Joanne Kates on Toronto's best new restaurants of 2016 — number 10 to 6
Image: Yvonne Tsui
Joanne Kates on 10 delicious joints that will change the way you dine.
When the owners of Pukka, the modern Indian resto on St. Clair West, opened Concession Road in 2015, I worried. When I ate there I was sure. It was so unfortunate, and yet so obviously well-intentioned — that I didn’t even review the place. It felt like shooting goldfish in a barrel.
Imagine my joy when they recently re-made the space as Ji, an Indian gastropub. Do what you know. And Ji is a very clever combo of pub and restaurant, thanks to being divided into two quite separate rooms. The west room is pure pub, with casual decor, wooden chairs and major TV action. Great for thirtysomething grazers. For those of us who think screens belong neither in the bedroom nor the dining room, the east room is an oasis of calm, genteel banquettes, art rather than TVs on the walls and a splendid collection of varied dishware to showcase the food.
It’s casual Indian but not lazy. We love the sweet potato chaat jazzed with yogurt, the sour of tamarind and the sweet of chutney. Ditto roasted beet salad with fresh creamy house-made paneer, puckery goji berries, pink grapefruit and honey-scented vinaigrette. And the hakka shrimp, which are a classic of deep, strong sweet ’n’ sour. They also do a credible daily fish in delicate coconut curry.
Not so sure about the “naanchos” or the brisket poutine, the latter being masala-spiced fries under pulled beef curry. This might be taking fusion where it shouldn’t go. Otherwise, Ji is a clever mashup of east and west. 760 St. Clair Ave. W., 416-792-5550
9. Maple Leaf Tavern
In 2016 we lost the Saint on Ossington, which was sad. But before the resto closed, it had already lost its wonderful chef, Jesse Vallins. He soon showed up at the splendidly renovated Maple Leaf Tavern, doing some of what he always did best on Ossington. The Maple Leaf has left behind its rough, tough history and morphed into a genteel retro space with plush banquettes, a spacious dining room and gorgeous ceramic tile accenting the dark wood.
Chef Vallins’ lifelong love affair with sausage-making is very much in evidence here — daily sausage spreads with flavoured mustards come from his fertile imagination. My faves are soft beef salami and his smoked duck sausage, which is kissin’ cousin to pâté.
At the Saint he showed more loving to meat than fish. Here he’s broadened his reach, doing crispy trout with Savoy slaw and potato cake. He makes sweet love to big chunks of raw salmon and salmon eggs, setting off its fatty sweetness against sharp terrine of horseradish and yellow beet with pickled onions and red beets.
But if I had one dish to choose at Maple Leaf, it would be the cheeseburger: made from chopped strip loin, it’s given a crunchy char and topped with what the menu calls house-made cheese. To me it’s sharp cheddar mousse. Add chef’s creamed Brussels sprouts: the sprouts are bright green and al dente, but it’s the sauce that talks: light rich cream with toasted garlic chips, almonds and soft garlic cloves. I am in love. 955 Gerrard St. E., 416-465-0955
8. Adamson Barbecue
How is it that the hottest new restaurant of 2016 closes at 2 p.m. or when they run out of meat, whichever happens first? And is located in a barren industrial park in Leaside? And unless you get there at 11 a.m., when they open, you could be standing in line for 45 minutes to an hour. Outside.
It may be winter outside Adamson Barbecue, but inside it’s Texas heat all the way. Their BBQ style is very particular: not sweet or at all goopy like some. No sauce. It’s all about the meat: brisket, spare ribs, turkey breast, pulled pork and sausages, each very fine.
This ain’t yer Bubby’s brisket. Not the sweet saucy kind, but the Texas BBQ version: Thick slices, super tender, slightly and delectably fatty, with a black char on the outside, peppery spiced and almost crunchy.
The ribs are long and soft, a peppery garlic chili-inflected char on the outside, pink and moist inside. Turkey breast: Thanksgiving. Christmas. Take it or leave it. More leave it. But this slightly smoked turkey knocks the cover off the ball — juicy, tender, sliced thick, with similar char spicing to the rubs, plus a little smoke. Best turkey ever. Same for the pulled pork, which elsewhere, to my palate, is often too sweet.
This version is barely sweet, super tender (almost flaky) — attractively complex. They stuff dots of mild cheddar in the slightly spicy sausages, for an entertaining melt.
The fixin’s are not where their heart is, so expect banal potato salad, beans and coleslaw. Great crunchy pickles.
Take it all home or eat in their pleasant dining area. Bundle up. You’ll be standing in line. 176 Wicksteed Ave., 647-559-2080
7. Bar Begonia
The King of Dupont, Mr. Anthony Rose, did it again in 2016. He picks a fairly simple genre, creates the look, feel and menu, installs a chef and waitstaff who are up to that specific challenge, and lets them run with it. BBQ, deli, diner and now straightforward French bistro, in the form of Bar Begonia.
The place is mobbed seven days a week. No res of course.
It’s small and cramped, with marble bistro tables and a lot of action at the bar. But it’s the food that brings me back. What could be more French than gougeres, cute warm pastry puffs spiked with Gruyère cheese?
The mains are few but very, deliciously, French bistro classics. A fish, a beef and duck confit. Chef’s duck confit is crisp on the outside, unctuous on the inside, perfectly partnered with roasted Jerusalem artichoke and Swiss chard. Chef does ultra-tender beef bourgignon, moist, infused with red wine, rich from veal stock. Adding coarse-chopped pesto on top brings the beef close to culinary divinity. Chef’s bouillabaisse with crisp-fried whitefish is great broth and makes fine use of a normally blah fish. 252 Dupont St., 647-352-3337
The big message of 2016 was that we, the foodies of Toronto, have committed to … nothing! Of any city where I eat (and I eat around!) we are the most eclectic of eaters. Our appetite is for different and diverse. And change. The new normal in Toronto dining is flux.
Which explains Ufficio.
Who would have imagined in the age of BBQ that pescetarian Italiana in downtown west hipster-ville would take us by storm? As one would expect, they have an uber-cool cocktail list and some sexy sea crudo. Moist oil-cured tuna plays nice with salsa verde, Jerusalem artichoke chips, pickled honey mushrooms and basil seedlings, and house-made rosemary and garlic focaccia is an irresistible carb.
Impeccably fresh swordfish is sliced thin and dressed in olive oil with chili, pine nuts, mint and rosemary. I never had pesce spada (swordfish) this fine in Sicily.
Aficionados of butterfat will swoon over tortelli filled with leeks in lobster-butter sauce studded with lobster meat. As for the octopus, it’s everywhere, but novel here thanks to risotto nero and crispy falvo nero, another item borrowed from Sicily and improved here. Really!
The chef came from Bar Buca (you can taste this lineage) and the room is stylish. They take reservations and the service is gracious. Unlike many of its fellows in downtown west, Ufficio has a proper vestibule to interrupt Arctic winds. Hurrah! 1214 Dundas St. W., 416-535-8888
Who took the top spots? Check ou the other half of the list.