An Insider's Guide to Toronto
Montreal! Montreal! Montreal! For the last few years, whenever anyone talks about food in Canada, they invariably go on about the Quebec city and its now-infamous over-the-top dishes. I’m thinking specifically of the foie gras Double Down at Joe Beef, which is essentially a supersize bacon-and-cheese sandwich topped with chicken-skin mayonnaise and sandwiched between deep-fried foie gras cakes.
I know Montreal is terrific, and the next time I want to eat like an haute lumberjack, I’ll head up there. But now I’m entranced by Toronto.
I’ve always loved Kensington Market, the enclave of ethnic restaurants and meat, cheese and spice markets that stretches for blocks. Recently, I’ve heard about intriguing new places from young chefs that champion everything from Nova Scotia home cooking to Native American ingredients—the kind of cool, personal restaurants that I’m always thrilled to find. And then there are the big-deal chefs who are setting up shop in Toronto: Superstar Daniel Boulud opened sparkly Café Boulud in the brand new Four Seasons, and Dave Chang has launched a magnificent three-story Momofuku next to the Shangri-La Hotel. Chang had helped stoke my excitement about the city, telling me things that food-savvy locals discuss, like “cheese seasons”: “This is a good month to eat cheddar,” they’ll say. The more I heard about Toronto, the more it sounded like my idea of food paradise.
Market Tour with Dave Chang
I’m obsessed with food markets. Toronto’s got an exceptional one, the 200-odd-year-old St. Lawrence Market (stlawrencemarket.com). My tour guide: Dave Chang. The big, perennially unshaven Korean-American chef is looking for ingredients and inspiration for his new restaurants. We start our tour with the iconic peameal bacon sandwiches at Carousel Bakery, lining up next to a blown-up thank you note from Emeril Lagasse. Chang has never tried the hamlike bacon served on a squishy country roll before. “It’s pretty delicious,” he says. I copy Chang and slather Kozlik’s XXX Hot mustard all over mine. He grabs the bottle away from me, saying, “It’s ripping hot; you’re going to freak out.” He’s right.
We walk away from the sandwiches, past lanes of butcher shops and produce stands, toward the Sausage King booth. The young sausage maker, Reid Walton, runs out from behind the counter to shake Chang’s hand. We taste a selection of his exceptionally juicy sausages, like double-smoked kielbasa and the spicy hot Macedonian. Chang praises them up and down and determines that his staff has to taste them. “Why don’t places just serve plates of sausages?” he asks.
Chang is invariably associated with meat so I’m shocked how excited he is for our next visit, the Cheese Boutique (cheeseboutique.com). Located on the outskirts of Toronto, the place is an incredible maze of large rooms filled with teas, preserves, pastas, produce and a huge, well-refrigerated cheese cave. “It’s like a suburban Eataly,” observes Chang. Because he wants to do an unconventional cheese course, which might include Greek saganaki-style cheese set on fire, Chang spends half an hour sampling options. His favorites include Le Mont-Jacob, a hard, raw cow-milk cheese from Quebec (“It’s funky, but I want offensive” he says) and Fritz Kaiser’s log-style goat cheese, covered in gray mold. “This is awesome,” raves Chang. “It’s anarchy,” says the guy behind the counter. Just before we leave, a white-coated employee serves us espresso.
On our way back into the city, Chang and I stop at Hoof Raw Bar (theblackhoof.com), a new offshoot of Toronto’s well-known charcuterie spot The Black Hoof. At the raw bar, Jonathan Pong serves creative meat-styled fish dishes, like pastrami-cured halibut cheeks and chorizo scallops. Chang marvels at the no-frills range that Pong cooks on. “I couldn’t even use that stove in a vacation house,” he says.
Later, Chang gives me a tour of his new Momofuku empire (momofuku.com). Having 10,000 square feet to play with was one of the principal reasons he came to Toronto.
