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Best New Restaurants 2015: #6, Byblos

Best New Restaurants 2015: Byblos Byblos | 11 Duncan St., 647-660-0909

The wonder of Charles Khabouth isn’t that he runs so many nightclubs and restaurants, and opens a new spot nearly every month; it’s that he does so with such exacting standards. With Byblos, he anticipated the city’s Middleterranean obsession, converting two floors of an unremarkable historic warehouse into a lounge of low-slung booths for sharing rosewater-scented punch and a contemporary dining room that hums with excitement. The principal reason? An endless parade of hand-painted platters of deliciousness. Plump, paprika-dusted Marcona almonds, ­dumplings stuffed with smoked eggplant, molasses-sticky lamb ribs, neat bundles of vine leaf–wrapped branzino, basmati rice bejewelled with barberries, and on and on. Byblos has surpassed trendiness and become a city fixture. I’ve returned several times, often just for a snack and a cocktail before a show at the TIFF Lightbox. And I always order the brik cigar—a brittle pastry filled with a fig purée and caramel. It’s light but rich, savoury but sweet, and, like Khabouth, it never gets tired.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #7, Flor de Sal

Best New Restaurants 2015: Flor de Sal Flor de Sal | 501 Davenport rd., 416-923-2604

Anyone nostalgic for the Corner House’s creaky, sunflower-yellow rooms and old-fashioned gastronomy is in for a shock. Cristina Da Costa, the new owner, gutted the midtown cottage, converting it into something like an over-decorated condo showroom of frou-frou mirrors, marble slab fireplaces and vases of nodding orchids everywhere you look. It’s rare to encounter such ostentation in Toronto restaurants these days, but it’s an apt setting for chef Roberto Fracchioni’s high-roller surf and turf menu. Fracchioni last oversaw a magnificent, modern tasting menu at Monk Kitchen, the idiosyncratic basement restaurant in the club district’s Templar Hotel. Cooking is his second career—he used to be a civil engineer—and he brings to it the love of a true calling. At Flor de Sal, I was wowed by the herbal crab and celery root soup, by the sophisticated cognac and brown butter glaze coating a plate of lobster and gnocchi, and by the sharp red wine mignonette that came with first-rate East Coast oysters. The star of the night was a hefty Azores fish called cantaro, which Fracchioni grilled whole with fragrant lemon and chili, stuffing the cavity with couscous, fennel and garlicky braised rapini. Whole fish are back on menus all over town, but this one was the most moist, delicate and memorable to date.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #8, Bar Fancy

Best New Restaurants 2015: Bar Fancy Bar Fancy | 1070 Queen St. W., 416-546-1416

The name is wink-wink. There are no frilly drinks on offer—only bar rail, draft and decent wines for $11 a glass. Grandma-style potted plants block the front window (the entrance is down the side alley), the servers wear old tees and Jays caps, and if you want to sit, grab a folding chair. What’s fancy is the pedigree: the bar is a spinoff of Chantecler, the cultishly popular Parkdale restaurant with a tasting menu of rice-smoked duck breast, seaweed powder–dusted sidestripe shrimp and other innovative delights. Head chef Jonathan Poon conceived Bar Fancy as a casual hangout with an evolving menu of snacks available until last call. The options are relatively cheap and served on melamine, but they’re always excellent, especially the fried chicken, its fantastically crispy coating laced with coriander and chilies. Mid-week, I’ll drop by and make a meal of a half-dozen oysters with Vietnamese fish sauce for dressing, oozing devils-on-horseback, and a plate of house-smoked ham shoulder, crusty bread, old cheddar and a pile of sliced apples to dip in a Lilliputian pot of flowery honey. It’s the ideal not-quite-a-restaurant for when you’re not quite in the mood to commit to a full dinner out.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #9, Nana

Best New Restaurants 2015: Nana Nana | 785 Queen St. W., 647-352-5773

Thai empires are at war. Two years ago, Monte Wan, who owns the line-up-for-hours Adelaide West phenomenon Khao San Road, parted ways with Nuit Regular, the chef behind the three Sukhothai restaurants. Early last summer, Regular opened Pai, a restaurant specializing in northern Thai street food, on Duncan. Wan in turn opened Nana, near Trinity Bellwoods. The city’s Thai food nuts tend to pick sides. I prefer Nana—partly because it’s more intimate than Regular’s chaotic warehouses, but mostly because it’s more fun. Wan, his long hair twisted into a topknot, meets you at the door and becomes friends with everyone in the room. You sit on red plastic stools at a communal table under a canopy of Thai flags, shout your order over the old-school hip hop and kick back with a lemongrass rum cocktail. I’m a big fan of his chicken laab which swaps out the usual fine-ground meat for deep-fried breaded chunks, like gourmet morsels of KFC. His khao soi, a curry with egg noodles, rates above Regular’s for the rich depth of the broth and the crispiness of its deep-fried chicken cutlet. The dish that sums the place up is an irreverent variation on pad Thai that he calls pad mama, a tangled heap of thin noodles and scored sections of hotdog that, in the heat of the pan, open into garish pink blossoms. It’s deliciously greasy, a little ridiculous and the winner of this round.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #10, Rasa

