A Valentine’s Day table at George is highly desirable
Dinner is a staple of date night, and Toronto is full of impressive restaurants. But it can be daunting, making sure you choose a cozy, candlelit spot and not a place that, while excellent, may be an overly boisterous environ. Our picks for a meeting of the hearts combine palate-pleasing plates with a congenial ambience and discreet service.
CHEF DAVE MOTTERSHALL’S CROWD-FUNDED RESTAURANT IS AN ECLECTIC ADDITION TO QUEEN WEST’S DINING SCENE
photos: courtesy of Loka
One could argue that Loka represents the something close to the Platonic ideal of a modern restaurant. Chef and owner Dave Mottershall, who made his name at Charlottetown, P.E.I’s hyper-local bistro Terre Rouge, prides himself on running a zero-waste kitchen, buying whole animals and cooking nose-to-tail cuts with seasonally appropriate accompaniments. He’s also savvy about the Internet’s role in the contemporary dining industry: as @chef_rouge he’s garnered more than 40,000 Instagram followers; he also famously leveraged $40,000 in Kickstarter crowdfunding to help open his new Queen West space. Understated and casual, the smallish dining room now fills with a cross-section of Toronto foodies seeking easy-eating yet highly inventive dishes from Mottershall’s daily menu. Maple pork belly with creamed leeks was a recent highlight, while other features have included smoked bone marrow, lamb liver, pig’s head, duck breast and chicken hearts. There’s also a curing chamber with an oft-changing salumi selection, plus a few snacks for those of us seeking a quick after-work or late-night bite. —Craig Moy
• Loka, 620 Queen St. W., 416-995-9639; Facebook page
• Map and reviews
VISIT ANY ONE OF THESE UNIQUE TORONTO CAFÉS FOR HIGH-QUALITY COFFEE AND DECADENT BAKED GOODS—PLUS BONUSES LIKE AMAZING AMBIENCE, SUPERIOR SERVICE, GREAT VIEWS AND EVEN BOARD GAMES!
Boxcar Social makes its coffees and espresso-based beverages with a often-changing selection of beans from world-renowned roasters (photo: Boxcar Social)
Is a proliferation of cafés any indication of a city’s success? It’s not hard to argue in favour of the idea. Those who pass time at coffee shops necessarily have the leisure to do so. Leisure implies financial comfort, freedom—at least temporary—from work. Others, of course, use cafés as de facto workspaces, with caffeine helping fuel their creative contributions to the economy. And then there are the café owners themselves, who must be sufficiently confident in a city’s commercial vitality to have opened their businesses in the first place.
Ever dynamic, downtown Toronto hosts innumerable independent coffee-sipping spots. Many of the most popular, like Dark Horse, Sam James, Crema and Jimmy’s, are successful enough to support multiple locations across the city. There are far more excellent cafés than can reasonably be counted here, so let’s just say we hold the 13 places below in high regard—not only for their beverages, but for their delicious snacks, congenial ambience and other intangibles, too.
THE COMMODORE BRINGS SEAFOOD AND NAUTICAL STYLE TO THE WEST END
The Commodore’s subtly nautical dining room (photo: Joel Gale)
The eastern portion of Parkdale (or, if you prefer, farther-west Queen West) continues to be a focal point for interesting, low-key eating experiences: hipster taco hub Grand Electric still draws crowds, while Chantecler and recently christened Miss Thing’s have cachet, too. The Commodore is one of the newest additions to this worthy group and boasts many of its hallmarks, including a designer—but not too designer—dining room, highly curated cocktail and craft beer program, and an overall intimate vibe. A menu highlighting smaller, shareable portions is also de rigeur for the region; in this case it champions unique seafood-forward dishes like swordfish crudo with sea asparagus and crispy chicken skin, brown butter–sauced shrimp, and squid ink and calamari ragu risotto. Without going overboard, the restaurant accentuates its naval nomenclature and ocean-going offerings with an interior reminiscent of a ship’s hull, and an above-the-bar assemblage of lights that could pass for the suckers on a squid’s tentacles. –Craig Moy
• The Commodore, 1265 Queen St. W., 416-537-1265; commodorebar.ca
• Map and reviews
THESE DISTINCTIVE HEATED PATIOS MAKE OUTDOOR DINING HIGHLY DESIRABLE DURING WINTER IN TORONTO
The Drake Hotel’s heated Sky Yard patio has been transformed into a cozy, contemporary legion hall for winter (photo: the Drake Hotel)
Whether or not you accept the science behind climate change, there’s no denying that Toronto experienced an unseasonably warm end to 2015, with temperatures reaching the low teens all the way up to Christmas. But now it seems winter’s chill (a modest version of it, at least) has indeed taken hold, ensuring that on most days it’s preferable to be indoors rather than out. Of course, even on the coldest of days there are those of us who yearn for a bit of fresh air and a view of the (slate grey) sky. A handful of Toronto restaurants are set up to oblige our “outdoors, indoors” desires with their popular heated patios.
