Toronto: A treat for the taste buds

by Heidi Small, aka The Wander Woman

After researching Toronto’s burgeoning restaurant scene, the city went straight to the top of my list. Toronto is ablaze with renowned chefs, and I wanted to navigate its culinary landscape with one-on-one interviews, peppered with those fortuitous finds that happen while traveling. There was no shortage of insatiable bites, sips, slurps and mouthfuls to be experienced. Food, after all, is the beating heart of Canada’s preeminent megalopolis. 

My first stop was the quaint-in-decor, lush-in-flavour Chabrol, where chef and co-owner Doug Penfold creates masterful dishes in a pocket-sized, behind-the-bar kitchen that could easily double as a ship’s galley. Everything from this French restaurant’s small, 10-person seating capacity to its tiny, bistro-sized chairs feels Parisian – the kind of place you imagine accidentally stumbling into on a winding, European side street. I slurped back oysters on the half shell with Mignonette and the requisite vodka on ice, followed by the velvety, melt-in-your-mouth specialty: a house terrine with cornichons and mustard. 

After the lamb “Navarin Printanier” with baby carrots, turnip, herbes de provence, and mint, I felt woozy – and not from the vodka. The meat was succulent, and every ingredient played masterfully off the next. Urged by my server to save room for Chabrol’s signature dessert, I polished off a homemade apple tarte with Calvados Sabayon with vanilla ice cream – a flaky, hot/cold storm cloud of deliciousness. 

I awoke the next morning with a pin-pointed destination in mind. Co-owner Dara Gallinger opened Brodflour with a wildly innovative yet old school approach to the creation of baked goods: a nearly room-sized, imported, European stone flour mill, nestled behind glass in an explosion-proof room. In the centre of her Liberty Village shop, much in the way our ancestors have done for ages, Dara and her devoted team mill organic, heritage grains without extracting or refining any of the nutrients that offer the richness, bite and chew of true, hearty bread.

Each open-face ‘tartine’ sandwich I sampled – all constructed on Dara’s magnificent bread – was smothered with something more scrumptious than the next: heavenly almond butter; homemade jam, lox and cream cheese, fresh-mashed avocado with chili flakes and toasted sesame seeds. The welcoming staff had me trying my first ever oat milk latte, which I sipped while sunning myself on their Swedish-inspired, wood-slatted benches. Heaven-sent.

Chef John Horne was recently featured in a feature-length food documentary called Before the Plate, which shines a light on the farmers and producers deserving of recognition for the 10 ingredients of a single meal’s dish. When not appearing in gorgeously shot docs, John works alongside famed Montreal-born, Toronto mainstay chef and restaurant creator, Anthony Walsh. Just shy of a week before I pounced through the door, these two powerhouses opened the brand new Maison Selby at Sherbourne near Bloor. Steeped in history, this ornate, lovingly restored mansion was once home to none other than Ernest Hemingway. 

Despite having been around the proverbial restaurant block countless times with huge successes – including Canoe, which earned four stars in Toronto Lifemagazine – Chef Walsh remains curious and passionate. Chef Horne, a purist for simple and unfussy ingredients, shared that food should speak for itself. And at Selby, they do. French classics dominate the menu, including ratatouille, boeuf Bourguignon, and escargot. (Don’t get me started on the speakeasy-like “secret” bar in the basement.) Selby feels like the kind of place you could tuck away in a quiet corner, eating and drinking day and night while penning a first novel.  

It was now 2 p.m. on Day 2 of my trip, and with a hankering for some Middle Eastern, European-Jewish-inspired deliciousness, I made a stop at Toronto’s beloved Fat Pasha, where I fortuitously ran into the brains behind the place himself, chef-owner Anthony Rose. Chef Rose immediately steered me to Schmaltz Appetizing, Fat Pasha’s sister establishment next door, where I sampled gorgeous bits of artisanal lox, gravlax and herring. Never having tasted lox without the requisite bagel and cream cheese, the acidic pop of lemon dill and the unexpected pastrami crunch elevated the experience tenfold.

Back at Fat Pasha, my kale-based fattoush salad was light and fresh, the za’atar pita chips lending a crisp surprise with each mouthful of fresh halloumi cheese. But the real show-stopper was the whole roast cauliflower dressed with tahini-skhug-pine nuts, halloumi and tantalizing pomegranate seeds.

Most humans at this point in the day would likely take an inventory of food consumed and issue themselves a hard stop. Not me! Excited to experience Toronto’s version of Montreal’s “5 à 7” – that grey zone where one can escape normal life and slip quietly into a bar – I struck gold at Midfield Wine Bar & Tavern, in the heart of Little Portugal. Owner Giuseppe Anile met me with a strong bear hug and a rousing, dry glass of Metis Blanc from local producer Pearl Morissette that woke my taste buds again. The cozy corner spot was bustling with people sharing conversation and lush, seasonal plates, all prepared by chef Mark Redman. I was fortunate enough to taste a special of the night: the “hen of the woods” mushroom. Fleshy and bursting with flavour, I will forever have each mouthful of this dish etched into my memory. 

It was now 8 p.m., and, putting my appetite-tempering talents to the test, I wandered into Ufficio, located on Dundas West, a little east of Dovercourt. I was eager to meet owner Jenny Coburn, and critically acclaimed chef de cuisine, Ivana Raca, who’s known for her stints in many of chef Mark McEwan’s establishments, as well as the heavy Michelin star-power behind her. There was no shortage of fresh seafood and high-calibre Italian flavour spread across the table, from freshly shucked Maritime oysters to gnocchi made with Brodflour stone-milled flour. Each morsel of the grilled-to-perfection octopus danced across my tastebuds, while, around us, Ufficio pulsated with a real al fresco, Italian night feel.

I must impart to you, dear traveler: if you enjoy heavily flavourful, inventive and wistful dishes,
Dalio is a must. My stomach rumbled as I rounded the corner to this revered establishment, co-owned by executive chef Nick Liu and sommelier Anton Potvin, and known for its “new Asian cuisine” with Hakka Chinese influences. 

I asked chef Liu to treat the meal like a slow dance, allowing for each new taste to linger. He complied, starting with an ode to his favourite childhood pastime: scarfing down Big Macs. Liu’s replicate Asian version, called Big Mac Bao, will bring you back to the golden days of the golden arches, but with an upscale Chinese twist using seasonal and fresh ingredients. This was followed by a dish of fried watermelon with bean sprouts, basil leaves, pickled melon rind and pork that assaulted my senses with unexpected yet wildly satisfying flavours. Next came the Hakka Brown Wontons (pork and shrimp), then truffle-fried rice. Chili-glazed ribs should have had me happily satiated, but an impromptu visit to the kitchen led me to the true grande finale: a sizzling hot, Taiwan peppercorn lamb noodle dish that glistened and crackled under a hot oil garnish and exploded with spices.

I closed the place at the stroke of midnight, waltzing my way home with a love for Toronto that soared as loftily as my flight back home to Montreal.

Photo credits: Ezra Soiferman

Travel with me each month, as I seek out delectable culinary finds in cities all over the world. Whether traveling with friends, family or solo, a new city can be daunting. I hope to share my knowledge of must-eat-at restaurants, and indulge you in behind-the-scenes access to the chefs at the helm of the kitchens.