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Review: Trinity Bellwoods’ Old School is less like a diner, more like a trip to Epcot (but that isn’t a bad thing)

Old School's fried chicken

(Image: Gabby Frank)

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Old School 2 star
800 Dundas St. W., 416-815-8790
Old School 2 star
800 Dundas St. W., 416-815-8790

Trinity Bellwoods’ 24/7 funhouse-mirror take on a 1950s American soda fountain serves fluffy flapjacks and egg creams made with Brooklyn-indigenous U-bet chocolate syrup. But the free-ranging, cross-continental menu makes Old School feel less like a retro diner and more like a trip to Epcot. (Few big-city greasy spoons of yore served caipirinhas and jugs of Orchard Hooch, or had a smoker turning out ribs, brisket and pork.) However, no nighthawk ever went to a diner for authenticity: it’s about comfort food, an area where chefs Brad Moore (School, Xacutti) and Ian Kapitan (Precinct) excel. The General Fried Chicken, topped with Tabasco honey or served on a golden buttermilk waffle, is a crisp and flaky wonder. The Hangover Lover’s Salad—a bed of romaine tossed with pulled pork, cornbread croutons and bacon, topped with a fried egg—will smother last night’s bender. Motown provides the period-appropriate soundtrack, and the general store at the rear sells muffins, biscuits, coffee and other to-go items for the morning rush.

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Review: Raca Café and Bar serves beautifully composed bistro fare (and killer desserts) in Parkdale

Raca Café and Bar's scallop dish

(Image: Gabby Frank)

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Raca Café and Bar 3 star
1704 Queen St. W., 416-901-9951
Raca Café and Bar 3 star
1704 Queen St. W., 416-901-9951

It’s easy to miss Ivana Raca’s Parkdale kitchen along this quiet stretch of Queen West, but it would be a mistake. She serves beautifully composed bistro fare from a menu that, refreshingly, doesn’t make any reference to “snacks” or “sharing plates.” A rich soup of white asparagus and celery root, the ivory surface rocky with jerusalem artichoke chips and flecks of chive, is the best place to start. Raca isn’t shy about repeating seasonal ingredients across courses: a trio of hulking seared scallops sit on white asparagus spears, each topped with a dried tomato slice and celery root hash. Peruvian bell peppers—tender little firecrackers shaped like spinning tops—add just enough heat to spiced pork meatballs and ricotta-stuffed gnocchi. The desserts are worth delaying the rest of your evening’s plans for. A hazelnut chocolate tart is as dense as it is dark, while a spiced orange semolina cake, under a scoop of honeyed goat yogurt, is deceptively light. Some of the cocktails are too sweet, so turn to the lengthy list of wines, including a dozen available by the glass.

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Drake Hotel bartender Gord Hannah on Toronto’s cocktail revolution

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Gord Hannah’s Art of the Shot

Bartender Gord Hannah has been leading the Drake Hotel’s hospitality team for more than a decade. He sat down to talk about Toronto’s cocktail revolution, the Drake’s endless reinvention, and that time he got snowed in at a ski lodge with a beautiful bartender and some Jäger.

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Review: Little Italy’s Soi Thai serves stand-out snacks straight from the streets of Bangkok

(Image: Jackie Pal)

(Image: Jackie Pal)

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Soi Thai 1 star½
651 College St., 647-345-8838
Soi Thai 1 star½
651 College St., 647-345-8838

The allure of street food is authenticity and adventure on a plate, with heaping portions, for the price of TTC fare back home. At Little Italy’s Soi Thai, servers recommend two dishes per diner, and that’s conservative, as are the portions. But one could roam the streets of Bangkok for days without finding flavours as rewarding as those racing through the phak bung fai dang, a standout stir-fry of morning glory, garlic and Thai chilies in an umami-rich soy and oyster sauce broth, made in-house by Nopphawan Papa. There’s no pad Thai or curry here: heartier fare includes a tin dish of earthy ground pork threaded with basil and thickened with two runny eggs, best paired with sticky rice from a wicker steam basket. A mound of salmon ceviche dusted with chili flakes and whole mint leaves cools some of the burn from a fiery papaya salad, which is all heat but little of the sweetness that typically balances the Thai staple. The playful decor matches Soi Thai’s ambition to resemble a refuge one discovers unexpectedly, with an assortment of Thai sundries lining the front of the bar and colourful plastic stools beneath tables that are at their most welcoming when topped with frosted mugs of Singha for a backpacker-friendly $5.50. World traveller or not, this soi (Thai for small alley) is a happy one to stumble upon.

