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Ten Toronto dishes putting innovative spins on traditional cuisine

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The Year of the Ram is all about the f-word: fusion (don’t worry, that’s the last time we’ll use that bad, bad word). Hogtown’s new food obsession mirrors our city’s melting pot makeup. Chefs are concocting mash-ups that combine two—sometimes three, or four—cultures into a single recipe. A rib-sticking gnocchi poutine, for example, combines Italian and Quebecois traditions into a perfectly cheesy mess that’s sure to help you survive the dregs of winter. Here are ten tempting plates that fuse, mix and mash traditional cuisines, creating distinctly Torontonian dishes.

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Openings

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AAA Bar is bringing barbecue to Leslieville

(Image: Rebecca Fleming)

Adelaide East’s Texas-style barbecue joint AAA Bar is opening up a little sister saloon in Leslieville in the space previously occupied by the short-lived Hummingbird Caribbean. Co-owner Racquel Youtzy (who also operates Riverdale’s Mr. Ciao with her partner Tiz Pivetta) says to expect more of the same, just in a much smaller space, and with wine on tap. “It’s more of a family neighbourhood,” says Youtzy. “But we aren’t going to do anything different—we’re always kid-friendly.” The (also adult-friendly) bar will offer the same drink specials as the Adelaide location: a dollar-an-ounce wine, three-dollar tequila shots and five-dollar Triple A draught. Youtzy is hoping to have it open by the end of February.

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Restaurants

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Dave Sidhu, king of the Playa Cabana empire, is heading east

(Image: Rebecca Fleming)

Dave Sidhu, the man partly responsible for an increase in Toronto’s taco consumption, is making an eastward expansion with a sixth restaurant. Sidhu, whose other spots include three “Playas” (Cabana, Cantina and Hacienda), La Libre and Barrio Coreano, is adding Cocina Economica to his collection. Cocina will open near the edge of Corktown at 114 Berkeley St., which until last October was home to The Berkeley Cafe. Sidhu, inspired by a month spent in Mexico cooking in (you guessed it) cocina economicas—small, inexpensive residential kitchens presided over by women—says Cocina Economica will offer a menu “entirely different” from his other venues. “The food [cooked in the cocinas] is low-and-slow-braised Mexican,” says Sidhu. “It’s what the locals eat—delicious, homestyle dishes.” Sidhu purchased the Berkeley Street building when he got back; despite its tiny footprint, it has two levels, two patios and can seat more than 100 diners. Sidhu’s shooting for an opening in spring.

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Restaurants

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Hawker Bar is moving on up (to the second floor)

Hawker Bar, as seen from the street in 2012 (Image: Karolyne Ellacott)

Ossington’s Singaporean snack shop, Hawker Bar—currently the size of a street-food stall—is expanding its business to the second floor. Thirty extra seats are being added to the upstairs dining room along with another service bar, and the restaurant will take reservations (which are something of a rarity on the strip). New additions to the menu will include chef Alec Martin’s take on a Black Angus strip loin; braised duck legs served with a Thai red curry; veggie rendang; and a coconut milk–marinated fried chicken that’ll replace the Hainanese chicken rice. The changes should take place on or around Valentine’s Day, so plan on having a little more legroom to slurp a bowl of something spicy (like this fiery laksa soup) with someone special.

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Restaurants

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Party in the U.S.A.: the Trump Hotel’s America serves excellent food—with a side of “What the hell?”

America Trump Hotel

Chef de cuisine Bill Osborne executes glam dishes like the showstopping $58 lobster Rockefeller (right)

America ★★
325 Bay St., 31st Flr., 416-637-5550
How our star system works »

Just as Donald Trump is a ­cartoon moneybags, his tower at Bay and Adelaide makes for a caricature of a swish hotel. On my first visit I stumbled outside the building for several minutes, looking for the entrance, before I realized the main door is reached through a car ramp—Trump guests don’t walk to the hotel, they’re driven in stretch Escalades. The lobby is a Liz Taylor mausoleum of inlaid marble and nodding orchids, with a 600-kilo sculpture of Swarovski crystals sparkling over the front desk. As I made my way to the elevators, I passed a bellhop gesturing frantically at an oblivious Slavic businessman lighting a cigar, and a woman and her teacup ­Yorkie in matching pink jackets.

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Openings

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Introducing: Honest Weight, a new seafood shop and lunch counter from one of Canada’s top fishmongers

Introducing: Honest Weight, a new seafood shop and lunch counter from one of Canada's top fishmongers

(Image: Jackie Pal)

Name: Honest Weight
Neighbourhood: The Junction
Contact Info: 2776A Dundas Street West, 416-604-9992, www.honestweight.ca
Owners: John Bil and Victoria Bazan

The Food: Three-time oyster-shucking national champion and seafood expert John Bil has been busy over the last decade running a seafood import company and helping others open their restaurants (including Montreal’s legendary Joe Beef). Now he has a place of his own. Honest Weight’s lunch counter offers alternative takes on typical fish-shop menu items—like okonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake, instead of fish and chips; a rabbit and clam soup; and a fish curry with South Indian flair. Bil says he wants to introduce his customers to lesser-known seafood, “like mahogany clams, stout razor clams and monkfish cheeks.” Oceanic offerings are also available to go—a display case is stocked with scallops, oysters, snapper and cod, all on ice.

