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Pop-Up Madness: A look behind Toronto’s pop-ups, dinner series and roving restaurants

Rogue chefs are making some of the city’s most creative food in restaurants that are here today, gone tomorrow

The Way We Eat Now | Pop-Up Madness

On a late-February evening, 24 of us were huddled around two dimly lit communal tables at Ortolan, a tiny restaurant at Lansdowne and Bloor. We were there for Boxed, a four-hour, eight-course pop-up dinner—one of dozens of one-night-only culinary shows happening in Toronto right now.

Pop-ups, dinner series and roving restaurants have multiplied over the last couple of years, as the city’s up-and-coming chefs have broken out of the traditional culinary training model. Instead of working their way up through the kitchen ranks at old-guard establishments, they’re making their names by cooking audaciously experimental food in makeshift kitchens, and using social media to promote themselves.

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The Dish

Drinks

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The sipper club: meet the city’s competitive cabal of top sommeliers

Will Predhomme belongs to a competitive cabal of top sommeliers who sniff, sip and spit their way through hundreds of bottles a week. They do this to help you decide what to drink with your dinner, while making you think it was your idea all along

One hundred and fifty-one people have reservations at Canoe tonight. Among these are many Bay Streeters, a couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, dozens of people on dates, including the bar manager from Crush, and a young woman who plans to propose to her boyfriend over dinner. The two private dining rooms are fully booked.

Canoe, part of the ever-expanding Oliver and Bonacini empire, is routinely considered one of the finest restaurants in the city. Last summer, in a rigorous competition held by the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers, known as CAPS, Canoe’s head sommelier, Will Predhomme, was proclaimed Ontario’s best. Predhomme has devoted a third of his life—he’s 29—to wine scholarship. He now knows more about wine than almost anyone in Toronto.

Just after 5 p.m., the bar area begins to fill up with commuters sipping cocktails as they wait for the traffic on the clogged Gardiner, 54 floors below, to dissipate. One of the restaurant’s first guests, a retired trial lawyer, arrives. As a young female host escorts him to his large corner table, he puts an arm around her shoulder. “I don’t like to pay bills,” he says. “I want a fucking account. Last time I was here, I offered those ladies”—referring to the hosts who greeted him at his last visit—“$300 and told them to set up an account for me. And I still don’t have one.” He and his three dining companions, Canoe regulars, have brought in several bottles of their own wine, including a cabernet franc from the ex-lawyer’s private vineyard in Tuscany. When Predhomme arrives at the table to discuss the wine, the ex-lawyer, captivatingly bratty in a way that only the rich and sort-of-powerful can be, repeats his complaint. “Look, I spend about $50,000 a year at Bymark, and I’d do the same here if I had a fucking account.” Predhomme is unmoved, but gracious. “If you give me your contact information,” he says, “I’ll make sure that it gets to the right people.”

“You’ll get me an account?”

“I’ll look into it.”

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Features

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Fisherman’s Friends: Chris Nuttall-Smith reviews Maléna and The Atlantic

The season’s most anticipated openings are two seafood-centric spots

Maléna at Av and Dav (Image: Ryan Szulc)

Toronto is a raw bar town. We’re over-served by excellent oyster houses, and we probably consume more sushi per capita than any city east of Vancouver. But cooked fish is a problem here; we’ve never had a standout seafood spot. This spring, Nathan Isberg, of Czehoski and Coca fame, opened what early adopters described as a nose-to-tail disciple’s take on the life aquatic on Dundas West. And in Yorkville, a neighbourhood that’s desperate for a few more decent places to eat, front-of-house kings David Minicucci and Sam Kalogiros launched Maléna, a flashy fish spot. It looked like Toronto might finally turn into a seafood town.

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