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Review: NAO brings swank back to Yorkville and steak so good it doesn’t need sauce

(Image: Caroline Aksich)

(Image: Caroline Aksich)

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NAO 3 star ½
90 Avenue Rd., 416-367-4141
NAO 3 star ½
90 Avenue Rd., 416-367-4141

The glitzy reno of this Victorian, for most of the last 20 years home to the quaint fusion spot Boba, marks the rapid transformation of Yorkville from rich and dowdy to rich and aggressively chic. Marble walls, plush black leather banquettes and a monumental wedding cake of a chandelier reinforce the impression of a deco-era nightclub—the only thing missing is Nat King Cole crooning from a stage instead of from the overhead speakers.

Nominally a Japanese-style steak house, it’s the latest in a series of ambitious Charles Khabouth and Hanif Harji projects, with executive chef Stuart Cameron (who also oversees Byblos, Weslodge and Patria) responsible for a big-spender menu of oyster platters, panko and Dungeness crab croquettes dusted with a sesame-seaweed seasoning, and an ingeniously multi-textured ahi tuna tartare (more of a salad) tossed with chilies, avocado, puffed wild rice and a nostril-searing grating of fresh B.C. wasabi. But it’s all about the beef: the aging locker holds a king’s ransom of prime Canadian and American cattle; Wagyu raised in your pick of Idaho, Iowa or Australia; and the most outrageous of them all, Japanese Kobe, which starts at $105 for a mere five ounces and climbs precipitously to $460 for a 24-ounce rib-eye. The more modest Australian Wagyu rump steak is charred handsomely on the grill, perfectly rare within, and so heavily marbled it’s more fat than meat—it slices like butter under the blade of the restaurant’s custom-made high-carbon steak knives. The steaks are so flavourful, there’s no need for the house steak sauce, prepared with momentous ceremony tableside on a vintage industrial cart. A serious wine list includes a dozen sakes and a handful of extremely rare French vintages offered by the glass.

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Restaurants

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Lucky Red reopens as a licensed, late-night snack bar

(Image: Jackie Pal)

After Banh Mi Boys co-owner David Chau shut down his Spadina Avenue spot, Lucky Red, last September after just a few months in business, he admitted that the concept was rushed and needed to be refined further before it could compete in Chinatown’s changing dining scene. On April 1, the now-fully-licensed restaurant reopened as a sit-down restaurant and cocktail bar. Its revamped menu is full of bar food favourites, each with its own twist: sticky tamarind wings, eleven-spiced fried chicken, a Vietnamese take on tartare and a game-changing nacho dish that subs in fried pork dumplings for chips. (And there are baos too, of course.) Cocktails with Asian flavours and a selection of local and imported beers round out the drink list. Fans of the fried s’more bao will be happy to know it’s still on the menu, but for those who want to try something different: durian tarts.

318 Spadina Ave., 416-792-8628, luckyredshop.com, @LuckyRedShop

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Drinks

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A year-round lawn games bar is coming to College West

(Image: Holly Blair)

Good news for those of you who think the 60-plus crowd gets all the best sports: you no longer have to wait until your golden years to take up shuffleboard. That’s because Toronto’s getting its very own indoor lawn games bar, and it opens April 17. Track & Field Bar, owned by the folks behind Montauk, has taken over the space on College near Ossington formerly occupied by The Cave nightclub, and will cater to those who want to do something while drinking but are nervous about that something involving an axe. The 5,000-square-foot space features two bocce ball lanes and two shuffleboard decks, one of each saved for walk-ins and all available to play free of charge. And for those waiting for a lane to free up: crokinole boards will be available for a little sit-down play. And, as Adam Vaughan and Gord Perks know, lawn games are best enjoyed with a bit of booze, so there’s that too. Following in Montauk’s steps, there will be classic and signature cocktails on tap, as well as bottled, canned and draught beer.

Track & Field Bar. 860 College St. W., @trackfieldbar

The Dish

Restaurants

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Pukka’s about to open a French restaurant on St. Clair West

(Image: Rebecca Fleming)

The owners of St. Clair West’s modern Indian spot Pukka will soon be feeding the neighbourhood French food, too. Concession Road (that’s St. Clair’s original name) will open just half a block east of Pukka, in the space recently vacated by Bywoods. Co-owner Derek Valleau tells us that the new restaurant, which is scheduled to open as soon as this weekend, will serve dishes with “French roots but global branches” cooked by chef Masayuki Tamaru, who Valleau first worked with at Crush Wine Bar, and sous chef, Mark Cutrara (Cowbell, Hawthorne, Parlor Foods). “We obviously weren’t going to do Indian and compete with ourselves,” says Valleau, “but the neighbourhood is developing and in great need of better restaurants. If it wasn’t us, it would have been someone else.” Sommelier Peter Boyd (Scaramouche, Skin & Bones, Pukka) is in charge of the wine list, and there will be cocktails and an absinthe program, as well—all of which, come summer, will go nicely with the spot’s street-side patio.

