Ah, yes, the life of a food critic; it's just as unbelievably glamorous and exciting as you can imagine, probably more so.
But my most difficult task comes at year's end, when I actually have to work for a living. While others were frantically try to figure out what to wear and where to party for the festive season, I sifted through a truckload of menu memories to see which select few will make the cut for our annual guide to the Top 11 restaurants of 2011.
In some cases it was pretty close, but in the end only 11 made the list. Like Aravind
. What makes this place so special, aside from all the painstaking effort, is that it's a labour of love, a family affair with mom and pop in the kitchen. Aravind finally sets the bar higher than what we've come to expect from local Indian haunts. Banished are banal buffets, mystery meats and one-sauce-fits-all. You won't find naan here, but you will get scrumptious homemade lentil crisps and cassava chips. And your water may even be laced with cumin, a surprisingly refreshing digestive. Without question Aravind is doing its part to help change the way we think of this fine fare, often associated with fast-food curries. It is to be commended for elevating this refined cuisine to the prominence it deserves.
Thanks to Justine Fowler and chef Angus Bennett L'Ouvrier
is the newest darling to dot Dundas West these days, a strip now known for its gourmet munchies. A blessed relief from the everything-'70s-is-fabulous design dogma, it's a playful place for any ol' working stiff who just wants a good honest meal, though we're pretty sure it will also be a hit with sophisticated food snobs. It's truly astonishing how well-oiled the operation is from a polished staff who are refreshingly genuine and attentive without being too clingy; to the food, an artful, wondrous display of local artisanal ingredients that form the foundation for a fun but classic menu. With so much other wow going for it, some minor misfires won't prevent it from staying on our radar for some time.
As will Acadia
with one of the smartest and/or original menus in eons. Take the under-appreciated American South, tap into Canada's almost forgotten Acadian heritage and, voila, an eatery that celebrates the culinary heritage of colonial New France, from the Maritimes and Quebec down to Louisiana. This is truly what fusion was meant to be, not the mashing together of disparate cuisines just for the heck of it. A menu this innovative could only have come from seriously passionate foodies like Matt Blondin and Scott Selland who live, breathe and sleep gastronomie. And while the menu may seem a bit lean on selection, its array of unusual and intriguing ingredients make it exciting. Not since Bertrand Alepee and Jason Inniss has there been such a passionate duo to watch.
Vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. Sure, there are the mainstays like Fressen and Annapurna, but really in a city with more than 8,000 eateries, it is truly surprising that, in spite of our collective interest in healthier living, more haven't popped up like woodlot fungi. But now there's Woodlot
, a tree-hugger's paradise which offers as much flesh on one menu to satisfy any bloodthirsty carnivore, but caters to the righteous herbivore with a whole other menu. Longtime friends and co-owners Robyn Donio and David Haman are clearly slow food movement converts, putting out labour intensive dishes that highlight local ingredients. No stranger to inventive culinary fare, chef Haman (formerly of Czehoski) has created an ambitious if unusual suite of selections. Where most restaurants with only one menu fail on focus, Woodlot handles two with competency and cohesion in earnest. Its matchbook says it all: "Honest. Simple. Handmade." But they forgot to add damn tasty.
Aboriginal cuisine, eh? About friggin time. Keriwa Cafe
authentic charm is unlike other hotspots that attempt to impress by wowing you with design, usually at the expense of what comes out of the kitchen. And Keriwa should not be mistaken for a novelty cafe merely aiming to showcase native culture like a dumbed-down food court option. It is a restaurant that is very serious about its mandate to provide local, seasonal and regional ingredients. And from a tiny open kitchen, chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe turns out aboriginal-inspired cuisine that not only underscores he is more than a featherweight when it comes to food, but that he is also someone very in touch with the Canadian landscape. The Siksika Nation, Alberta chef, whose pedigree includes stints at Eigensinn Farm and Haisai (with the legendary Michael Statdlander), ensures each plate is perfect before it leaves his kitchen redolent with the aroma of burning orchard fruitwood. Why bother with just butter to accompany fresh baked red fife bread when you can wow with whipped Berkshire pork fat. Keriwa will no doubt be a huge hit with its cherished heritage cuisine.
It may not exactly be the type of place that any self-respecting restaurant critic or foodie would even consider putting on their radar. But when a sports bar like Williams Landing
comes around, it's hard to keep that nose up in the air for long. Never has any eatery with so many wide screen TVs per inch paid such attention to detail, a rarity even in the finest of dining establishments. What bar and grill have you been to lately where busboys rush to your table at the first sign of a spill like paramedics, a fresh moist towel at the ready. But ambiance is not the only thing in its talent arsenal. Exec chef Marco D'Angelo (formerly e11even) and sous Beman Chan have created what at first glance looks like your typical world-influenced pub grub. But menu selections morph into such unexpected fare in part due to the quality of the ingredients, but more so due to stellar execution. Finesse like this is so unexpected from a sports bar. The owners of Joy Bistro and South of Temperance could do little more to improve on what they've created, namely something phenomenal. Now if only all waiters had the same smile as our server.
