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Alan's best ten restaurants of 2012

December 27, 2011
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Yes, the life of a food critic is just as unbelievably glamorous and exciting as you can imagine, probably more so. But my most difficult task comes during the festive season, when I actually have to work for a living. While others frantically try to figure out what to wear and what parties to attend, I must sift through an entire year's worth of meals to see which made the final cut in our annual guide of Top 10 Restaurants of 2012.

The sheer, thankless drudgery of such a task more than outweighs the benefits of a belly that seems to grow a few inches each year. More surprising, however, than adding new belt holes are the finalists, from going gaga over gastropubs to barnyard chic.

Riverside Public House Restaurant & Bar
725 Queen St. E.
Toronto, ON

The Riverside Public House is to be taken very seriously indeed, a pub ferchrissakes. Of course it doesn't hurt that the kitchen corps was lead by Dustin Gallagher a season one semifinalist on Top Chef Canada. No overnight sensation, the guy slaved in kitchens from the age of 13, working his way up from fast food jockey to a six year stint as Susur Lee's sous chef/protege. 

Situated smack dab in Leslieville, RPH looks like a cross between a French bistro and a pub, adorned with all the requisite rustic design elements like barn boards, filament lighting, sink-in banquettes, tea towels for serviettes and, well, you get the picture. But it's Gallagher's flawless farmhouse comfort food that will have everyone, including me, coming back. His Grace fame alone should be enough for devoted foodies to follow him here, but dare I say this is his finest hour. Practically every ingredient on every plate is made in house, right down to the teensiest of garnishes. Every step of the way the Riverside Public House awes. No wonder chef Gallagher is always so damn smiley. (Note: Gallagher is now only the consulting exec chef.)

~9153.1Km away
The Oxley Public House Restaurant & Bar
121 Yorkville Ave.
Toronto, ON

Who thought it was possible? Finally, a pub with the balls to just say feh to flat screens. On behalf of those indifferent to sports everywhere, kudos. The Oxley might be the priciest pub in tony Yorkville, but deservedly so. Co-owners Jamieson Kerr and Brit chef Andrew Carter have created a carte so far removed from the nabe's mainstays it should attract more sophisticated palates than yer average camera-totin' tourist. 

A separate bar and pub menu fascinates with a unique melange of authentically British ingredients, making The Oxley a true neighbourhood original. One dish after another is a showcase of culinary fits of genius. Chef has an uncanny ability to highlight multiple ingredients without any one overpowering another. But a rabbit and potato braised pie numbs with awe. The crust alone looks like it popped out of a Rembrandt still life. Pub food has rarely if ever been so appealing; great ambiance, attentive service and superlative food that says no to nachos. Wow, who'd have thunk!

~9156.78Km away
The Emerson Restaurant
1279 Bloor St. W.
Toronto, ON

This city needs another hipster haunt like we need another big affable moron as a mayor. But if you look a bit beyond the typically trendoid interior of The Emerson, you'll notice that something extraordinary is going on at the intersection of Lansdowne and Bloor. 

Much larger, almost cavernous compared to most restaurants of its ilk, The Emerson somehow manages to evoke the charm of a dimly lit 20-seater. But what really gives the place its warm, cuddly feeling is the staff, a rare bunch of food industry enthusiasts who seem genuinely happy just being alive and doing what they do best. Pinch me. Am I dreaming?

A blackboard list detailing all the ingredients they've run out of may be even longer than the actual menu itself, but hey, at least they're honest. Some may find the menu is a trifle too tailored with its small selection of comfort food classics, like a daily savoury pie (chicken pot, hunter's, seafood, beef, or shepherd's), but any one of these could be the only thing on the menu and you and your belly will still leave fuller and fatter. 

Though the confident Scott Pennock looks like he'd be more comfortable on a Harley than cooking in a kitchen, he commandeers his small team like a well-oiled machine. Sweetbreads on toast may be sublime, but the duck and goose hunter's pie (sorry, all you gastropub wannabes out there), is the Platonic ideal of the perfect meat pie. The fact that it was unevenly heated, scalding on one side, tepid on the other, is immaterial. I may have lost every layer of skin on the roof of my mouth, but it was worth it.

~9160.52Km away
Yours Truly
229 Ossington Ave.
Toronto, ON

I can't believe it's been over a year since Yours Truly opened its doors. Some wrote it off as yet just another painfully hip eatery to dot Ossington's already crowded restaurant row. But notwithstanding the silly name, I'll stake my two-decades-old cred as a food critic that this is one of the most exciting places to open in eons. When food like this passes your lips, you'll do the sign of the cross and be a Jeff Claudio convert, a chef who once graced the kitchens of prestigious Per Se (New York City), Alinea (Chicago) and Noma (Copenhagen). 

Bare-bones it may look, but Yours Truly is as cosy as it comes. But it's the food you're going to remember for days, weeks, even months after your visit. Plates demonstrate a craftsmanship rarely seen. Bucking all presentation norms, this kitchen has the courage to go against the grain and make it work in their favour. Something as simple as a sandwich can be an OMG out-of-body experience. Ingenuity and playfulness is what sets Yours Truly apart from its peer-wannabes. It's a rarity, perhaps even unprecedented, to enjoy such inventive, perfectly crafted food served in such an unpretentious setting with such sincere service by waiters who actually know what they're talking about.