The Dish

People

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Q&A: Max Rimaldi, the Pizzeria Libretto owner who made Neapolitan pizza a thing in Toronto

(Image: Claire Foster)

(Image: Claire Foster)

In the seven years since Pizzeria Libretto first opened on Ossington, co-owner and creator Max Rimaldi has become one of the most influential restaurateurs in the city. There are now three Librettos, along with legions of copycats—this, in addition to his other restaurants, including the much-heralded Enoteca Sociale on Dundas West and two in-the-works collaborations with Porchetta and Co.’s Nick Auf der Mauer: a pizza and porchetta union on King West and A3 Napoli in Little Italy. Oh, and did we mention that Rimaldi also helped finance a little restaurant called Bar Isabel? We met up with Rimaldi to talk about fine dining, Neapolitan pizza and the state of Toronto’s restaurant scene.

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How-To

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How Ontario Spring Water Sake turns rice into booze by hand

(Image: Giordano Ciampini)

(Image: Giordano Ciampini)

While Greg Newton was studying microbiology in Japan, he spent a lot of his free time in small breweries, or sakaguras, in Nagano. He took a job in one, eventually honing his trade under master brewer Yoshiko Takahashi, who Newton enlisted to help set up Toronto’s—and North America’s—first sake brewery. At Ontario Spring Water Sake, in the Distillery District, it takes about a month and a half to produce one batch of booze—that’s because the persnickety process is mostly done by hand. When it’s all said and done, head brewer Newton and his team will have transformed 300 kilograms of rice into 1,500 bottles of sake. Here’s how it’s made.

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Culture

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The high price of cheap shrimp: where restaurants get their prawns from and why you should care

(Image: Brett Lamb)

(Image: Brett Lamb)

Out for dinner recently at a Spanish restaurant downtown, trying to decide whether to order the paella, I asked the chef where he buys his shrimp. He was proud to tell me how much he cares about sustainability, and that all his other seafood is Oceanwise-approved. But the shrimp was from Indonesia and “pretty much grown in poison,” he spat out. Customers want big shrimp, he said, shaking his head, but they don’t want to pay for them.

We’ve gradually come to care about how our beef is raised, who stitches together our clothes and the carbon footprint of our strawberries. We want to know the number of bluefin tuna in the ocean and whether our chicken sandwiches are sold by homophobes. But shrimp? Not yet. People, for the most part, don’t care. But they should. Of the many problems with the global shrimp trade, the worst involve actual slavery and human trafficking. As the Guardian has reported, Burmese and Cambodian immigrants are forced to work 20-hour days on Thai and Indonesian boats, kept awake with amphetamines, chained, beaten and murdered. These aren’t mere allegations: CP Foods, the world’s biggest shrimp farmer (for clients that include Walmart and Costco), have conceded that slavery is part of the supply chain. The company promised to change their practices, no longer buying the “trash fish” from slave boats that’s ground into food for farmed shrimp. But a year after that story out of Thailand comes further news from Indonesia reported by the Associated Press, of slaves fishing for shrimp that’s then dumped onto trucks bound for international seafood suppliers.

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The Dish

Openings

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Introducing: R&D, Chinatown’s new Alvin Leung and Eric Chong co-production

(Image: Caroline Aksich)

(Image: Caroline Aksich)

Name: R&D
Neighbourhood: Chinatown
Contact: 241 Spadina Ave., 416-586-1241, rdspadina.com, @RDSpadina
Previously: Strada 241
Owner: Alvin Leung (Bo Innovation, Hong Kong) and Eric Chong (winner of season one of MasterChef Canada)
Chefs: Alvin Leung, Eric Chong and Nelson Tsai (Trump Toronto, Auberge du Pommier)

The Food: More new wave pan-Asian cuisine to add to Toronto’s growing fusion obsession (Chantecler, DaiLo, People’s Eatery, Patois). “I took Eric traveling throughout Asia to create our concepts. His father is from Malaysia and my family came from Hong Kong, so the flavours of the menu represent our roots,” says Leung. Although the MasterChef bad guy earned three Michelin stars with his sometimes-shocking “x-treme” Chinese cuisine, R&D’s menu is devoid of shock-and-awe plates; instead, it’s made up of whimsical riffs on classic dishes. Poutine comes topped with silken tofu and General Sanders’ Chicken pairs fried bird with Sichuan maple syrup and Hong Kong egg waffles. A number of Chong’s MasterChef Canada dishes, including his lobster chow mein, also made the cut.