If you're one of those insufferable food snobs (like moi) who judges a book by its cover, you may lower your eyes and deign to sneak a peak inside Habits Gastropub
, decide it's not up to snuff, and then move on. Big mistake! In fact, the food is so astonishing, you'll be tempted to write a generous cheque to co-owners Michelle Genttner and Luis Martins to help them re-renovate. But for now, if you can get past the dowdy decor, the talent of chef Ron Stratton (ex of Centro, Auberge du Pommier) will suffice; finally, a chef who truly understands and appreciates the concept of the "gastropub." Taking it to heart, he elevates typical bar grub like burgers, fish and chips, and even pasta to a level that hipper haunts haven't come close to achieving. His creativity, presentation and execution makes even a room this unappealing easy to endure. With food this superior, I implore you to turn a blind eye to your sense of style and run to Habits Gastropub. If a place this good doesn't succeed, it would be a travesty and proof of the universe's cruelty.
From the open-concept kitchen, one can clearly see that maestro Bruce Woods is in the house, making sure each plate looks flawless before it leaves the line. But how do you reconcile nouveau riche prices with a typically rustic, cucina povera menu. Easy: there is nothing typical going on at Modus
. Woods' contemporary take is something to marvel at. Can you think of anything that could really elevate a spinach salad ($14) so it earns its proper place at the dinner table rather than on a styrofoam plate? Woods has. Even more intensely delicate is a veal carpaccio with onionskin-thinness that astonishes. But wowing with that kind of precision is the modus operandi of this kitchen. And a handmade agnolotti will have you convinced that Italian cuisine can indeed compete in the uppity echelons of finer dining with the too-fancy French. When the only real error of the evening is a perfect server who decided to splash a little too much Jean Nate, you know you got a winner. Modus should do well to capture the hearts and tummies of Toronto power-brokers, not to mention local foodies, with the nuovo Italian given snob appeal.
It's always a sad day when a gastronomic great shuts down. So when Oddfellows dead bolted its doors, local foodies let out a collective sigh, shook their fists at the heavens and groaned mightily at their loss. Mercifully, the mourning period was momentary with the sudden opening of County General
in the same sweet spot. This is not just your typical neighbourhood haunt; it is very serious indeed about its food offerings. No surprise there. County General is the brainchild of Splendido co-owners Carlo Catallo and chef Victor Barry, who along with partner/chef "Colonel" Garth Legree (also from Splendido), have re-invented the fine dining experience with the most basic of menu items. Each week CG goes through an entire Cumbrae's pig, using the whole beast, which might explain on this night why they are serving something as delightfully disgusting but delicious as pig face croquettes. Sure you can get burgers and sandwiches anywhere. But a genuine aim-to-please and sincerity in everything they do is something to savour. Call it an eclectic gastropub or a rockin' roadhouse, but call it freakin' great. Never has such fine food been such fun.
Fab Concepts Inc. may be responsible for a slew of relatively new bar/restos in town, but to date they have wowed more with their ability to execute fine design. Included in the their portfolio of stylin' environments are Liberty Village's Brazen Head, Against the Grain, next to Sugar Beach, and the Mill Street Brew Pub in the Distillery District. But their second instalment in Liberty Village, Bar Vespa
, is an all-around winner. In fact, waiters are so sweet and gooey you might want to forego dessert. For all its calculated "casual" appeal, few in this category make perfect only that much more perfect-er. No one is more surprised than I to find out that Bar Vespa is doing something so extraordinary. With its five-star service, neighbouring restaurants better start upping their game if it aims to compete in this vibrant village. For food, service, ambience Bar Vespa sets the bar pretty high. Oh yeah, and free pop refills, too. Now thatsa value!
Two days after opening, the buzz about Grand Electric
is already out, with line-ups well outside the door. If you aren't there before 7 you may as well go home and watch Jeopardy with your Lean Cuisine. Dishes come out fast and furious, fresh and flawless. It's totally mind-blowing how such basic food items can be composed with such intricate detail. Grand Electric will have you stomping your feet and pounding the table with excitement, oohing and ahhing with every bite. Perhaps I exaggerate a tad, but not much. Perfectly simple and simply perfect food that might have you licking and/or eating the paper it comes served on. Expect delicate, thoughtful quality not often seen in usually robust Mexican cuisine. Few restaurants get so many things so right from the get-go. It is indeed a rare and beautiful thing to behold. But Grand Electric is evidence that with the right mix of passion, and a well-thought-out idea, showcased in a friendly unpretentious atmosphere, that the first time's definitely a charm.