Rasa | 196 Robert St., 647-350-8221

Mondays used to be dull before Adrian Niman came along. He and his business partner, Brent McClenahan, run a trendy catering company called the Food Dudes. Rasa is where he does his serious cooking—ambitious variations on gastropub fare, like sticky spareribs studded with crushed corn nuts, gnudi in a walnut pesto, and cheddar-stuffed jalapeño poppers wrapped in serrano ham. He’s a whiz with foams, emulsions and assorted kitchen stunts. His solution for the first night of the week, the slowest at any restaurant, is to invite indie bands to play stripped-down sets, and to offer $5 drinks and a $35 tasting menu. It’s a warm, low-key scene, with cooks from neighbouring restaurants passing through, Annex families crowded around their favourite tables and the band performing the occasional request, which earns a whoop from the room.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #11, Los Colibris

Best New Restaurants 2015: Los Colibris Los Colibris | 220 King St. W., 416-979-7717

Elia Herrera is an anomaly: a real-deal chef running a Mexican restaurant that’s button-down sophisticated, nary a hipster graffiti wall in sight. She previously oversaw desserts at Canoe and Mistura, and at her new place directs a pastry chef’s hyperfocus upon tortillas (handmade through the day), queso fundido (gooey cheese studded with a smoky chorizo), and chilies en nogada (a charred poblano stuffed with cumin- and cinnamon-scented pork and smothered in a ground walnut and cream sauce). Even guacamole, that potluck groaner, gets bedazzled with pomegranate seeds and surrounded by a pinwheel of stacked nachos—the prettiest dip in town.

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La Carnita’s Riverside taqueria is now abierto

(Image: Rebecca Fleming)

(Image: Rebecca Fleming)

La Carnita‘s second location finally opened in Riverside Monday night, months after plans to settle in the Beach fell through. The new taqueria is located in the former home of Rasputin Vodka Bar. Owner Andrew Richmond has told us that the core menu will be the same as it is at the original La Carnita on College Street, but the daily specials will be different at each spot. Richmond also says that the “wildly successful Sunday rib special” from his College location will be available every single day at the Riverside restaurant. And if you’re looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with something a little different, there’s this (somewhat) Irish-inspired Sweet Jesus creation.

780 Queen St. E., 647-344-0780, lacarnita.com, @la_carnita

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #12, Branca

Best New Restaurants 2015: Branca Branca | 1727 Dundas St. W., 416-519-8165

An Argentine restaurant is only as good as its meat. Some of the city’s finest is slow-roasted, braised and charred to perfection in a custom-designed cookhouse in the yard behind this Brockton Village spot. Chef Kanida Chey and his helpers begin each day chopping logs for a pit grill, over which they hang suckling pig, lamb leg, Mennonite chicken and fat-streaked accordions of ribs. It’s rustic gaucho fare, but the restaurant is refined, just two rows of marble tables, a small bar and the glow of the sun setting on the parkette across the street. As word has travelled, there seem to be more South American expats making it their go-to, chattering over long dinners, ecstatic over a taste of home.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #13, Yunaghi

Best New Restaurants 2015: Yunaghi Yunaghi | 538 Manning Ave., 416-588-7862

When J. P. Challet moved Ici Bistro to the Windsor Arms, Yurika Ara and Yasuko Miyata took over the premises and opened Yunaghi. They hired Tetsuya Shimizu—who studied kaiseki in Japan and worked as a sous-chef at Yours Truly, the Ossington molecular gastronomy outfit that closed last year—and let him loose to experiment within the framework of a traditional kaiseki menu. The standouts are raw hamachi steeped in a dashi tea, chawanmushi divided between squid ink custard and a sweet corn purée, and a zany and surprisingly delicious plate of white asparagus spears with bacon-flavoured powder and tofu creamed with grana padano, plus shards of an almond gelatin “glass.” The room is as serene as a remote mountain temple, everyone in a reverent blissed-out hush.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #14, Mr. Flamingo

Best New Restaurants 2015: Mr. Flamingo Mr. Flamingo | 1265 Dundas St. W., 647-351-1100