The Drinks: Playful cocktails with Asian twists, like the Piña Colada Bubble Tea dotted with tapioca pearls and the Red Star Punch made with oolong-infused gin. The punch can be ordered as “cold tea” for four that arrives in a teapot obscured in a cloud of dry ice smoke. A selection of wine, sake and beer is also available (the latter of which can also be ordered “cold tea”–style).

The Place: Faux crumbling walls and oversized U-shaped lights that are meant to allude to China’s vertical growth. The open-concept space is divided into three dining areas and can seat 85; a row of seven stools looks onto the open kitchen. Back dining room walls are splashed with graffiti, one mural featuring Chairman Mao complete with a Paul Stanley–style red star over one eye.

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Restaurants

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Pop-Up Pick: Smoke Signals BBQ emerges from hibernation to take over Mr. Flamingo

SmokeSignals
Don’t let this weekend’s snowfall fool you: spring is here, and so is outdoor cookery. The roving pitmasters of Smoke Signals BBQ, who have previously fed the Junction Flea and Derby crowds, will be holding their first pop-up dinner of the year on April 7 at Mr. Flamingo. They’ll be cooking up some ‘cue in the restaurant’s parking lot, rain or shine. And, if it does happen to rain (or snow), don’t get your wet naps in a knot, because while the smoking will be done al fresco, all of the eating will take place indoors. Mr. Flamingo’s menu won’t be available, but Smoke Signals’ co-owner Nick Chen-Yin (who has just returned from doing some tasty research in Texas) told us that there will be plenty of ribs, sausage and brisket to go around. All of the meat will be priced by the pound and customers can order as much or as little as they like. And there will be sides, of course: chili, potato salad and deep-fried mac and cheese balls will all play supporting roles.

 Tues. Apr. 7, 7 p.m. Mr. Flamingo, 1265 Dundas St. W., smokesignalsbarbecue.ca

The Dish

Openings

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Introducing: The One Eighty, serving chicken and waffles with cocktails 51 storeys above Bay and Bloor

(Image: Gabby Frank)

(Image: Gabby Frank)

Name: The One Eighty
Neighbourhood: Yorkville
Contact: 55 Bloor St. W., 51st floor, 416-967-0000, the51stfloor.com, @the51stfloor
Previously: Panorama Lounge
Owner: Sebastien Centner, President and CEO of Eatertainment
Chefs: Christopher Matthews and Zach Jacobs

The Food: Approachable and fun (“but not whimsical,” says owner Sebasten Centner) plates, made using food from local suppliers: halibut tacos, flatbread pizza, buttermilk chicken and waffles and a ramen noodle slaw all find a place on the menu. “We wanted dishes that people could look at and recognize, but that may have a twist,” explains Centner. As a play on dim sum, servers come around with food carts in between courses so diners can make impulse two-bite purchases (quail eggs on homemade chips, for example). “The point is not to overstuff diners,” says Centner, but to create some continuity to the meal and provide “bursts of flavour during the lulls.”

The Drinks: A short list of easy-drinking beer, on tap and in bottles; a wine menu featuring both VQA and international selections, some available by the glass; and the bar’s “Shaken and Stirred” collection, six signature cocktails that are made-to-order in twee glass bottles and then poured table-side.

The Place: Taking up the top floor of the Manulife Centre, the sleek, 2,500-square-foot space with 21-foot barrel-vaulted ceilings can seat 90 (or let 250 cocktail-drinking folks mingle comfortably). Oh, and there’s the view: 51 storeys above Bay and Bloor, The One Eighty gives guests a chance to see the city from really (really, really) high up, and not just from behind windows—both north and south patios will open at the end of April.

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Restaurants

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Northern Belle, Northwood’s new sister spot, is now slinging drinks in Trinity Bellwoods

(Image: Jackie Pal)

(Image: Jackie Pal)

The Christie Pits café and cocktail bar Northwood has opened a second location on Dundas West. With its pour-over coffees and much stronger drinks, Northern Belle isn’t all too different from its sister location, save for a sophisticated aperitif menu with a selection of vermouths and amaros (soon to be offered as flights). Guests can expect classic drinks with twists and clever names like the No Suspenders, a recipe from the 1900s that uses Guerra vermouth ($12), or the Guns & Roses (pictured above), made with rose-infused Dillon’s gin ($14). Without a kitchen—the space was previously the café-turned-hummuseria, S. Lefkowitz—the menu is teeny, but sandwiches, cheese plates, salads and baked goods are available all day, and a weekend brunch buffet of light eats is in the works.