The vast ground floor is a 70-seat “ultimate Noodle Bar” with a lineup of his greatest hits, including his famous pork buns and pork-belly ramen. A sweeping, open staircase takes me up to a huge second floor bar called Nikai (Japanese for “second floor”), specializing in classic cocktails and Ontario beers. The third floor houses two restaurants. Shoto, an ambitious 22-counter-seat space similar to his Manhattan jewel box of a restaurant, Ko, is a tasting-menu-only spot with intricate dishes like oyster mushrooms with macadamia. Last is Daisho, which boasts 30-foot-high ceilings and windows that reach all the way down to the ground floor; it specializes in large family-style dishes like his slow-cooked pork shoulder (bo ssäm) and a $600 horseradish-crusted rib eye. For Chang, it’s a big decision whether to put lazy Susans on all the tables or just on one (“If it’s just one, that’s the money table,” he says).
Restaurant Hopping with Daniel Boulud
Chang is crashing after a day of eating sausage and cheese, so I leave to meet Daniel Boulud. The dapper chef, whose restaurant empire now stretches around the world, is renowned for his ability to stay up late and then make scrambled eggs with caviar for his fellow revelers. He’s giving me a nighttime tour of a few new Toronto restaurants. Chang perks up when he hears Boulud is in town, too.
When I find Boulud at Café Boulud in the Four Seasons (fourseasons.com), he has just gotten a text from Chang: “Bonjour Poppa, let’s hang out, love Dave.” “He’s a spoiled brat, calling me Poppa,” says Boulud, who used to be Chang’s boss at the Café Boulud in New York City.
Boulud is with Tyler Shedden, his chef de cuisine in Toronto, and they’re excited about all the Canadian ingredients they will be using, including fish and wine, and local stone for the restaurant’s floor. “I think it’s six million years old,” jokes Boulud. The menu combines elements from Boulud’s seminal Manhattan restaurants: his elegant flagship Daniel, the Mediterranean-styled Boulud Sud and, naturally, Café Boulud. “We’ll have a big Canadian focus,” says Boulud. He and Shedden are working on dishes like northern Ontario speckled trout with cauliflower and hazelnuts and local veal loin cheeks with carrot confit. “We won’t say, ‘Look at all the truffles and caviar and foie gras.’ But yes, we’ll have those, too.”
Boulud has spent time in Toronto and knows the food scene well. “For me, this is a city of many culinary facets. It’s got masters of the industry like Mark McEwan [of North 44] and Justin Cournoyer [of Actinolite], and beloved places like Nota Bene, but it’s also crackling with young talent,” he says. We’re en route to check out one of the new-talent spots, Ursa, a modern, vegetable-focused menu from the baby-faced chef Jacob Sharkey Pearce (ursa-restaurant.com). Ursa means bear in Latin; Bear Cub was Sharkey Pearce’s nickname growing up. “That’s so Canada,” Boulud says. Before opening his restaurant, Sharkey Pearce prepared “functional food” for athletes like ex–Toronto Raptors basketball star Chris Bosh. As unpromising as that sounds to me, his cooking is delicious, including a refreshing green-tomato soup embellished with tomato seeds, a slice of guanciale and apple sorbet. “C’est bonne,” says Boulud, picking up the bowl to finish the broth. We also taste something Sharkey Pearce says he’s never served anyone before: plum sorbet with nutraceuticals, an ingredient made from alfalfa sprouts that supposedly pumps up your energy by increasing the oxygen in your bloodstream. I leave Ursa feeling, if not more energized, at least less full.