The Drinks: Before the liquor license comes in, customers can order an old-fashioned soda made with house-made syrup. The soda water is delivered daily from Magda, the oldest maker of the stuff in the city.

The Place: Beechwood counters, a white-washed swinging door that leads to the kitchen and shelves stacked with decorative dishes all give the space an East Coast feel—and disguise its past life as a denture clinic.

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Closings

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Vita Sociale gets the boot

Vita Sociale

It was less than two years ago that Centro, a fine-dining destination, rebranded itself as the pizza-and-pasta-focused Vita Sociale in a bid to lure casual diners. Evidently those wood-fired pies weren’t paying the bills, though, because the former Yonge and Eg hot spot has shut down for good. According to a distress warrant posted on the door, owner Armando Mano is behind on rent payments to the tune of $348,964.22 (the approximate cost of 20,527 of Vita’s Roman-style pizzas, tax not included). It’s unlikely that another iteration of Centro will take over the space. The restaurant’s voice messaging system has been disabled, and both its website and Facebook page have been taken down.

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Openings

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Introducing: The Four Seven, a new Bloordale bar from Tequila Bookworm’s owners

Introducing: The Four Seven, a new snack and beer bar in Bloordale

Name: The Four Seven
Neighbourhood: Bloordale
Contact Info: 1211 Bloor St. W., @the47TO
Previously: Ortolan
Owners: Jeff Caires and Andrew Usher (Tequila Bookworm) and chef Daniel Usher (Ortolan)
Executive Chef: Daniel Usher

The Food: Late-night eats served until 2 a.m., including big dishes for sharing. Usher’s concise menu includes an Italian-style grilled squid; socca, a gluten-free chickpea-flour crepe topped with either lamb or eggplant; kashkaval pane, Bulgarian fried cheese; and mushroom and pecorino gnocchi, a holdover from the chef’s Ortolan days.

The Drinks: Small batch local and international brews, wine, a handful of classic cocktails and one tap dedicated to Ontario ciders.

The Place: The space has been revamped since Ortolan closed a few months back, trading clean lines and cloth napkins for a more casual, grittier bar atmosphere, including wall art designed by local graffiti artist Jimmy Chiale.

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Closings

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It’s curtains for Hudson Kitchen

Introducing: Hudson Kitchen

(Image: Renée Suen)

It’s a wrap for a Dundas West restaurant that made quite the entrance into Toronto’s dining scene. The first guests to sample chef Robbie Hojilla’s contemporary American cuisine at Hudson Kitchen were part of a TIFF 2013 crowd that included a handful of A-list celebrities. The restaurant made its closing announcement yesterday over Twitter. Since then, a representative of the Mint Agency has reached out on Hudson Kitchen’s behalf to confirm the news and explain that the restaurant closed for financial reasons. Hudson Kitchen’s fate resembles those of previous occupants at the unlucky address, including the Palmerston Café and Jamie Kennedy’s Provenance Regional Cuisine. Fans of Hojilla’s broccoli salad will now have to look elsewhere to get their inventive greens.

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Restaurants

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J.P. Challet leaves the Windsor Arms (for the third time)

(Image: left, J.P. Challet/Facebook; right, Windsor Arms/Facebook)

(Image: left, J.P. Challet/Facebook; right, Windsor Arms/Facebook)

The partnership between chef J.P. Challet and the Windsor Arms has come to an end…again. Last spring, Challet closed up Ici Bistro and transplanted the popular Harbord Street spot, along with its French fare, into the swanky hotel. Now, after seven months as the executive chef for Ici by J.P. Challet, Challet has called it quits. In a press release, Challet said he has left the Windsor Arms, citing a “divergence in vision” between himself and the hotel. George Friedmann, the owner and president of the Windsor Arms, confirms that Challet chose to leave and that the hotel’s restaurant is now serving guests from a “new comprehensive menu that features components of previous menus” (including some selections from Challet’s French bistro-style menu). Meanwhile, Challet himself is taking a one-month leave (in France, naturally) to “recharge his batteries” and “come back to something he feels great about attaching his name to.” Our guess is that the “something” won’t be the Windsor Arms, but it seems the history between these two does have a way of repeating (three-peating?) itself.

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Closings

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Daiter’s Fresh Market, uptown’s go-to Jewish grocer, is closing up shop this spring

(Image: Daiter’s Fresh Market/Facebook.)

