by Lawrence Ferber
Toronto has seen its share of shiny new developments over the past decade, like the Toronto International Film Festival's all-in-one Bell Lightbox complex in 2010 and last year's Ritz-Carlton opening. The same goes for Toronto's food scene, with its proliferation of foodie and locavore-centric venues throughout the city. Yes, you can still find traditional and tasty staples, like an amazing peameal bacon sandwich at St. Lawrence Market, and a wide array of Asian cuisines thanks to the city's sizeable Asian population, but our World Eats picks below represent a cross section of what's hip, delicious, and recent on the scene, from a lesbian Food Network star's flagship restaurant to the best café you'll find in an LGBT Community Center anywhere on the planet.
THE BLACK HOOF
Established in 2008, and still building in buzz every year, this is a local chef's favorite hangout, and a no-reservations policy serves to level the playing field for celebrities, VIPs, and casual foodies alike (Gordon Ramsey, who dubbed the place "extraordinary" after he visited in December 2010, was shown no favor). The décor includes black walls, mirrors, and chalkboards that announce the frequently changing "meat and off-cut centric" plates and a spectacular drink list. Head Chef Brandon Olsen's charcuterie and small plates dominate with house-cured meats, albacore tuna crudo, roasted bone marrow, and beef heart tartare. Staple showstoppers include the savory, authentic tacos ($11) and the thinly sliced tongue on brioche ($14). The latter is delicate, smoky, tender, drizzled with aioli, and so delicious it rivals Manhattan's finest deli meats and could convert even the tongue-averse. Cocktails also rotate throughout the year, and are quite possibly Toronto's most taste bud-tantalizing mixologist creations. The Lavender Pisco Sour ($11) was smooth and not too sweet, with a light foamy head thanks to egg white, while One Night in Puebla ($12), includes vanilla tequila, grilled pineapple syrup, and lime and honey powder, managed to perfectly marry its flavors yet allow each of them to shine individually on the palate. August 2011 saw the opening of a sister Cocktail Bar, a brighter space that calls to mind a 1950s Americana kitchen, offering even more spectacular cocktails and charcuterie. 923 Dundas St. West. Tel: 416-551-8854. www.theblackhoof.com
Occupying the same building as the new, glowing, gay-friendly boutique property Hôtel Le Germain in the heart of sports and entertainment complex Maple Leaf Square, this is a solid fine dining choice firmly planted in contemporary aesthetics. The menu spotlights Chef Robert Bentley's high-end, modernized, and in some cases, Canadian-ized takes on North American classics. A glass cellar houses some 3,200 bottles of wine selected by Master Sommelier Jennifer Huether (Canada's sole female holding that esteemed title). The dinner menu includes a sublime tuna tartare with avocado ($19), lobster Cobb salad with buttermilk dressing ($34), a maple burger topped with Guinness cheddar, double-smoked bacon, and roasted garlic aioli ($25), and a selection of steaks and chops. Desserts ($10 each) includes key lime pie, a hot fudge sundae, and, as nostalgic as it gets, cookies and milk certainly hit the spot and ring familiar with US tourists. During warmer months, be sure to check out the patio, well suited for cocktail and wine sipping with a dedicated patio menu. We give e11even a ten! 15 York St. Tel: 416-815-1111. www.e11even.ca
One doesn't typically think of a GLBT community center when it comes to artisanal, house-made, top-notch café fare. If Toronto's Fabarnak is any indicator and inspires a trend in other cities, that could soon change. Combining community goodwill with seriously tasty, sustainability-minded locavore cuisine, Fabarnak opened in October 2010. A prime, glass-enclosed corner of The 519, located smack dab in the heart of the Church-Wellesley Gay Village, this contempo, upbeat space—key lime chairs, turquoise tiles, an upside-down red umbrella serving as a chandelier, and outdoor deck with prime people-watching action during warmer weather. It is staffed by at-risk queer youth. They receive invaluable workforce training and fair wages, while tips and profits funnel directly into The 519's programs and services. Chef Eric Wood's menus comprise sustainable, local product including four Canadian cheeses used in their scrumptious gluten-free macaroni and cheese. House-smoked and homemade items are plentiful. Even the ketchup is crafted from scratch. The printed breakfast menu includes standouts like pancakes with maple-bourbon pears, peameal bacon, and rosemary whipped cream ($8), while a hand-scribed, daily special menu offers sandwiches, soups, and entrées—they tweet them as well under the Twitter account @fabarnakresto. During my lunchtime visit, specials included a pulled southern buttermilk chicken sandwich with red pepper aioli and celery coleslaw ($10) and vegetarian quinoa dish with mixed berries and mint-orange dressing ($5), while a selection of seductive fresh
pastries lined the counter. Cupcake Wednesday's see ever-changing, creative, incredible varieties like the Linzer (hazelnut spice cake with bitters-infused buttercream icing and jam center) and Gingerbread Latte (actually served in a coffee cup). Good for your palate, stomach, wallet, and the entire LGBT community. 519 Church St. Tel: 416-355-6781. www.fabarnak.com
PORCHETTA & CO.