SAVOUR THE CASUAL ITALIAN FARE—AND CLOSE QUARTERS—AT INTIMATE NEW BUGIGATTOLO KITCHEN
photos: Tonya Papanikolov
Liberty Village continues to grow, adding new businesses and condo units as quickly as anywhere else in the city. With Bugigattolo Kitchen, the neighbourhood has also gained a few more seats for its hungry denizens—18 seats, to be precise (plus 25 more on a soon-to-be-winterized patio). Of course that’s hardly a replacement-level figure, but the refurbished industrial boîte’s cozy confines tend to foster a conviviality that’s hard to find at some of the area’s larger dining rooms. Here, you’re never more than a few feet from chef Quin Josey, who prepares Southern Italian bites behind the counter of a small open kitchen. Drop in with a few friends for a light lunch of butternut squash soup and prosciutto pizza (or heartier options like house-made lasagna), or pop by on your own and strike up a mid-afternoon conversation with someone new—over an expertly pulled espresso, naturally. —Craig Moy
• Bugigattolo Kitchen, 54 Fraser Ave., 416-583-3895; bugigattolokitchen.com
• Map and reviews
SAVOUR GOURMET RENDITIONS OF RECENTLY IN VOGUE ROTISSERIE CHICKEN AT THIS TRIO OF TORONTO RESTAURANTS
Rotisserie chicken at Café Boulud
For a long time in Toronto, preferred preparations of poultry have tended toward the liberally spiced and lovingly fried. Lately, however, the classic rotisserie chicken has begun to make a comeback.
1 Chef David Adjey was arguably first among his peers to crow anew about birds—his The Chickery opened in 2012 and will soon spawn a number of franchises. 130 Spadina Ave., 647-347-2222; thechickery.com
2 Smaller in scale but similarly fast-casual is Flock, which offers chicken in whole, half or leg-or-breast portions, or pulled on a loaded sandwich. (To accompany your chicken, Chef Cory Vitiello’s spot also serves a quartet of fresh, inventive salads.) 330 Adelaide St. W., 647-483-5625; eatflock.ca
3 Le poulet is also elevated at Café Boulud, where imported rotisseries cook free-range Chantecler hens. Four Seasons Hotel, 60 Yorkville Ave., 416-964-0411; cafeboulud.com
MODERN PAN-ASIAN FLAVOURS ABOUND AT GLOBETROTTING RICKSHAW BAR
Rickshaw Bar (photo: Craig Moy)
Frankly, we’re surprised Toronto hasn’t been home to a Rickshaw Bar until now. The name is evocative of both travel and the bustle of urban streets—a perfect combination for this cosmopolitan city, whose residents are forever seeking authentic fare from abroad. Chef-owner Noureen Feerasta’s slim Queen West space delivers this in spades. Casual, and a little rough around the edges, the restaurant traffics in refined, small-plate versions of dishes from across South and Southeast Asia. Paratha flatbread tacos, for example, enfold vegetable fritters and cabbage slaw for an Indian-influenced snack, and braised beef khao shay adds Thai fare to the mix. The chef’s Ismaili beef curry—made from scratch with more than two-dozen ingredients—is another contemporary offering that brings more than a little tradition to the table: it’s based on a recipe by chef Feerasta’s great grandmother. —Craig Moy
• Rickshaw Bar, 685 Queen St. W., 647-352-1227; rickshawbar.com
• Map and reviews
STYLISH BARSA TABERNA HAS UPDATED ITS MENU TO HIGHLIGHT A BROADER SWATH OF SPANISH FLAVOURS
photos: Barsa Taberna
When it opened on Market Street in the summer of 2014, Barsa Taberna drew favour for its intimate ambience, grotto-chic design, flavourful sangrias and cosmopolitan menu of pintxos and tapas-style offerings. On the heels of its first anniversary, however, the time appeared ripe for the restaurant to undergo and evolutionary leap. And so owner Aras Azadian brought on Chris McDonald to refresh Barsa’s menu. Formerly chef and owner of Cava, long credited as one of Toronto’s top Spanish restaurants, McDonald’s consulting stint has resulted in an expanded selection of dishes—small plates, still, but also larger mains—that balance traditional and contemporary techniques while drawing inspiration from the swath of Spain’s varied culinary regions. Executed by chef Guillermo Herbertson and his team, the updated options include the likes of scallops with cuttlefish stew and chorizo, a kale salad with quince paste, beets and marcona almonds, and a rustic paella “del campo” with rabbit, snails and leeks. —Craig Moy