When I’ve had my fill of the fried chicken at Bar Fancy, I hightail it a couple of blocks north to this other cool new bar-restaurant hybrid. Chef Fan Zhang, a disciple of the nouveau Asian fusion pioneered by DaiLo’s Nick Liu (they cooked together at the Niagara Street Café), serves small plates like baked oysters loaded with lobster-hollandaise, pickled celery and tobiko; roasted golden beets with silken, à la minute burrata; and shimeji mushroom risotto. The cooking is great, but the even bigger draw is the cocktails. Bartender Dan Tavares is a whiz at fizzes and flips, those creamy drinks that are super-trendy once more. My weakness is the Fugazi Sour, a bourbon-citrus concoction laced with walnut bitters, sweetened with a few drops of orgeat syrup and capped with a cloud of egg white foam. It comes in a vintage patterned glass, for the full retro immersion.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #15, Colette

Best New Restaurants 2015: Colette Colette | 550 Wellington St. W., 647-348-7000

Last year, my top restaurant was The Chase, the decadent downtown aerie that brought glitz back to the core. The owners, Steven Salm and Michael Kimel, have since opened the pricy sandwich spot Little Fin, and Colette, which replaced Scarpetta in the Thompson Hotel. They went overboard modelling Colette on a posh Saint-Tropez bistro, all monogrammed china, Louis XV bergère and marble checkerboard underfoot. The effect is stuffy, but the kitchen, overseen by The Chase’s Michael Steh, doesn’t screw around when it comes to towering soufflé, lobster vichyssoise and crispy frog legs (currently experiencing a revival all around town). Steh gets his hands on the best seafood, which is why I head here for snow crab, mussels and clams in a steaming broth of tarragon and chablis.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #16, Luckee

Best New Restaurants 2015: Luckee Luckee | 328 Wellington St. W., 416-935-0400

Susur Lee spent his entire career running from traditional Chinese food, determined to be worshipped as a master of invention. Then he turns around and opens a dim sum restaurant. No surprise, he makes some of the best char siu, har gow and beef bao around. And there are many Susur touches, like the five-spiced foie gras and leek-cranberry relish that come with Peking duck, the flower petals strewn across crispy squid, and the peppery yuzu-sake cocktails. The best seats are at the bar facing the glassed-in kitchen, where a troop of cooks work surrounded by bowls of dragon fruit and sesame balls. Quite often, you’ll spy the ponytailed master himself.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #17, America

Best New Restaurants 2015: America America | 325 Bay St., 416-637-5550

The view from the surrounding office towers into this 31st-floor restaurant in the Trump Hotel must be distracting. At night, it’s a Vegas-style club with theme parties, bottle service, micro-skirted beauties and randy brokers. Midday it’s another story: tables of Brooks Brothers suits, quiet talk of serious deals, prevailing calm. It’s the best time to appreciate the stellar menu, which is overseen by the Oliver and Bonacini group’s exec chef Anthony Walsh and takes you on a culinary tour of the U.S.: chowder with sassafras, an andouille sausage jambalaya, and a gorgeous salad of tuna sashimi, macadamia nuts, nori and puckery pineapple.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #18, Fat Pasha

wte-2015-fat-pasha Fat Pasha | 414 Dupont St., 647-340-6142

Somehow, against all odds, chopped liver is the hippest thing around, in no small measure because of Anthony Rose, the chef behind Dupont’s Big Crow and Rose and Sons. A few blocks west, he opened Fat Pasha, his version of an Israeli restaurant where the freshness of the hummus is as serious a matter as the bite of the pickles. The portions, as at Rose’s other establishments, are humongous, the kind of cooking to put meat on your bones. His smoked fish is now on the menu at Schmaltz Appetizing, a takeout he opened around the corner on Howland.

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Best New Restaurants 2015: #19, Montecito

Best New Restaurants 2015: Montecito Montecito | 299 Adelaide St. W., 416-599-0299

The movie director Ivan Reitman owns a condo in the Festival Tower and wanted somewhere nice to eat, so he flew up his favourite chef, the venerable New York farm-to-table guy Jonathan Waxman, and pulled back the curtain on a two-storey, 280-seat restaurant named after his Californian home. The place is a lot like Reitman’s movies—flashy, goofy and shamelessly crowd-pleasing. The menu includes Waxman’s famous roast chicken with a caper salsa verde, possibly the finest cluck in town, and daily fresh pastas in simple but perfect sauces, sometimes no more than a slick of butter and a handful of parmesan. For dessert there’s even a riposte to Ghostbusters’ city-stomping terror: a baked Alaska under a drift of charred marshmallow.