913 Dundas St. W., 416-823-8969, northernbelle.ca@NorthernBelleTO

The Dish

Food Shops

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Wisey’s brings its pies to the west side

(Image: Caroline Aksich)

(Image: Caroline Aksich)

After a slew of winter shutterings—Timothy’s, Smock and Victoria’s Bakery are all papered up—Roncesvalles is starting to show some signs of life. Wisey’s, a Kiwi meat pie shop with a store in East York, opened its west end location on March 26. On the menu: personal-sized butter chicken pies, New Zealand lamb numbers and one topped with mashed potato (pictured above) just to name a few. If it’s something sweet you’re after, an Afghan cookie (chock-full of cornflakes and topped with chocolate ganache) paired with a flat white is just the ticket. New Zealand natives Gary Wise and Anthony Spinley opened their first Canadian outpost last summer in Leaside, where they still do all their baking. Even the shop’s coffee has a New Zealand connection: all beans are provided by Pilot Coffee Roasters, another Toronto-based company owned by a couple of Kiwis.

43 Roncesvalles Ave., 647-346-4455, wiseyspies.com, @WiseysPiesTO

The Dish

Restaurants

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Buster’s Sea Cove swims into South Core

(Image: Rebecca Fleming)

(Image: Rebecca Fleming)

Buster’s Sea Cove, the popular St. Lawrence Market seafood snack shack with its own food truck, is bringing its shrimp po’ boys and grilled halibut sandwiches to South Core. The new location will be located in the Southcore Financial Centre at Bremner and York, in the building’s second-floor food court (with I.Q. Food Co., Le Prep and Z-Teca keeping it company). Owner Tom Antonarakis tells us that the plan is to open the week of April 6, with a menu of the best-selling items from the Market and the food truck. Connected to the PATH and only a block away from Union Station, the new spot should make it convenient for commuters to grab dinner to go before heading home. GO trains are about to get a whole lot fishier.

120 Bremner Blvd., busters-seacove. com, @Busterstruck

The Dish

Openings

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Introducing: Fat City Blues, Little Italy’s New Orleans–inspired watering hole

(Image: Jackie Pal)

(Image: Jackie Pal)

Name: Fat City Blues
Neighbourhood: Little Italy
Contact Info: 890 College St., 647-345-8282, fatcityblues.com, @fatcityblues
Previously: The Huntsman Tavern
Owners: Cameron Hutton and Steve McKeon (Small Town Food Co.), Simon Ho (The Drake)
Chef: Charles Duncan (Splendido)

The Food: Updated Cajun classics: peanuts boiled in their shells; battered alligator po’ boys on soft baguette with a house-made remoulade; creole-spiked hush puppies—spicy bites dredged in cornmeal, fried until golden and served with a honey-cider cream; and crab legs (bib included). And it wouldn’t be a taste of the bayou without bivalves. At Fat City, the oysters are prepared three ways: raw, baked and fried. A by-the-weight crawfish boil is in the works and will likely be on the menu for when summer arrives.

The Drinks: Southern-inspired potent potables, including the Hurricane (the passion fruit– and rum-spiked cocktail synonymous with party beads) and the Sazerac, along with a list of Ho’s signature cocktails that are twists on the N’awlins classics: Land of Dixie and Fiyo on the Bayou are both boozy numbers. An absinthe menu is in the works with three varieties currently on offer, including one from Dillon’s.

The Place: Inspired by the jazz bars of Frenchman Street, a piano sits in the middle of the restaurant for diners who aren’t afraid to tickle the ivories and belt out a tune. Every Thursday through Sunday (but soon, nightly), guests can sip their Sazeracs in front of live blues and jazz performances. Restored wood, haphazardly nailed onto one wall, paired with polished blue banquettes and tables covered in newspaper clippings give the space a clean, but slightly rough-around-the-edges look.

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The Dish

How-To

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How chocolatier David Chow makes his incredible, edible, over-the-top Easter eggs

(Image: Giordano Ciampini)

(Image: Giordano Ciampini)

For engineer-turned-pastry-chef David Chow, chocolate-making is the best of both worlds. “Chocolate is a very technical ingredient—if it’s one or two degrees off, you can ruin the batch,” says Chow. “I appreciate that kind of precision.” At first, his family thought he was crazy to give up a potentially lucrative career just to work in a kitchen. “But you gotta do what you love, I think. At the end of the day, I’m making a tangible thing, and I’m making someone happy.” His insanely attractive Easter eggs, which he makes out of his workshop at The Eatery on University Avenue, are equal parts art and dessert: who needs Fabergé when you can have these? Here’s how he makes them.

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