Angus McRitchie
In Shangri-La’s 90 seat Lobby Lounge a travertine bench fronts a textured fabric wall uplit from below.
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Creating A Scene

Amy Rosen - November 2012

This story took the top prize in the Canadian Tourism Commission and Canada Media Marketplace's Northern Lights Awards for Excellence in Travel Journalism for 2012 in the culinary print category.

Call Toronto the true north: strong and rich, the financial muscle priming a healthy Canadian economy that’s also fueling a breakneck boom in locally focused restaurants and luxury hotels. Amy Rosen looks around her hometown.

Toronto’s restaurant culture can be likened to before and after photos: once its dining landscape had few notable features; now, like the proverbial girl next door (to the United States), the city has grown into its looks. Within a year or two of the global financial crash in 2008, the world was looking toward Canada and, more specifically, its economic engine, Toronto, and wondering how they were able to sidestep the worst of the meltdown so adroitly. With strong jobs numbers, housing sales, and a dollar that just won’t quit, Canadians are no longer the polite neighbors to the north who have a predilection for saying “sorry” with a funny accent. Armed with cash and a quiet confidence, Canada’s culinary heritage has taken flight. The proof can be found in Toronto. Young chefs have been leaving their posts at old-school formal establishments and going off with hammer in hand and nail between teeth to hang rustic open shelving on exposed brick walls in long narrow rooms in the neighborhoods dotting the city’s downtown core. After a few weeks, when they’re all done renovating, they paint an unassuming sign on their glass frontage and welcome the culinarily awakened masses to the latest greatest restaurant in Toronto.

And while many of these spots look like they cost $600 to build, one thing is certain about Toronto’s new restaurants: a humble decor often translates into a kitchen bursting with heart. That’s the case with Edulis, a restaurant which, more than any other, exemplifies what dining in Toronto tastes like today. Co-owner Toby Nemeth, who was chef de cuisine at Jamie Kennedy’s Wine Bar, back when it was great (the restaurant has since closed), is managing Edulis, and comes to the table with Le Creuset pots of this and plates of that, along with one-liner stories—the idea or reason behind each course. All are based on her and husband/chef/co-owner Michael Caballo’s years-long travels and are actually interesting rather than eye-rolling. An à la carte menu is available, but it’s advised to go whole hog—which is also available in the form of a preordered whole roasted milk-fed piglet for the table—and settle in for the carte blanche menu, which features Canadian ingredients but the flavors of the world. It starts with welcoming slices of homemade red fife bread (red fife is an indigenous variety of wheat that’s recently been brought back from the brink), then moves on to lightly smoked olive oil–poached herring that tastes as fresh as a boat ride through the Norwegian fjords. There are meaty porcini mushrooms roasted with even meatier nublets of foie gras served upon brioche toasts, and then octopus cooked a la plancha with toasted fideo noodles, house-made chorizo, and wilted local greens. Desserts, like a rum-drenched baba, are spoonable and homey, and it’s for these reasons and more that Edulis is an important restaurant opening in Toronto this year. But it’s not the only one.

Ursa, a modern locavore experience, offers a room so slick and sexy that you can trick your boyfriend into settling in for a tasty whisky sour shaken with Alberta Springs 10 year old rye (as perfectly balanced as Nik Wallenda’s successful crossing of Niagara Falls), before he figures out that chef Jacob Sharkey-Pearce’s menu is rife with kale, lentils, and house-made tofu. That said, the boyfriend would be a fool to leave. A few generous slices of raw Kona Kampachi fanned across a tangle of carrot/daikon slaw get hit with sundry sea plants, including sake-marinated dulce. An asparagus/quinoa salad is the base for all manner of foraged mushrooms—some smoked, some pickled—a black garlic vinaigrette, beets, and a perfectly coddled egg, which adds a whiff of indulgence to a modernized Moosewood-esque dish.

Once you’ve spent a bit of time eating in Toronto, you’ll note some interesting cultural anomalies, including the fact that the city has more of a British backbone than an American twang. There’s a reason for that. Back in 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain signed the Charter, after which Canadians stopped singing God Save the Queen after O Canada each morning. But the long-term effects of the monarchy on the city cannot be understated. Milky sweet tea in the morning and righteous lashings of malt vinegar on a good fish and chips feed are commonplace. It’s not that Torontonians are overly proud members of the Commonwealth. It’s just that for 70 years the city—and most of Anglophile Canada as well—had no food culture to call its own.

