It’s one of my personal rites of spring—handing out awards in the April issue of Toronto Life. Sometimes we pattern the event by categorizing superlatives, celebrating the most cowardly chicken or the most patient waiter; in other years it might be a straightforward 10 Best or Top 20 restaurants. Such rankings are entirely subjective, of course, and while some people use the list to choose where they will eat in the coming months, others delight in taking issue with it.
Last spring, the awards concentrated exclusively on new restaurants, choosing 10 good ones that had all opened in the previous year and adding another 10 that didn’t quite soar to the summit. This April, we’re trimming the form to the top 10 only—no more, no less—but not without shedding bitter tears. 2007 turned out to be a very decent vintage with many enjoyable establishments making their debuts. In the spirit of completeness, therefore, and also by way of a lead-in to the April issue, here are four more restaurants that might have made the charts in a less stellar year.
Cruise Ossington any night of the week and look through the window of Tom Thai’s cozy restaurant: you’ll see people standing waiting for a table or one of the high-tops near the bar. Customers just don’t want to leave. The mood is partly responsible—so warm and relaxed, convivially loud—but mostly it’s the food. Thai came to fame as one of the four chefs at Café Asia and Youki and then starred at Tempo. Avant-garde sushi was his bag, but he has a broader range as owner-chef of Foxley, forswearing sashimi and sushi in favour of more original fusion dishes (and in the process keeping prices down to a reasonable, neighbourhood level). Absolutely not to be missed are the various ceviches on the menu, especially one involving surgically sliced sea bream marinated to order one night with yuzu, shredded shiso, crispy shallots and ground Japanese red pepper or, on another night, with kumquat and sesame. Thai’s flavours are intense and deeply layered, showing the innate balance of salt and acid, spicy heat and cool freshness that is the soul of Southeast Asian cooking. A sophisticated little wine list has been chosen with the food in mind.207 Ossington Ave. (at Dundas St. W.), 416-534-8520.
12. Cluck, Grunt & Low
Like steak, barbecue is one of those subjects that brings out the pontifical worst in just about everybody—so opening a dedicated Q-shack amounts to breast-baring at an almost masochistic level. Not that start-up chef Paul Boehmer, or his successor, Marc Thuet, is easily crushed by criticism. I would hurry anywhere either one of them was cooking (though next time I won’t wear a pristine white shirt). My first visit was on a hot July evening, and we sat outside on the little sidewalk deck that runs up from the corner of Bloor drinking cocktails from Mason jars and watching the suckling pig on its spit. Thuet slow-cooks the meats in the combi-ovens at Cluck, Grunt & Low’s second location (1620 Bayview Ave.), but the journey to the Annex does them no harm. Not everything on the menu is epiphanic but several items come close: an awesome sandwich of pulled chicken in thyme-spiked barbecue sauce; big fatty beef ribs in a dark sticky glaze; moist, greaseless chicken deeply infused with fruitwood smoke; a simple but perfectly achieved potato salad. I wasn’t so impressed by the bland, honey-glazed lamb ribs or a side order of “Brunswick stew” that was like some kind of runny, slightly oily succotash. Then again, I would like to eat Thuet’s Wild Turkey bourbon ice cream every day for the rest of my life.362 Bloor St. W. (at Walmer Rd.), 416-962-5050.
13. Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse
Part of the latest steak house revival, Jacobs & Co. tries so hard to be glamorous, stylish and exclusive that you can’t help but hope it succeeds, especially in a troubled Brant Street property that has seen several projects implode in recent years. The partners involved are certainly making maximum use of the building. Customers are guided downstairs, through a piano lounge and then ushered back upstairs to the dining room, passing a meat locker where sides of Pennsylvania USDA prime and Snake River Farm Idaho “wagyu” beef are dry-aging. The menu has a retro self-consciousness, offering such old-time treats as a good, rich but booze-free lobster thermidor or a version of oysters rockefeller. Most fun is the revival of the tableside caesar salad, made from scratch in the classic way with optional Spanish white anchovies. And the meat? Prices change daily but I paid $93 for an 12-ounce “wagyu” rib-eye—richly marbled, beefy, aromatic, delicious. Side vegetables like onions braised in dark stock or roasted tomatoes with feta and herbs were yummy. Frites, however, deep-fried in duck fat, were starchy heavyweights and desserts very disappointing. A place like this needs an energetic, rich, very well dressed crowd to get its engines running smoothly: we’ll see if one can be found. 12 Brant St. (at King St. W.), 416-366-0200.
You can imagine the thought process in the mind of George Friedmann, owner of the Windsor Arms: “What this town needs is another pricey steak house with retro flourishes and prime rib on Sundays.” Then he goes and creates it, gussying up the long narrow space that used to be the hotel’s bar, Club 22. I haven’t been in for the prime rib, but I did join the millionaire meat-and-potatoes set one evening to try a 20-ounce Alberta rib-eye (Friedmann and chef Stephen Ricci, ex-Prego Della Piazza, are fans of Canadian beef). It was excellent, barely seasoned with a little kosher salt and pepper, juicy and nicely crusted from the grill. A side of organic baby vegetables and another of pan-fried mushrooms (inexplicably called a fricassee) also hit the honest-to-goodness button on the nose. Other dishes were less successful. I know Calabrian gnocchi are supposed to be heavy and dense, unlike their northern kin, but these were leaden. And what’s a caesar salad with no discernible anchovy or garlic and the parmesan relegated to a crisp? Huge, too-sweet, cream-smothered, retro desserts like apple crisp and key lime pie are presumably intended to appeal to the greedy inner child. The steak is lovely, but the restaurant needs a good editor.Windsor Arms Hotel, 18 St. Thomas St. (at Bloor St. W.), 416-971-9666.