city that has become remarkably assertive when it comes to food and drink in a very short period of time, a city that's become a true contender.
A recent trip turned up these observations:
fig. c: Kensington Market
Seven Lives serves excellent San Diego-style tacos and refreshing agua frescas out of a tiny storefront on Kensington Avenue. Their signature taco is their Gobernador, and it boldly goes places no taco I've ever had before has gone, combining shrimp, smoked marlin, and cheese into an experience that's both mind-bending and mouth-watering. It's something about the sweet juiciness of the shrimp, the almost meaty smokiness of the marlin, and the loving caress of the cheese. If it sounds strange to you, get over it. The Gobernador is the only taco that Seven Lives has immortalized in paint on their front window, and you can understand why--they know it's a hit.
(Note: Seven Lives' tacos are overstuffed and an excellent value for the money. Just one makes for a pretty decent (small) meal.)
Sanagan's Meat Locker, on Baldwin Street, is the best butcher shop/charcuterie I've encountered in
Hogtown Canada. The SML experience is comparable to Fleisher's, and that's high praise in my book. Their meat is carefully sourced, clearly labeled, and very fairly priced, and their staff is knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and friendly. Their selection of charcuterie is impressive. And their kitchen is turning out fantastic sandwiches, salads, and other meals-to-go. They also stock a great selection of locally manufactured fine food products (breads, condiments, etc.). I picked up a honking, beautifully marbled 12-lb skin-on, bone-in Mennonite pork shoulder for just over $40 on my last day in town and turned it into some divine barbecue the next day, back in Montreal.
Fika is a tastefully appointed Swedish café on Kensington Avenue. They make a delicious iced coffee with cardamom and mint leaves.
Queen Street West
fig. d: Grand Electric
Grand Electric is another new-school Toronto taco joint that's more of a restaurant (a lot more) and less of a stand than Seven Lives, and that also features a full bar with a stunning selection of bourbons and some pretty great beers (like Negra Modelo). All my tacos (crispy cauliflower, spicy chicken) were great (they're smaller here than at Seven Lives, so I ordered three), but my absolute favourite was the Baja fish, which was both generous (featuring a large piece of flaky, beautifully deep-fried fish) and ridiculously delicious.
The same folks also run a BBQ joint called Electric Mud, right around the corner on Brock Avenue, but I ran out of time and never made it there. Next time!
Oyster Boy has been a Toronto institution for over 20 years--first as a supplier/caterer and then as a bricks-and-mortar restaurant (since 2001). The oysters are plentiful, they come from some of the top oyster producers in Canada and the States, and they're expertly shucked and served with all the condiments one might want. The rest of the menu is exactly what you're looking for in an oyster shack, and all you could dream of in a seafood restaurant that's so far from the ocean. Our party split a selection of oysters on the half shell, and I had a salad and an oyster po' boy and I was thrilled.
Chantecler is another Parkdale restaurant (just a couple doors down from Grand Electric) that specializes in Asian lettuce wraps. I really liked my Pork Special Wrap, with dried oysters, toasty seaweed, and puffed rice, but I absolutely loved my Fancy Wings, which came with fried garlic and shallots, and my Kale Salad, which featured the unlikely combination of oyster mushrooms, apples, and seaweed, but was truly fantastic--the best kale salad I've ever tasted.
I've heard rumours that Chantecler runs a tasting menu operation somewhere behind the scenes of their restaurant--Roberta's-style--but I didn't find out about it until I'd gotten back to Montreal. Definitely sounds intriguing...
Bar Isabel on College Street, just a block and a half from Ossington, is a highly rated Spanish restaurant that specializes in tapas, wine, and cocktails. We placed our focus on tapas and bar snacks, and everything we had was exceptional, including the sardines, the boquerones, the patatas bravas, and the grilled asparagus. I highly recommend eating at the bar, if you're dining solo or if you're a party of two--the staff there were friendly and highly attentive, and it's fun to watch them mix their expertly crafted cocktails.
(Note: It can be very hard to get a reservation at Bar Isabel because of its reputation and its popularity, but if you show up just before they open, at 6:00 p.m., and there are just one or two of you, you can usually get a seat at the bar.)
If the idea of opening a "Paris, 1900"-style butcher shop* on a gentrified stretch of Ossington in 21st-century Toronto sounds absurd to you, you might scoff at Côte de Boeuf, but it would be a shame if you did, because you'd miss out on some of the city's best meat, cheese, eggs, milk, and other fine foods. They also make some pretty impressive sandwiches.
Libretto wasn't new to me, and perhaps because of that, I found utterly impossible to miss out on one of their Neapolitan pizza pies. In fact, I'd just eaten about an hour before and I wasn't even hungry, but it was after 9:00 p.m., and I could see that things had died down inside the restaurant, so I popped in and ordered a pizza-to-go "for later." Who was I kidding? I ducked down a side street seconds after picking up my order, and ate half the pizza right there, standing up, pizza box resting on someone's fence. The other half I saved for later. One quarter ended up being a midnight snack. The last quarter was eaten for breakfast.
I guess I just had to make sure their pizzas were as good as I remembered them being. Don't miss out on their homemade spicy chile oil.
Seven Lives, 69 Kensington Avenue (Kensington Market), (416) 666-6666
Sanagan's Meat Locker, 176 Baldwin Avenue (Kensington Market), (416) 593-9747
Fika, 28 Kensington Avenue (Kensington Market)
Grand Electric, 1330 Queen Street West (Parkdale), (416) 627-3459
Oyster Boy, 872 Queen Street West (Trinity-Bellwoods), (416) 534-3432
Chantecler, 1320 Queen Street West (Parkdale), (416) 628-3586
Bar Isabel, 797 College Street (Little Italy/Ossington), (416) 532-2222
Côte de Boeuf, 130 Ossington Avenue (Little Portugal/Ossington), (416) 532-BEEF
Libretto, 221 Ossington Avenue (Little Portugal/Ossington), (416) 532-8000
* Actually, I take it back. Their tagline on their website reads: "A butcher shop right out of Paris in the 90s. The 1890s." I was off by a few years.