In the "do-one-thing-and-do-it-well" department, this small takeaway joint—with a handful of stools and tiny strip of counter space at the front—is a shrine to pork perfection. Chef Nick Auf der Mauer's headlining Porchetta Sandwich is like an all-swine turducken (an herb-marinated pork shoulder is wrapped in prosciutto, wrapped again in cured pork belly, roasted slow and low, then carved and piled on an artisanal sourdough bun with crisp cracklings). The result is transcendent, a supreme melding of contrasting textures: chewy, crunchy, soft, fatty, and all with delectable flavor. While toppings like cheese and truffle sauce are available ($.25-$.95), they're completely superfluous, although a dab of mustard, from Canada's own Kozlik's, complements the sandwich with a hint of heat. 825 Dundas Street West. Tel: 647-352-6611. www.porchettaco.com
Opened in spring 2010, Executive Chef/owner Claudio Aprile's Origin is younger sibling to his acclaimed molecular venue Colborne Lane. Funky, quirky, and diverse in its culinary influence, it's one of the best and brightest additions to Toronto's contemporary dining scene. Positioned on a prime people-watching corner, the roomy space features exposed brick walls, black banquettes and chairs, an open kitchen with sushi bar-esque seating, and splashes of pink, wood, and pop art. The deviled eggs ($6) are a favorite appetizer/snack: a crowning round of crisp pancetta planted in the center of each half. Ditto for the truffled popcorn ($7) that smells alluring to say the least (if nothing else, order it for the telltale sound of popping and intoxicating earthy aroma). A unique Mozzarella Bar features Ontario-made varieties—like the fior di latte with mushrooms, truffle oil, and spinach ($17)—with each selection being served on delicious grilled Calabrese bread. Perusing the entrée menu is akin to globetrotting, running the gamut from Asia (Indian lentil soup with coconut) to South America (chorizo, rib-eye steak with chimichurri) to, of course, North America (the towering Origin Burger with avocado, smoked mayo, and arugula). Brunch is equally delectable and global, and the iced coffee, served shaken in a slender glass as if a cocktail, is fabulous. 107 King St. East. Tel: 416-603-8009. www.origintoronto.com
Toronto's long-established, special occasion-favorite Splendido, which first opened in 1991 changed hands in 2009. New owners, Chef Victor Barry and General Manager Carlo Catallo, shut it down for a month and, when it reopened, the new iteration was like a graceful, gorgeous butterfly in place of a bloated, albeit well-liked, caterpillar. Interior decoration is modern and slick, yet warm: leather chairs, sloping white and wood plank walls, and dangling light globes. Chef Barry truly captures the seasons via his sophisticated New Canadian cuisine, which spotlights locally sourced, family-farmed products. My dinner started with a chilled pea soup, its refreshing, summertime flavor capturing the essence of fresh sprouts as much as the recently plucked peas themselves. Ontario fennel soup ($16) with ground cherry coulis, pickled fennel, and olive oil also captures the spirit of the season with these delectable ingredients. Main courses, which typically hover between $30-$40, frequently entail sustainable varieties of fish and local farm raised meat. The desserts are artful indeed, and some—like a B.C. Red Oxhart Plum Cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream and vanilla anglaise ($24)—are designed for sharing. A selection of Canadian wines is on offer, but the cocktails are truly wow worthy, blending eclectic top-shelf liquors with exotic herbs, fruit, and spice. To wit, the Bangkok Kiss ($15), with Appleton V/X Rum, Kaffir lime leaf-infused coconut milk, cinnamon syrup, and pineapple juice is splendid indeed. 88 Harbord St. Tel: 416-929-7788. www.splendido.ca
Food Network followers may be familiar with lesbian Chef Lynn Crawford. She's appeared on Iron Chef America and Restaurant Makeover, while 2010 saw the launch of her own Food Network Canada series, Pitchin' In, in which she learns about and actively takes part in sourcing ingredients from lobsters to cranberries. Dubbed "the Renegade Cuisine Queen," Crawford and several business partners (including fellow Food Network/HGTV personality Cherie Stinson) opened Ruby Watchco in 2010 to much fanfare. Open for dinner between Tuesday-Saturday, the $49 prix-fixe-only menu changes nightly: the week's line-up is posted online. While they don't exactly represent "Renegade Cuisine"—shoo away visions of a Canadian El Bulli—Ruby Watcho's always-changing New Canadian creations are dedicated to the best the season and local producers have to offer. For example, during one night in chilly November the menu featured Ruby's Brick Chicken with spicy butternut squash sauce, Ontario apple and frisée salad, and herb spaetzle with shitake mushrooms, charred broccoli and almond butter. Crawford herself, when not on camera, can be found in the kitchen, adding a bit of star power to the straightforward, expertly married flavors found on your table. 730 Queen St. East. Tel: 416-465-0100. www.rubywatchco.ca