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Review: Drake Devonshire pairs Queen West cool with Prince Edward County flavours

(Image: Jackie Pal)

(Image: Jackie Pal)

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Drake Devonshire 3 star ½
24 Wharf St., 613-399-1851
Drake Devonshire 3 star ½
24 Wharf St., 613-399-1851

The bucolic Prince Edward County hotel and restaurant imports cool touches from Queen West, and chef Matt DeMille’s menu makes the most of the local larder. To start, succulent confit duck wings have a craggy caramelized shell, and shrimp crudo is bright with Quebec canola oil and the briny pop of elderberry capers. Seared local pickerel is buttery and juicy, lifted by a minty salsa verde and fresh fava beans. It pairs brilliantly with an unoaked chardonnay from area producer Rosehill Run (it’s one of many county wines on offer). A sweet cream ice cream, stewed rhubarb and crisp streusel sundae makes for a gorgeous, summery finish—but so do s’mores by the firepit on the deck that stretches nearly to the shoreline of the gently lapping lake.

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Review: Little Portugal’s Hanmoto maintains a healthy disregard for dieters, as the best izakayas do

(Image: Dave Gillespie)

(Image: Dave Gillespie)

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Leemo Han’s secretive Dundas West izakaya bears the trademark junk-shop look he and brother Leeto established at downtown’s (now shuttered) Swish by Han and Ossington snack-food spot Oddseoul. The food is meant for snacking and sharing, with nothing costing more than $18 (for six oysters dressed with ponzu and pickled chilies). As at the best izakayas, the chef maintains a healthy disregard for dieters. Prime example: a sandwich of roasted, super-fatty pork belly, coated in soy remoulade, barely contained by a coco bun. Everyone raves about the Dyno Wings, which are stuffed with spicy pork and rice, deep-fried and served in a takeout box. Even more impressive are a tartare of fantastically fresh hamachi and the nasu dengaku—Japanese eggplant charred until the flesh is creamy, the length of it covered in a crunchy, burgundy fuzz of finely shredded deep-fried beets. (The only letdown is the salmon face—Leemo’s stunt-plate equivalent of the pig face that appeared not long ago on hipster charcuterie menus.) The drinks list is short but thoughtful: Asahi on tap, quality sake, and cocktails made with shiso leaf, kaffir lime–infused vodka and Asian pear.

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Review: Bay Street’s Via Vai is the most gorgeous space to enjoy a slice (and the pizza’s pretty great, too)

(Image: Jackie Pal)

(Image: Jackie Pal)

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Via Vai 2 star
832 Bay St., 416-362-0123
Via Vai 2 star
832 Bay St., 416-362-0123

As Toronto’s artisanal pizza craze enters its second decade, the debate over which of the many brick-oven contenders makes the best thin-crust pie has only intensified. But let’s be clear: there is no more beautiful a space in which to enjoy a slice than this Bay Street pizza palace. Sheathed in four storeys of glass, the dining room features massive marble tile walls and hanging glass panels splashed with streaks of Pollock-esque colour. At opposite ends of the room stands a pizza oven shaped like a geodesic dome and a vertebral floor-to-ceiling tower of vino. The overall effect is nothing less than breathtaking. And how’s the pizza? Pretty great: the Diavola—topped with ribbons of spicy sopressata, gooey fior di latte and a mess of mushrooms—features a yeasty, delicate crust that’s thin yet pliable. The tortellini—chewy husks of undercooked pasta flanking bland braised beef and crunchy baby onion—are skippable. The amazingly attentive service is worthy of Via Vai’s splendorous surroundings, as is the short, predominantly Italian and somewhat pricy wine list.