~9158.66Km away
The Grover Grub & Pub
676 Kingston Road
Toronto, ON

Why does British food still get a bum rap? Despite the global prominence of Jamie, Nigella, Gordon, Heston et al. shaking things up, the first thing that comes to mind when you say English cuisine is pub fare and tea time. Chef Ben Heaton aims to change that dated perception on this side of the pond, by finally ridding this would-be fine food of its stodgy image, hoping to alter culinary expectations of what British food could be like.

Not far from the buzz-worthy corner of Dundas and Ossington sits The Grove, a dental office cum farmhouse warmed up with mismatched chairs, a cluster of vintage cigarette tins, and floral-patterned china that gives it its Old World nook appeal. But don't expect more Corrie Street touches than that, because the food is a showcase of trendy interpretations of vintage Brit favourites that are so well-executed and artfully presented, even half-eaten dishes manage to maintain their magazine-cover-worthy composition.

The menu is rife with sophistication and elegant presentation. Even something as simple and peasant-y as a parsley root soup is given the same pomp and ceremony as a 21-gun salute. Chef deserves a knighthood for taking such proletariat fare to such aristocratic levels. I have never seen anyone with the courage to go outside of the expected and deliver British food beyond the typical pub experience.

While everyone gets on the Korean taco bandwagon, perfects their poutines, super sizes burgers and Neapolitanizes pizzas, The Grove is about giving a long forgotten and misunderstood cuisine a long overdue overhaul, successfully bringing British food forward in a lovely and charming manner.

~9149.25Km away
Farmhouse Tavern
1627 Dupont St.
Toronto, ON

If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where they were guaranteed the perfect meal, ... or else, I'd have no fear recommending the Farmhouse Tavern. Like on the set of Green Acres, its homespun authenticity will have you convinced you're in a barn off some dusty country road far from the big city. The only thing that could possibly make it more perfect would be hay and cow dung on the floor.

Believe it when I say nothing this refined has even been attempted in such casual surroundings. Even our server turns his boundless knowledge of every ingredient on the menu into great dinner conversation. It was hard to resist not asking him to sit down and join us. Either they're all smokin' the same weed or they take the bounty of these delightful vittles to heart.

The blackboard menu may not offer much in selection, but what they offer is nothing short of brilliant. Like the complicated and laborious process to make a pork confit that would have even Julia Child saying, "F--- this, why bother?" But again, it's the labour-intensive process even for burgers that helps explain why the selection is so limited. The process begins with hand cutting each piece of an entire cow. For the burgers specifically, it's a blend of chuck and short rib to ensure these sinful mounds maintain an unctuous fat content of 35%. But I guarantee there's nothing Big Mac about this beef patty with its special sauce and lettuce on a sesame seed bun. Last I checked, McDonald's condiments didn't include made-in-house relish.

Combining French technique with local ingredients, The Farmhouse is a bucolic wonder that offers what many other restaurants strive to do but often come up short.

~9161.65Km away
GLAS Wine Bar
1118 Queen St. E.
Toronto, ON

The first thing you may notice about Glas is not its simple, austere decor or how friendly and go-out-of-their-way accommodating the servers are. What most women, and quite a few men, will definitely notice is how strikingly handsome chef/owner Dan Patano is. And in this tiny unassuming neighbourhood nook, there's really very little else to focus your gaze on. The fact that this talented hottie also happens to be a Michelin-trained chef is simply further proof that the universe is cruel and unjust. Sigh!

Despite his low-key personality, his 20-seater in booming Leslieville will blow your mind with a carte of such culinary elegance and refinement you'll feel as if you should be wearing a powdered wig. Yet the modest Patano doesn't seem to have even one diva bone in his, ahem, body. He doesn't even have a sous chef; it's just him and two servers, one of whom doubles as a dishwasher. The fact that he can concoct such outstanding plates in such a shoebox-sized kitchen with only two induction burners and a small convection oven is clear evidence that he performs culinary magic without compromise.

It's not only about what chef is going to make, but how; he can't even saut? dishes because he doesn't have a hood. An interesting Food Network Top Chef challenge, maybe, but the results here are nothing short of tongue teasing. Even working with something as mundane as calamari elicits a gasp of disbelief. The only problem you will encounter here is wanting manlier portions. But for artistic achievement of this calibre, you won't mind leaving a bit hungry.

Chef finds the simplest of ways to fascinate with food. He might be classically trained, but Patano's technique and style is anything but old-school. Eye candy aside, this is a man to watch.