• Barsa Taberna, 26 Market St., 647-341-3642; barsataberna.com
• Map and reviews
WITH PARCAE, THE TEMPLAR HOTEL REBOOTS ITS FOOD AND DRINK PROGRAM
Parcae represents a new food-and-drink direction for the Templar Hotel
The Templar Hotel has always been a little under the radar—the kind of place that’s seemingly only for those who are “in the know.” Its former restaurant, Monk Kitchen, a tasting menu–only spot that was as expensive as it was exclusive, signified this too-cool attitude. The launch of a new resto-lounge, however, indicates the venue’s looking to raise its profile. Secreted behind the boutique hotel’s inconspicuous front desk, Parcae welcomes guests with a bar that highlights indulgent takes on classic cocktails. A flight of stairs leads to the subterranean dining room, a minimalist-chic space with seating for 50 patrons to sample the nose-to-tail offerings of chefs Danny Hassell and Joseph Awad. Formerly of Buca and Montreal’s Au Pied du Cochon respectively (Hassell also spent time at the latter), the chefs serve a slate of adventurous, Italian-leaning dishes: deep-fried lamb brains and horse carpaccio make for conversation-starting appetizers, while similarly assertive mains include octopus with bone marrow, a tomahawk pork chop and whole grilled branzino. —Craig Moy
• Templar Hotel, 348 Adelaide St. W., 416-479-0847; parcae.ca
• Map and reviews
LOOK BEYOND THE BIG BRANDS ON BLOOR STREET AND YOU’LL DISCOVER YORKVILLE’S ECLECTIC MIX OF LOCALLY OWNED UPPER-TIER BOUTIQUES, GALLERIES AND RESTAURANTS
Axe and Hatchet Grooming Club
1 Throw a stone in Yorkville and you’ll hit a highly credentialed salon; the pickings are slimmer for men in need of a new ‘do. Fortunately there is Axe & Hatchet, an unpretentious “grooming club” for perfectly executed old-school haircuts and shaves. 101 Yorkville Ave., 416-901-3634; axeandhatchet.com
2 Part of an elite group of spas highlighting treatments and products by Swiss brand Valmont, Spa at the Hazelton is one of Toronto’s most intimate retreats for facials, massages and more. 118 Yorkville Ave., 416-963-6307; thehazeltonhotel.com/spa
3 Esteemed fashion plates George and Lisa Corbo curate trendy ready-to-wear attire for both sexes at George C, one of the couple’s three unique Yorkville boutiques. 21 Hazelton Ave., 416-962-1991; georgec.ca
FRANK’S NEW EXECUTIVE CHEF, RENÉE BELLEFEUILLE TALKS ABOUT HEADING UP THE KITCHEN AT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO’S RESTAURANT
FRANK executive chef Renée Bellefeuille
The Art Gallery of Ontario has been on quite a roll of late. Over the past few years it’s hosted celebrated exhibitions on everyone from Jean-Michel Basquiat to David Bowie, from Frida Kahlo to Ai Weiwei to J.M.W. Turner. The art-star shows have been so notable that it’s become easy to overlook some of the institutions (many) other elements—its multifaceted permanent collection, of course, but also things like its well-regarded educational programming, designer gallery shop, and its locally focused yet globally inspired restaurant, FRANK. The latter has been undergoing a bit of a revamp. Special-event dinners have become more frequent, a snacks-and-cocktails menu was recently launched, and a new executive chef, Renée Bellefeuille, has taken the reigns in the kitchen. Below, chef Bellefeuille reveals her culinary philosophy and hopes for FRANK going forward.