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Review: Kanpai, Cabbagetown’s new Taiwanese snack bar, is more of a rowdy pit stop than a dining destination

(Image: Gabby Frank)

(Image: Gabby Frank)

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Kanpai 1 star
252 Carlton St., 416-968-6888
Kanpai 1 star
252 Carlton St., 416-968-6888

Cabbagetown’s new snack bar is more of a rowdy pit stop than a dining destination: pop in for $3 shots of Jameson, a healthy dose of Tupac and Biggie, and a few capable but forgettable Taiwanese bar snacks. From the long menu, zero in on pig’s ears, served in delicate cured strips and seasoned with chili oil; thick morsels of squid coated in a subtly sweet batter and fried to a perfect crisp; and chunks of chicken tossed with a fiery combination of scallions, green pepper, dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Vegetables are treated as an afterthought: the kung pao cauliflower is woefully under-seasoned, and the cumin-scented mushrooms are leathery. The OG bao is equally disappointing: the stale bun overwhelms the thin slices of overcooked five-spice pork. And on a recent visit, the much-hyped fried chicken was sold out by 7:30 p.m.

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Review: Annette Food Market brings garlicky goodness and gluttonous wood-fired pies to the Junction

(Image: Gabby Frank)

(Image: Gabby Frank)

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Annette Food Market 2 star
240 Annette St., 647-792-6963
Annette Food Market 2 star
240 Annette St., 647-792-6963

Two thousand Junction–High Park residents signed a petition to help the owners of this new red sauce restaurant obtain a liquor licence. The area’s freshly mortgaged couples, soccer parents and not-quite-retirees undoubtedly need an easy place to stop in for pizza and a glass of off-LCBO wine. In Annette Food Market, they have exactly that. The 24-seat room glows from the wood-burning oven, wafts garlic goodness and buzzes with neighbours bumping into each other. The sharing menu is highly affordable and if you stick to the house-made pastas, like the al dente porcini mushroom–pear ravioli in lickably rich sage brown butter, or the pizzas, which arrive on blackened crusts that slump under the weight of luxe toppings like sausage, sopressata, ’nduja and fior di latte (all on one gluttonous pie), you’ll likely leave happy and full. Venture off-carb, though, and you may end up with under-seasoned cauliflower accented by a few sad raisins and capers, burrata that chews like poutine curd, or berries macerated in white balsamic vinegar that give your panna cotta a briny twang. The tatted and suspendered staff is friendly enough, but long waits and wrong orders turn this night’s casual dinner into a three-hour test of Torontonian politeness.

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Reasons to Love Toronto Now: because Chantelle Winnie is redefining beauty

(Image: Courtesy of CBS Studios International)

(Image: Courtesy of CBS Studios International)

For decades, modelling has been the most exclusive profession on earth, restricting its ranks to underweight women with mathematical facial proportions and skin as white as a dim sum dumpling. This year, however, the genetically blessed club has cracked its door open ever so slightly to admit Chantelle Winnie, a 20-year-old Mississauga model with vitiligo, the pigment-degrading disorder responsible for Michael Jackson’s skin lightening. Winnie was diagnosed at age four; in middle school, classmates mooed at her or called her Zebra. She dropped out of school at 16 and set her mind to modelling—because she also happens to have pillowy lips, cat-curved eyes, Grace Jones cheekbones and a leggy five-foot-10-inch frame. And those cream-coloured patches are almost perfectly symmetrical, covering her body like a dazzling inverse Rorschach test.

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Reasons to Love Toronto Now: because Rachel McAdams got the role she deserves

(Image: Courtesy of HBO)

(Image: Courtesy of HBO)

Back in 2004, when Rachel McAdams wrapped her rain-drenched legs around Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, she was hailed as the most promising ingenue of her generation. But in the decade since, McAdams has made 21 films—and never earned the critical recognition of her contemporaries. Now, like so many other actors, she’s found her meatiest role on TV. This summer, she’ll star in HBO’s True Detective, playing a California sheriff with a double-barrelled addiction to booze and gambling, opposite Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. When the script floated through Hollywood every ambitious actress of McAdams’ cohort descended on the part, including Elisabeth Moss, Jessica Biel and Keira Knightley. But McAdams got it, and when you look back at the films in her canon, it’s clear why. Onscreen, she’s gutsy, compelling and adept at breaking type—she played an ass-kicking terrorist in Red Eye, a wounded Iraq war vet with a heavy right hook in The Lucky Ones and a viciously manipulative boss in the erotic thriller Passion. Details of the True Detective plot are guarded, but it sounds irresistible: it’s said to revolve around the California transportation system, incorporating drugs, the mob and a monumental orgy.