Our next stop is the antithesis of the serene, wellness-vibed Ursa. At the year-old Grand Electric (grandelectricbar.com), there are no reservations; crowds hover outside the raucous spot for tacos and other inspired Mexican food from chef Colin Tooke, who staged at Chicago’s Big Star. In the middle of each table there’s a cardboard six-pack beer holder, stocked with forks, knives and napkins. Boulud, who acts like a host no matter where he is, sets our places. We’re in the middle of eating fried sweetbreads topped with chile-dusted popcorn when Chang joins the group. “Scrapple tacos, that’s genius,” he says, surveying the menu board. But they’re sold out. So we have squid tostadas with lime mayonnaise and enough jalapeños to make Boulud tear up. We get a round of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon shots to cool off.
Boulud and Chang reminisce about other meals they’ve eaten together. They agree that one of their best was at Elkano, a fish restaurant in Spain with a giant U-shaped grill. “It’s just the father cooking at the grill,” says Boulud. “You’ve never seen so many whole turbot in your life—and not a single vegetable.” Chang declares that he won’t be cooking at a grill when he’s 50. “I’ll go on the senior golf tour,” says Chang, who played competitively before burning out at 13. “Tiger Woods was a year older and he was already winning everything.” Boulud urges him not to leave cooking until they can open a place together. “It will be my most successful restaurant,” he laughs. It’s time to go. “Dave, hail a cab,” says Boulud. Chang, who’d planned on walking, gets a taxi and the two climb in together.
Dim Sum with Chang
The next day, Chang chooses dim sum for lunch. Toronto’s stellar Asian food has huge appeal for him, and in advance of the Momofuku openings, he’s been doing research everywhere, from hand-pulled noodle joints to tofu spots. Dim sum, Chang thinks, is a great source of inspiration, because you can find unexpected dishes that lend themselves to adaptation, at least if you’re thinking like Chang. He’s gotten a tip about a place called Dynasty in Yorkville (dynastyyorkville.com). We walk into the brightly lit space, which has tables covered with cream-colored polyester cloths. There’s a lazy Susan in the middle of every one. “Yay!” says Dave.
He begins marking up the dim sum menu. “I already know it’s gonna be awesome. I’m so freaking excited.” The place seems to specialize in steamed rice-noodle crêpes—there are six or seven of them on the menu. Chang chooses the ones stuffed with large shrimp and chopped chives. “It’s a brilliant maneuver putting the soy sauce on the side,” he says. But he’s not sure how he’d serve them. The barbecued pork in big steamed rolls that look like puffed-up sandwiches are more thought-provoking: “Add ranch dressing? Is it ranch dressing–worthy?” (The answer, ultimately, is no.)
Chang’s eureka moment comes with the high-rising, browned-sugar, buttered sponge cake that the waiter sets down next to the spareribs in black bean sauce. “Watch this,” says Chang, dipping some warm cake in the oily, salty black bean sauce. Then he starts brainstorming. He’s been trying to create an innovative bread course in Toronto. Could he serve some version of the cake—it’s a little like corn bread—and the oily sauce?
When Daisho opens a few weeks later, the menu features an item called “bread & drippings,” featuring loaves from a local bakery and the drippings from chicken and beef bones used to make the ramen broth. Customers tear off pieces from the loaf and go for the drippings. “Dunk at your own risk,” says Chang.
More Great Toronto Eating
While Chang and Boulud were busy working on their new restaurants, Ivy Knight, the editor of the amazing Toronto food blog Swallowfood.com, took me to some of her favorite new places.
Geoff Hopgood named his 10-month-old spot for his family’s Nova Scotia grocery store. The hot crab dip is based on his mother’s recipe. hopgoodsfoodliner.com.
Chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe is Aborigine; his grandmother’s buckskin dress hangs behind the bar. He specializes in dishes like bison tenderloin with hops. keriwacafe.ca.
Michael Caballo is expert at Mediterranean dishes featuring Canadian products, like lightly smoked and marinated herring fillets with potato salad. edulisrestaurant.com.
At this after-hours hangout in Kensington Market, co-owner Matthew LaRochelle helps make spectacular cocktails like the Juliet and Romeo, a mix of gin, mint and cucumber with a pinch of salt. 60 Kensington Ave.