In June 2006, Rufus Wainwright donned silk stockings, a black tuxedo jacket and four-inch heels to recreate Judy Garland’s iconic 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. Liza Minnelli met the gimmick with scathing contempt (“What is he doing?” she scoffed), prompting a deliciously passive-aggressive celebrity feud—Wainwright told the press that Minnelli wasn’t talking to him and made catty barbs at her onstage. Wainwright’s latest track is a sly dig called “Me and Liza,” in which he begs for her forgiveness. “Come on, Liza, give me a try,” he croons. It’s the lead single on his new best-of album, Vibrate, which maps the songwriter’s development from waifish tweaker to campy bon vivant and, finally, to domesticated family man—he married Jorn Weisbrodt, Luminato’s handsome German artistic director, and fathered a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca. A deluxe edition features a second disc of bonus material, including a handful of rare live covers—songs by Noël Coward, George Gershwin and Wainwright’s father, Loudon Wainwright III.
All stories relating to From the Print Edition
Memoir: having a baby was the easiest decision I ever made. Finding the right sperm donor wasn’t quite so simple
Five years ago, my partner, Vanessa, and I decided to start a family. I’d always envisioned being a parent, but never imagined I’d carry a child. I considered myself a butch lesbian; getting pregnant—or worse, breastfeeding—didn’t fit with my self-image. When it came time to decide who would carry the baby, Vanessa and I didn’t even have to discuss it.
I’d gladly spend every night in a bar seat facing the open kitchen at Chantecler. Two scruffy young chefs squeeze past one another in a tiny space, cooking with a tabletop deep fryer and an electric stove. Despite the constraints, they produce an exquisitely intricate, ethnically hyphenated tasting menu that seems particularly Torontonian and of the moment. On my last visit, I gorged on tartare with house-made shrimp chips, a Chinese-style double-smoked duck with crisp baked kale, Colville Bay oysters with fresh tagliatelle, a sweet custard topped with sea urchin, and a dessert of buckwheat-flavoured ice cream and Niagara black walnuts. I left thoroughly winded.
That a special place like Chantecler can thrive on one of the grimier blocks in Parkdale only shows how the dining scene is keeping pace with our insatiable hunger to be wowed. Restaurants are experimenting with menus themed around unsung ingredients, flying in like-minded star chefs for one-night collaborations, and building empires down alleys and in former gastronomical deserts like Dupont and Dundas West. The two big name out-of-towners—David Chang and Daniel Boulud—overcame the provincial skepticism of foodie bloggers by demonstrating a deep commitment to the homegrown (their menus read like a directory of southern Ontario heritage farmers). Every block seems to have a new spot specializing in a signature ramen. And for each walk-in-closet restaurant like Chantecler, there’s a new showstopper palace like The Chase to cater to Bay Street’s big spenders.
I’ve eaten my way across this city many times over, sipping more than my share of barrel-aged bourbon, waiting in lines at no-reservation hot spots and discreetly taking notes on my smartphone. The following pages contain my take on the city’s biggest dining trends (including a few I could live without), the 10 most memorable dishes I tried in the past year and a ranking of the top 10 new restaurants.
These are the spots that encapsulate Toronto dining at its current peak, and ones I happily recommend to a friend or visitor.
How to narrow down thousands of gratifying forkfuls into one definitive list? Easy. These are the dishes I’d order again and again, in descending order of deliciousness.
Foie gras–stuffed chicken, porterhouse steak and whole suckling pig are the new extravagant norm
There were six of us up against one pork butt—and the pig won. It was a beauty, grown massively plump at a small farm just outside St. Jacobs. Rubbed with brown sugar, it spent a slow afternoon in the oven until the meat pulled apart effortlessly, clouds of steam breaking from the sweet crust. We dug in, mixing the shreds with fresh oysters and kimchee, then wrapping it all in lettuce leaves and savoury crêpes. After a couple of blissful hours, we’d barely made a dent.
It’s time to rediscover buttery, sublime Gallic cooking
Traditional French restaurants never went away, but they certainly lost their appeal in the last decade, eclipsed by fusion cooking, molecular gastronomy, the tyranny of artisanal versions of Kraft Dinner and a thousand other fads. Now it seems every other cook is back to simmering sauces for eons, perfecting the timing of a soufflé and paying homage to Escoffier. I suppose there were only so many communal tables and foraged salads we could stomach before we craved rich terrines and formal service again. Even white-linen establishment standbys like Scaramouche, where I spotted Maple Leaf magnate Michael McCain and family silently dining one recent weeknight, and Auberge du Pommier, where the chef, Marc St. Jacques, has reinvigorated the menu with complex preparations of game and foie gras, are packed once more.
