Navigator: Toronto Gets Hot

Bon Appétit, October 2012

When I left Toronto for London two years ago, the city’s dining revolution had just begun. The Black Hoof, a trailblazing West End spot, was managing hours-long waiting lists, and Torontonians were adjusting to the fact that the city’s “It” restaurant used a crappy electric oven and played Arcade Fire at full blast. Chef Grant van Gameren, who was 27 when he co-founded the Hoof, credits that success to “being passionate, serving good food, and bangin’ it out till late.” This summer, I returned to a West End that has exploded with ambitious eateries and a new crop of bars perfect for killing time in until your table comes up. Headliners are getting in on the action, too: Daniel Boulud, David Chang, and Soho House are all opening outposts in the city this year. These days, as you dine out among the young gastronauts, it’s clear that Toronto has embraced an era of culinary adventure.

EAST MEETS WEST: Hopgoods Foodliner is a seafood-centric celebration of chef-owner Geoff Hopgood’s Nova Scotian roots. Located in family-friendly Roncesvalles, where espresso bars are replacing Polish shops, the restaurant serves thoughtful but playful plates, like hot crab dip with Triscuits, made with rock crab from Prince Edward Island. Must-have dessert: the crispy toffee, a kitschy-delicious bar of puffed rice, white chocolate, and caramel, with a spray of chocolate dust.

TACO TOWN: Grand Electric might look like hipster central, but you don’t need street cred to get a table – just patience. The year-old taqueria is the buzziest taco joint this side of Big Star. The influence of that Chicago landmark, where GE chef Colin Tooke spent time in the kitchen, is evident: This is the place for braised beef-cheek tacos, blaring ’90s hip-hop, and whiskey galore.

THE NEXT FRONTIER: Sorry, intrepid diner: Ortolan may be named for the legendary illegal French delicacy, but this 26-seater doesn’t serve the boozy baby birds. Chef-owners Damon Clements and Daniel Usher draw on their classic Continental training to craft a nightly menu that literally changes with the weather: Steamy summer nights might call for fluffy gnocchi (pictured above) and lamb belly-topped chickpea pancakes, while crisp autumn evenings are likely to yield something entirely different – and equally inspired.

THE CURE: It’s a testament to the evolution of Torontonian palates that one of the most lauded dishes at the mobbed Black Hoof is horse tartare (horsemeat is legal in Canada, if not exactly a menu staple). Mixed with spicy nduja and served with crisp fries and caper hollandaise, it’s a bewitching combination of crunchy, salty, fatty, and creamy. The charcuterie platter is a must, as is the beef tongue sandwich, served on sweet brioche and drizzled with tarragon mayonnaise.

NEW COUNTRY: Set in a converted doughnut shop, Campagnolo hides its humble origins with baroque chandeliers and a candleholder made of red swords. The name is Italian for “country bumpkin,” but the menu eschews trattoria simplicity for sophisticated plates like roasted bone marrow with braised oxtail and plum marmalade. Still, dishes like burrata served with roasted grapes and garlicky toast make a compelling case for the ways of the paesano.

THE BEER GARDEN: Bellwoods Brewery embraces Ossinton Avenue’s scruffy past, having converted an auto-body shop into a civilized neighborhood microbrewery, with plenty of draw. Brew seekers will find a menu complete with salty snacks that pair with what’s on tap – oysters, olives, salami – worn tables, and a convivial outdoor seating area. The focus is on seasonal, flavorful beers: Try the bracing, wine barrel-aged biere de garde, the crisp saison, or the hoppy, potent Witchshark Imperial IPA.

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