By: Ian Clark
I am not a foodie. I just like food.
I started keeping track of the restaurants I visit a few years ago, crafting an excel spreadsheet to rate various restos based on criteria that I think is important. I want to make a few points before you take my article too seriously. These are the ground rules:
- I don’t rate the restaurants to encourage the masses to line up at the latest and trendiest food works;
- This is not an opportunity for me to convince you to visit the restaurants I have listed;
- I am not selling restaurants (no one wants to pay me for this); and
- Nor am I attempting to dissuade food lovers from trying any restaurant they consider remotely interesting.
Now that the ground rules are set, here is my yearly review of restaurants.
Local and seasonal continue to be hot trends (hopefully permanent fixtures) on the menus of Toronto area restaurants. Chefs are becoming increasingly conscious of how the ingredients they use have social and environmental consequences. Restaurant goers are also rethinking our food expectations and appreciating the quality of food that is both in season and local, simultaneously celebrating fresh ingredients that are culturally significant and part of our regional economy. Now, I love Chilean grapes as much as the next person, but our region is fortunate to grow and raise some delicious food that, when in season, beats anything traveling 1000 kilometres from anywhere. Think asparagus in May and June, corn in July and August, and apples in the fall.
The most interesting trends that I find to have emerged in multi-cultural Toronto (as well as other larger cosmopolitan cities, e.g. New York, Montreal, Chicago), is the fusion of exotic flavours, multi-ethnic cooking techniques with locally produced ingredients. Acadia is a great example, mixing Cajun, American south, and Canadian East Coast staples with local and seasonal vegetables and meats. The results are unique and taste great. This is when going for dinner is more than just eating.
I reviewed 30 restaurants this year. Some are your prototypical new, trendy hangouts, others are part of continental chains, or family owned joints in suburban office parks. I base my ratings on 7 criteria and provide an overall score out of 10 based on: quality of food (3/10); service (2/10 ); comfort (1/10); ambiance and environment (1/10); social/environmental conscious (1/10); creativity/originality (1/10); and presentation (1/10). Here are my top 5 for 2012:
1) Enoteca Sociale (Italian) – 1288 Dundas Street West
SCORE: 8 out of 10
My experience is that most Italian restaurants play it safe. They make good dishes rooted in tradition and based on the flavours and ingredients they know best. There are exceptions to this rule, and Enoteca is a good example. Although still rooted in traditional dishes, Chef Luca Gatti pushes innovation, blending traditional Italian ingredients with tasty seasonal complements. The toasted spaghetti dish is blended with a meat sauce infused with local garlics and spices, offering a bit more kick. The pasta here is memorable, but so is everything else. The service is top notch, helpful and engaging, as when it’s time to provide great recommendations for pairing cheese with wine from their exceptional list of Italian and local vino. The atmosphere is rustic, trendy and comfortable, while the cheese cave offers a unique dining space for groups.
2) Keriwa Café (Aboriginal Bistro) – 1690 Queen Street West, Toronto
SCORE: 8 out of 10
Keriwa is all about building creative dishes made predominately with local and seasonal ingredients. The menu changes with the seasons, and is inspired by the Canadian landscape. Here, you find dishes with ingredients you are unfamiliar with mixed with the staples to present the best in Canadian bistro fare. This year I focused on oysters – trying them out at many of the restaurants I visited, and I must say Keriwa may source the best (I know, not local). Keriwa also offered an unforgettable pork shoulder dish stewing in a delicious minty jus. The service is exceptional – well informed and helpful, and the atmosphere is uniquely decorated and furnished, comfortable, and inspired by an aboriginal theme. A great dining experience made the merrier with a free snack on the way out the door.
3) Acadia (East Coast/Lowcountry) – 50C Clinton Street, Toronto
SCORE: 7½ out of 10
I have already mentioned how Acadia is a great example of blending multicultural dishes and ingredients with local/seasonal elements to offer something unique. What makes Acadia great is that they produce exceptionally tasty dishes while being innovative. Both the service and food at Acadia is quality. The grits (yes, grits!) are delicious, and perfectly cooked and presented chicken leg stuffed with shrimp would warm any East Coast heart. Acadia’s menu also changes with the seasons, as they aim to source product at the height of its freshness. The drink list, although not remarkably large, offers some unique and interesting beer, bourbon, and wine selections. The atmosphere is nice (patio on the shady side of the building), comfortable, and minimal.
4) Via Allegro (Italian) – 1750 The Queensway, Toronto
SCORE: 7 out of 10
Driving into the parking lot of this non-descript retail plaza opposite Sherway Gardens, looking up at a the “Via Allegro” sign that would be typical of a Vinny Zuchini’s, you are unsure how to approach the door, and if that collared shirt you are wearing was really necessary tonight. However, upon entering the spacious dining room, you are somewhat stunned by the upscale Italian, well (maybe overtly) decorated room. The place is beautiful (maybe not to everyone) and comfortable. The service is impeccable, friendly and useful – providing complimentary focaccia and lemoncello. Useful is key though, as Via Allegro has Canada’s largest and most decorated wine program, and (by their declaration) the world’s largest whiskey collection with over 1000 varieties. Eating here is not a bad idea either, with well-rounded Italian dishes, and the best calamari I have ever tasted.
5) Stone Road Grill (Bistro) – 238 Mary Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake
SCORE: 7 out of 10
This is my contribution to traveling foodies. Many tourists drive by this restaurant (hidden away in a typical retail plaza) and head down to the main street strip along Queen Street; they do so at their own loss. The restaurant claims that this is where the locals go to eat, and for good reason, as the constantly changing menu makes great use of local Niagara ingredients. The wine list shows off the best of the Niagara wine country, while the menu highlights local fruits all summer. I thoroughly enjoyed the fresh regional meats, wine, vegetables and fruit. The charcuterie here was memorable and leaves me salivating even as I write this. The service was attentive, engaged, impressively knowledgeable, and friendly.
Whether you make it you mission to check off the restaurants above or simply laugh at my selection, I encourage everyone to get out and taste the unique and original blends of food and drink on display at many of the City’s restaurants. And with Winterlicious coming soon, now is a great time to give some new tastes a try.