We’re dining around the clock and the options for a midnight feast are suddenly excellent
At some point over the past year, around the time Rob Ford was smoking crack in a drunken stupor, we became a city that eats at all hours. It now takes weeks of planning to get a table at 10 p.m. at the hotter spots. And if you want a meal after midnight, there are finally options other than greasy all-night diners and those Chinatown backrooms where the only thing anyone orders is “cold tea.” After a three-hour Scorsese opus at the Revue, I’ll go to La Cubana, Corrina Mozo’s new restaurant on Roncesvalles, where the cooks make a mean medianoche, the traditional Havana sandwich stacked with roasted pork, ham and gruyère—they also have versions with chorizo, or guava-glazed short rib, or avocado and queso fresco. The kitchen at the County General, the Queen West gastropub, officially closes at 11, but the place is usually full until last call, patrons scarfing down pork buns and devilled eggs while sipping bourbon cocktails. (They’ve expanded to Riverdale and Bloorcourt.) Even the owners of the prim Nota Bene wanted in on the fun, opening Carbon Bar on Queen East. They serve perfectly smoked southern-style barbecue, fried chicken skin, and intricate cocktails with citrus oils and rare tinctures until late-late-late.
An invasion of specialized noodle spots feeds our slurpy obsession
Ramen is now Toronto’s preferred midday fuel. A wave of noodle restaurants began to open a year ago, prompted by the arrival of Momofuku’s Noodle Bar, and never stopped. There’s a hipster factor behind ramen’s popularity (a video circulated last fall of a guy who shaped his beard into a bowl, which he filled with Sriracha-doused noodles), but a major part of the appeal is the dish’s egalitarianism, combining cheapness with a gourmet sensibility.
Last year’s lobster roll craze has escalated into a full-blown love affair with fresh platters of tentacles, claws and other watery delights
There’s only so much red meat a person can consume. I’m happy to announce that Toronto, for too many years a city resigned to High Liner fish sticks, has turned a pescetarian corner. Quality seafood stores like Hooked and De La Mer are multiplying, and we’re no longer ashamed to serve a locally caught perch at a dinner party. For a few months there, it seemed like every elegant restaurant had a rainbow trout from Kolapore Springs on the menu.
After recessionary years of hanging our puffy coats on the backs of chairs (and inevitably seeing them trampled by wait staff), new places like The Chase, Café Boulud and Drake One Fifty graciously check them at the door.
Yes, we’re looking at you, Drake One Fifty ($9), Electric Mud BBQ ($3.75) and Hudson Kitchen ($4).
Two of my coworkers live near me in the suburbs, so we drive in to work together. Our boss just moved into the neighbourhood and is poking around for a carpool. He hasn’t straight-up asked us yet, but it’s only a matter of time. The problem is, the commute is the only chance we get to vent about him. We can’t swap that cathartic bliss for two hours of awkward silence. What should I say if he asks?
—Shark in the Pool, Too risky to say where I live
Oversized and opulent master bedrooms are the busy Torontonian’s favourite new indulgence. Here are a few of the city’s best
The Person: Vivian Reiss, a 61-year-old visual artist and renovator
The Place: A 5,000-square-foot house in the Annex with an 800-square-foot master suite
When Reiss moved into her Romanesque Revival mansion 26 years ago, it was a dilapidated warren of small rooms and gloomy corners. The woman who built it in the 1880s was the widow of a prominent Upper Canada politician and had 11 children; Reiss only has two, both of whom have now moved out. She’s an artist and she wanted her home to be as brightly hued and full of light as her exuberant oil paintings. Unafraid of taking on a top-to-bottom overhaul (she now renovates apartment buildings and offices professionally), Reiss immediately started tearing down walls. She turned three bedrooms—two on the second floor and one on the third—into a two-storey master with a sitting area, and filled it with salvaged fixtures from old Toronto buildings and curios from frequent trips abroad. Her dressing salon was formerly a porch, which she glassed in, adding curtains for privacy. Finally, Reiss repurposed the library to create an enormous tiled ensuite inspired by the Moorish tiles of the Alhambra palace. Her reasoning: she loves books, but enjoys bubble baths by the fire even more.