Taste moves in waves: one year tall food is on every menu in town, and the next year, it’s a half-forgotten embarrassment. Sometimes, though, those embarrassments come back in a new guise. This year saw the quiet return of certain tendencies that we thought were long-buried, like fusion cuisine and wine bars, as well as the full-blown emergence of others that were bubbling away just below the surface, like tacos and, of course, ramen. Below, a roundup of what was hot in 2012.
The rehabilitation of fusion
Susur Lee and his East-meets-West cooking once looked to be the future of dining in the city. Then, just as quickly as it arrived, fusion became a kind of foodie punchline, a shorthand for ill-considered, trend-hopping dishes with little authenticity and even less thought. But this year, a new generation of chefs, many of them of Asian descent, have been quietly combining traditional Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian and Vietnamese flavours with the local, seasonal approach to cooking they learned in Toronto’s better kitchens. To name a few: Jonathan Poon at Chantecler, Jeff Claudio at Yours Truly, Nick Liu of the still-not-open GwaiLo, the Han brothers from OddSeoul, the Chau brothers at Banh Mi Boys and the Banana Mafia. Just make sure you don’t actually call their food “fusion.”
Once consigned to the dustbin of ’90s clichés, wine bars have been making a comeback in Toronto. But instead of targeting the suits and heels crowd, the new crop are more laid back and sprouting up outside the downtown core both east and west. Last year, Mavrik opened on Queen West, and this year’s crop includes Archive on Dundas West and Skin and Bones and Glas in Leslieville, both of which straddle the line between wine bar and traditional restaurant.
Non-sushi Japanese food (especially from Vancouver)
Toronto has long loved sushi, from the intricate (and pricey) creations at Sushi Kaji to the endless all-you-can-eat spots along Yonge and Bloor. Until Guu arrived from Vancouver in 2009, however, the local scene didn’t include Japanese bar food as well. This year witnessed an explosion in izakayas, starting with DonDon and continuing with Nejibee and two more Vancouver imports, Hapa and Kingyo. But in the end, 2012 was the Year of Ramen, with Kinton, Sansotei, Santouka, Raijin, A-OK Foods and, of course, Momofuku Noodle Bar all launching in the past 12 months.
Other trends: tacos, fancy doughnuts and tasting menus
Finally, a few trends we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention. Grand Electric launched late last year in Parkdale, spawning countless lines and preparing the ground for Andrew Richmond to launch his own taco and hip-hop restaurant La Carnita, not to mention the short-lived Toucan Taco Bar on Queen East and the second location of Rebozos. A pair of fancy doughnut places opened on either side of Queen Street: Paulette’s Original Donuts and Chicken, from Delica’s Devin Connell, and the scandalously named Glory Hole Doughnuts (there was also the Danforth’s Planet Donut). And then, there were the tasting menus. In July, Yours Truly jettisoned its popular bar snacks and introduced the ambitious 19-course Carte Blanche tasting menu. In October, Keriwa followed suit, closing on most days and opening only for special events and high-end prix fixes before reverting to normal à-la-carte service a few weeks later. Not long afterward, Parkdale’s Chantecler found a way of splitting the difference: in the New Year, they’re replacing à-la-carte service with changing tasting menus but expanding their popular lettuce-wrap feasts.