Enter Ben Heaton. Taking cues from his birth country and his adoptive home, the chef’s The Grove is a Brit-Can mash-up that tastes like watching a Coronation Street marathon while canoeing in Algonquin Park. All airy glass frontage and blond wood decor, his food pairs well with the room’s light aesthetic. For starters, there are “On Toast” bites such as mushrooms with snails and a duck egg, which along with an elderflower-infused cocktail, open the palate and the mind for more, please. Say, a smooth sweet summer corn soup poured around a mound of potted shrimp—wee seasoned Gulf of Maine shrimp cooked under a veil of butter. A main of mackerel, bone marrow, and beets somehow makes all the sense in the world, as does a proper British pud’ of tart and crunchy lemon curd with raspberry, honeycomb, and meringue.

Sensing a theme? Well-traveled chefs with mad skills, creativity, and a proclivity for the local seek to blow minds. Happily, it’s now an almost daily occurrence. For instance: La Carnita, Grand Electric, and Hawker Bar. The first two feature cheffy flavor-bomb tacos, seviches, and paletas (Latin American fresh fruit ice pops), the latter, Singaporean street food, like perfectly fried oozing son-in-law eggs (deep-fried hard-boiled eggs topped and a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce and fried shallots) and the best chicken wings in the city.

While their influences may be far-flung, many of these young chefs credit a triumvirate of now 50-plus year olds for initially waking up old Toronto to the tastes of a bold new world. There’s Susur Lee (chef/owner of Lee and the just-launched Bent), about whom one co-contestant on the TV show Top Chef Masters rightly described as “a culinary astronaut.” Lee also has started working with the Toronto District School Board to spice up their cafeterias, à la Jamie Oliver. Then there’s Jamie Kennedy (Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner Café and Gilead), who recognized in the early 1980s that using the best Canadian ingredients and marrying them with French technique was a powerful way to turn Toronto on to good food. As did Michael Stadtländer, widely acknowledged as the godfather of modern Canadian cuisine. (Kennedy and Stadtländer were hired as co-chefs at Scaramouche restaurant in 1980; it remains one of the city’s greatest.) Stadtländer moved two hours to the Ontario countryside in the mid-1990s to establish the self-sufficient, field-to-table Eigensinn Farm on 100 acres in Singhampton. Three years ago, he launched the 28 seat, solar-powered Haisai down the road, where he, with the help of dozens of young cooks who give their right arm for the chance to stage with him, builds, grows, picks, raises, butchers, smokes, and serves his own everything.

Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that Toronto was once a wannabe city. There was a time when Torontonians actually called fancy events “galas” and its better restaurants “world-class.” And just two decades ago, the loonie—the Canadian one dollar coin—was worth a measly 69 cents American. Now the city is literally booming, with high-rises under construction nearly doubling in a year to 189, more than any other North American city, and the town flush with a 2010 GDP of $124.6 billion CAD that’s expected to rise to $141.3 billion CAD in 2015. Public and private projects are metamorphosing the civic landscape. And now Toronto is in the midst of a luxury hotel boom, with a handful of major brands launching within the past two years alone, many building from the ground up. First there was the Thompson (home to Scott Conant’s New York City import Scarpetta). Next, an elegant Ritz-Carlton, then a flashy Trump, and, just in time for September’s Toronto International Film Festival, a gleaming Shangri-La and the new flagship Four Seasons Toronto.

While restaurants like Café Boulud and dBar landed in the Four Seasons, and David Chang connected with the Shangri-La (he claims he’s not actually attached to it, though you can literally access his restaurants through the hotel’s lobby door), a mystery man named Jean Paul Lourdes quietly slipped into town to helm the Shangri-La’s signature restaurant, Bosk. And just as quietly he slipped out, leaving the restaurant a month after its opening to return to Asia, from whence he came. For now, Bosk will carry on with Lourdes’ menus until his replacement is anointed.

This fall’s openings of Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud and dBar, where the bar menu features the famous db burger—though it has stiff competition from Toronto’s raging burger war, especially from The Burger’s Priest, Bestellen, and The Harbord Room—prompted the New York City chef to reflect on why he had landed in Toronto in the first place. “For all the years that I have had Daniel, I have a huge amount of respect for the Canadian chefs,” says Boulud. His friendships with these chefs have led to restaurants in Vancouver (now closed), Maison Boulud in Montreal’s newly refurbished Ritz-Carlton, and now Toronto. “The Four Seasons has always been my benchmark in hospitality for excellence globally. And it all started here.” Vancouver native Tyler Shedden is Café Boulud’s executive chef; it should be noted, too, that Matt Blondin, a respected Toronto chef, recently left the up-market Lowcountry Acadia to become executive sous chef at Daisho, one of four Momofukus Chang has here: the three-story project includes the ground floor Noodle Bar; Nikai, a bar space on the second floor; and both Daishos’ large format dining and Shoto’s tasting menus, on the third floor.