After decades in the blintz business, Daiter’s Fresh Market, the much-loved deli on Bathurst, will close its doors for good on April 2. “My kids and my brother’s kids aren’t interested in the industry, so it was just a matter of deciding whether to do it today, or in five years, or in ten years,” says co-owner Stephen Daiter, whose grandfather Harry Daiter opened the first Daiter’s—a dairy in Kensington Market—in 1937. At its peak, eight family-owned stores kept cravings for traditional Jewish fare like schmaltz herring and gefilte fish in check. The uptown location, which opened in 1964 and is now run by Stephen and his brother Joel, was the last of the chain. “It’s been bittersweet for us,” says Stephen Daiter. “We have tears in our eyes and our customers have tears in their eyes, and I’m not exaggerating about that.” Daiter says the family-owned building has been leased to a “non-food business,” so neighbours won’t be graced with a replacement any time soon. If all goes according to the brothers’ plan, though, customers can at least look forward to purchasing some of Daiter’s products, like their soups, in other stores.

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Restaurants

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Secrets to a Happy Toronto Winter: #9. Toronto’s gastropubs make the best Sunday roasts

Secrets to a Happy Toronto Winter: #9. Toronto’s gastropubs make the best Sunday roasts

Queen and Beaver (Image: Ryan Szulc)

1 Chef Andrew Carter offers a traditional beef roast at the Queen and Beaver pub near Yonge-Dundas Square. But with a few days’ notice, the kitchen can also prepare a family-style meal for five or more people that might include a loin of Ontario pork presented bone-in for tableside carving, golden beets, roasted root veg, mashed potatoes and house-made applesauce. $22 per person. 35 Elm St., 647-347-2712.

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Openings

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Introducing: Città, CityPlace’s new (but rustic) Italian kitchen

(Image: Jackie Pal)

(Image: Jackie Pal)

Name: Città
Neighbourhood: Harbourfront
Contact Info: 92 Fort York Blvd., 416-623-9662, cittatoronto.com
Owners: Charles Khabouth (Patria and La Société), Hanif Harji (Weslodge and Storys) and Adam Brown of the local Fox and Fiddle
Executive Chef: Ben Heaton, formerly of The Grove

The Food: Heaton’s seasonally inspired menu of Italian comfort food is filled with bright and rustic flavours—the roasted cauliflower dish, for instance, has the vegetable prepared three ways (sliced raw, roasted and pureed), then topped with crispy capers and wine-soaked raisins and an emulsified dollop made of those same two ingredients. Wood-burning ovens on both ends of the restaurant fire out pizza, sourdough, ciabatta and baguettes, but Heaton likes to throw mussels, fish and bacon into the flames for a kiss of smoke, too. Almost everything is made in-house or locally sourced, with one big exception: dry pasta from Afeltra. Says Heaton: “when you can get a superior ingredient somewhere else, you go for it.” The restaurant also serves a weekend brunch that offers breakfast-inspired pizzas and panini, as well as porchetta and eggs. A pizza delivery service is in the works.

The Drinks: An Italian wine list features reds and whites from Northern, Central and Southern Italy. Byblos‘s bartender Clayton Cooper has crafted a cocktail list that stars Italian ingredients like orange blossom, espresso and pink grapefruit.

The Place: Co-owner Hanif Harji found everything in the space, mixing ornate pieces like high-backed green leather banquettes and a wall montage of gold-rimmed mirrors with more casual wood tables and farmhouse chairs. And because it’s CityPlace, ground floor or no, it’s all surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows.

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How-To

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How Borealia makes a French-Canadian bonfire classic without burning down their kitchen

(Image: Giordano Ciampini)

(Image: Giordano Ciampini)

The traditional method of making éclade, a dish from the southwestern coast of France that was introduced here by Samuel de Champlain in 1605, involves burying mussels under a giant heap of flaming pine needles. Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris, the husband and wife team behind the new Ossington restaurant Borealia, have discovered how to make the dish indoors—and, more importantly, without burning down their kitchen.

“You normally do it outside on the beach,” says Morris, “They usually use a big wooden plank and arrange the mussels downwards so when they open up the ashes don’t fall into them. Then you just pick them and eat them.” Borealia’s method, inspired by Wu and Morris’s fascination with Canada’s wealth of classic immigrant cuisine, involves a little less fire and a lot less tree. Oh, and a gun that shoots smoke. Here’s how they do it.

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Openings

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Introducing: CC Lounge, a new Prohibition-themed bar near St. Lawrence Market

(Image: Renée Suen)

(Image: Renée Suen)

Name: CC Lounge
Neighbourhood: St. Lawrence
Contact Info: 45 Front St. E., 416-362-4777, cconfront.com
Owner: The St. Lawrence Bunch, a business partnership fronted by Costa Kosilos
Head Chef: Brent Richardson, formerly of Glas Wine Bar, La Carnita and Beerbistro

The Food: The menu is heavy on share-friendly versions of old favourites, like mac n’ cheese topped with crushed Goldfish crackers and kale, and fried quail on bacon pancakes. For the real carnivores, there’s also a 12-ounce bone-in aged ribeye that comes on a wood cutting board with a dollop of whiskey ketchup.

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