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Absolut Elyx Chef Series: Celebrating the city’s culinary stars

Absolut Elyx Chef Series:
Celebrating the city’s
culinary stars

Experience the future of Canada’s culinary scene

Absolut is giving away five prizes of $200 at each of the restaurants participating in the #ElyxChefSeries: Boehmer, Canoe, Carbon Bar, Café Bar Pasta, One by McEwan Group, and GEORGE Restaurant.

ENTER HERE. Absolut will select 30 random winners on July 17th. You must be a resident of Ontario to win.

This contest has been 20 years in the making. Now, for some history…

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6 Things You Need To Know About Toronto’s Version Of The Hamptons

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Review: Bar Raval, Grant van Gameren’s College Street tapas bar, is another standout

(Image: Jonathan Friedman)

(Image: Jonathan Friedman)

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Bar Raval 3 star
505 College St.
Bar Raval 3 star
505 College St.

Grant van Gameren’s claim to greatness is sweating the small details. At Bar Isabel, his first post-Hoof venture, he tiled the wall mosaic himself and obsessed over the perfect technique to grill whole baby octopus. At his new, second spot, he’s replicated the suave yet oh-so-slightly louche quality of the kind of Barcelona tapas bar where you grab an espresso on the way to work, meet friends for five o’clock cocktails, and perch with a paramour late into the night on stools in a corner, grazing from plates of lusciously fatty chorizo and “gildas” of speared olives, Italian peppers and pickled pearl onions. (Those stools are few in number—as in Spain, you’re expected to stand, lean against the bar and mingle.) The menu is weighted to seafood, much of it steamed and served, comme il faut, in the cans in which it’s been preserved. The standout option is pungently delicious razor clams and sweet peppers—they’ll make you reevaluate the quality of supplies in your doomsday bunker. Van Gameren makes a decadent rendition of a McMuffin with a slice of seared, paprika- and nutmeg-laced Spanish blood sausage, sunny-side-up quail egg and a splatter of parsley sauce. Mutton-chopped bartenders push a long, on-theme list of sherries and rare vermouths, yet the real treats are artisanal concoctions, like the sweet-tart Dopeness of Amontillado, Seville orange marmalade and, for healthy measure, a dash of bee pollen. Once the just-opened hype quiets (there’s often a queue through the night), it promises to become a neighbourhood institution.

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Concession Road brings Gallic goodness to St. Clair West

(Image: Gabby Frank)
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Concession Road 2 star½
760 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-658-0460
Concession Road 2 star½
760 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-658-0460

The latest arrival on St. Clair West is a French bistro disguised as a sparse Copenhagen café: the walls are white and bare, the tables are pale salvaged birch, and the glass pendant lamps resemble Cinderella’s soap bubbles. The food, however, is ornate Gallic goodness. There’s a terrific kohlrabi salad with lentils, artichoke hearts and oven-roasted tomatoes, the acidic crunch offset by a funky walnut-truffle vinaigrette. It’s a much better starter than three gummy seared scallops, which languish in a bland apple-fennel purée and a bizarre spiced vanilla oil that smells like Bath and Body Works. A salt-crusted rack of lamb has a lovely scarlet centre, surrounded by creamy fava beans and a lip-tingling chili-mint jus. But the evening’s most surprising treat is a steamed skate wing stuffed with lobster mousse and circled by a puddle of pinot noir sauce; it sounds like an ’80s gimmick, but the skate is delicately fishy, the pulled crustacean soft and sweet, and the sauce rich and tart. For dessert, a fresh vanilla semifreddo soaks up rhubarb “soup” (better known as juice) and tangy Niagara icewine jellies, but the seasonality stops there: the stodgy, icing-sugared chocolate cake comes with flavourless hothouse blueberries and blackberries. The wine list, created by Scaramouche sommelier Peter Boyd, features an affordable international mix, but, like all new status-seeking restaurants, Concession Road also has an absinthe service for Capone-era cocktails.

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