All this fervor is changing the character of a city that has long looked overseas and to the south for culinary guidance. Now, Toronto is at last doing its own thing.

Fine-Tuning Volume

When it was erected in the mid-1970s, the CN Tower redefined the Toronto skyline and instantly became the symbol of a provincial town’s big city aspirations. Today, it’s routinely ranked as one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, meaning it’s practically the least-likely spot you’d imagine would invest in a field-to-tower ethos.

“When I arrived here 18 years ago, quite frankly the CN Tower didn’t have the best reputation for food,” says Peter George, the Tower’s executive chef who presides over its 360 The Restaurant, 1,815 feet in the air, and other on-site venues. “The joke was that the food was cooked at the bottom and delivered to the top.” George set out to change that perception. “We made a commitment to start teaching and training all of our employees to the highest degree.”

Fast-forward 18 years and most of those full-timers are still with him. “Since we have a highly skilled team we’re able to make all of our own soups, sauces, vegetables, and desserts; we do it all in-house.” They also butcher their meats and fish at high volumes each week—500 hand-tied half-pound beef tenderloins, 150 hand-tied 12-ounce beef tenderloins, 300 sides of salmon, 120 Ontario lamb racks frenched, 1,400 pounds of hand-peeled potatoes for mashed alone, and 800 pounds of asparagus in season.

This also leads to little waste. “We don’t even throw away apple peels,” says George. Instead, the kitchen dries and pulverizes them with seasonings, using the flavorful mix on chicken and fish.

“I don’t have a purchasing agent,” he adds. “I order everything myself every day, so we treat this rather monstrous operation as if it were a 40 seat restaurant on Queen Street.” He eschews large food delivery services, instead opting for smaller farm-based providers. As part of a greening project, there’s even an extensive organic herb and edible flower garden on the deck level.

Then there’s the newly remodeled Le Café on the ground floor, which George says they did to meet customer demand for a hamburgers and poutine. “This allowed us to not only use local beef that we grind daily but local fruits and vegetables, too.”

The volume is staggering: 360 The Restaurant averages 1,200 daily covers; Horizons, 360’s casual side, 300; Le Café, 300; and over 500 events annually for up to 2,000 guests each. How do they do they service all of these? “We utilize a central production kitchen where fruits and vegetables are washed and portioned, stocks and base sauces are produced, and all fresh fish and meats are butchered and portioned,” explains the chef. “This allows for easy distribution of raw food product throughout the facility to be cooked in our various à la carte kitchens.” What’s more, all of the kitchen equipment is modular and on wheels, designed so that, in the event of a breakdown, it can be removed and replaced with a backup piece.

The Garland grills and custom-made flattop ranges are outfitted with storage areas where the ovens would normally be. The Hoshizaki refrigerators and freezers and the Vollrath dual hob (two burners, front and back) induction units are electric—they have to be since there’s no gas permitted in the tower, which means replacing them is as simple as unplugging them from a socket. “Among the other pieces of equipment that make our lives easier are the Waring 3 3/4 horsepower variable speed food blenders,” George says. “These are just nuts. We do all our purees in them. They come out so baby-food smooth we don’t even have to strain them.

“I’ve always felt like a caretaker here,” says George of the iconic tower. “It’s the gateway to tourism in Canada, and when people come here, I want them to try the great products available across this country.” Canadian content providers such as Steve Johansen’s Dungeness crab from British Columbia or Mario Pingue’s Niagara prosciutto are on his speed-dial.

These days, a meal at 360 may include a lovely bottle of Prince Edward County Baco Noir sourced from the world’s highest wine “cellar,” chosen via the iPad wine list delivered to the table. Fresh seafood towers give way to AAA Alberta strip loins. By the time you’ve polished off a seasonal house-made dessert, the restaurant will complete two full rotations.

“The CN Tower is big, it’s bold, and it’s fast,” says George. “But at the same time, we treat it with a lot of respect.”