~9152.04Km away
Origin Restaurant
107/109 King St. E.
Toronto, ON

Didn't someone once say, never trust a skinny chef. Makes sense to me, unless you're referring to Claudio Aprile. Since his early days at Senses, he has been choreographing our taste buds with a level of culinary clout that most chefs can only dream about. But who would ever have thought that one of the most respected chefs in town would ever attach his name to a restaurant "chain"? Okay, okay, we're not talking fast food, we're talking Origin on King East, which opened to raves a few years back. And considering that everything with the Aprile stamp of approval seems to succeed, odds are in his favour that Origin in Liberty Village will thrive, too.

And that's mostly because you can't get his kind of food anywhere else, which is why the handsome, slender chef (it's just not fair!) mimics the east menu for his west locale, minus the Mozarella bar plus a tostada bar. Either way, it's all part of the Origin manifesto, to deliver a "high energy global food bar that celebrates the diverse cultures of the world."

But as fun a read as the menu is, don't kid yourself that it's any less about a finer-dining experience with exhilarating ingredients and some molecular moments. Take the pretzel, for instance. Puffed up like a Friday night shabbos challah, it sweetness is thanks to being boiled in sugar water. But where most chefs might just add a smear of mustard, Aprile wouldn't even consider something as banal as a bottled condiment, artisanal or otherwise. Instead his pretzel is bathed in house-pickled mustard seeds and it will take all your will power not to scarf down 20.

Origin continues to maintain its dedication to culinary creativity in the most accessible way. Few have managed such consistency, let alone during expansion mode. Do I hold Aprile to a higher standard? Absolutely! It's the burden he must bear for maintaining such a stellar reputation. So when the food falters ever so slightly, it's still far far better than most chefs' best efforts.

~9154.94Km away
Momofuku Daisho Restaurant
190 University Ave.
Third Floor
Toronto, ON

David Chang has come a very long way since his first modest noodle shop in the East Village circa 2004. Today he's a culinary rockstar, his name a powerful brand that's managed to continually wow finicky New York City palates. He even made Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People (2010) and played himself on the critically acclaimed Treme, the HBO series based on the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans. Giddy comes close to describing the goose-bumpy feeling of being in his magical midst at the Shangri-La Hotel. But whichever Momofuku you opt for (Noodle Bar, Nikai, Daisho or Shoto) at the Shangri-La Hotel, the excitement of Chang's food lies not only in its artful execution, but in the skillful way he manages to package all of the elements of fine dining in such an accessible, unpretentious manner. Think Parkdale meets Alain Ducasse, only a heckuva lot cheaper.

Momofuku Daisho is all about understated luxury that somehow feels effortlessly cool. Finally, a fun, hip environment to dine without an Edison bulb in sight. The meal awes with every chew from his signature pork buns to the drama of an apple soup with bee pollen. Chang's Momofuku Daisho is nothing if not memorable; when was the last time a major hotel attracted so much buzz among local hipsters? With Momofuku mania in full swing, me thinks that the border of Queen West cool might finally start to move a little bit eastward.

~9155.89Km away
Richmond Station Restaurant
1 Richmond St. W.
Toronto, ON

Is it a bistro? Is it a gastropub? Who cares? What Richmond Station isn't, is an actual subway stop. But trust me, you'll definitely get off at this station. Ba dum dum. At the tender age of 27, baby-faced Top Chef Canada season two winner Carl Heinrich must really be an old soul. How else could someone so impossibly young conjure up such a chic little downtown bo?te and make it a huge success in such short order?

Unpretentious best describes the kind of fare to be found at Richmond Station, but food this simple and straightforward is rarely afforded the same kind of care and treatment you expect from restaurants that cost twice or even three times as much. Your eyes will be fixated on the organized chaos and cacophony of the wide open kitchen. I can't remember seeing such a veritable herd of chefs work so closely together for so few tables. Ergo, the Heinrich manoeuvre: do it right or don't do it at all.

From the outside, Richmond Station could easily be mistaken for yet another after-five meat market. But with food this well thought-out the only meat being picked up here is the triple AAA from the kitchen and perhaps the dreamy young servers. And whether you sit at the more lounge-y lower level or just outside the kitchen on the upper floor, one thing is for certain: you will be treated to a damn fine meal that takes local to the extreme. Show me a modern restaurant that doesn't use olive oil because "it's not local" and I'll show you a chef with mighty big cojones. And instead of balsamic from Italy, it's an elegant Baco Noir vinegar from Niagara that you'll be tempted to sip from a wine goblet. Everything, and I mean everything, is made in-house.

Polenta fries may be yesterday's news, but with a dunk into spicy mayonnaise or a house-made marinara, this alt to the thick cut fry breathes new life into a tired food fad. Ditto the charcuterie platter, another ho-hum trend re-imagined by this creative kitchen. And a coq au vin is almost Mastering the Art of French Cooking perfect.

Many a folk have frittered away their 15 minutes of fame. But this winning chef doesn't appear to be making many rookie mistakes. Heinrich may be young, but his smarts ensure that he surrounds himself with other talents in his kitchen. More important, he actually cares about his customers. When a dish goes back, he practically calls a conference with the server to tackle the issue--all during the busy dinner rush. That kind of care and concern is most appreciated. Richmond Station may not perfect, but it's pretty darn close.

~9155.39Km away
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