Skip to content

99 chefs can’t be wrong – via GridTO

May 12, 2012
tags: ,

We asked a whackload of Toronto chefs who they think is cooking the most exciting food in town. Ten names came up again and again, so we gathered their most innovative dishes and catered the ultimate dinner party. You probably shouldn’t try these meals at home, but you can order them off menus across the city. And you really, really should.

Jacob Sharkey Pearce

Niagara pork loin and apple cider–glazed belly, $24

Ursa, 924 Queen St. W., 416-536-8963

“We’re bridging the gap between something that’s good for you and a great dish that’s also presented beautifully,” says chef Jacob Sharkey Pearce, who opened the modern-Canadian restaurant Ursa with his brother, Lucas, in January. Queen West diners don’t have to fear being put in a food coma, but the last thing Pearce wants is to come off as a health guru—despite the fact that he’ll sneak psyllium fibre into his bread crisps on occasion. Rest assured, meat gets ample attention at Ursa, even if Pearce’s popular pork trio actually began as a dish starring sunchokes. Now the pork is brined in whey and the belly is given an apple-cider glaze for a light, honey flavour. Those sunchokes haven’t been entirely forgotten, though: They get a supporting role as a creamy, earthy purée that holds the dish’s flavours together.

The endorsement: “The food isn’t gimmicky at all. Jacob has the whole package, with seasonal ingredients and a real respect for food.”—John Sinopoli, chef and partner at Table 17 and Ascari Enoteca.

Aaron Joseph Bear Robe

Bison tongue pemmican, $15

Keriwa Café, 1690 Queen St. W., 416-533-2552

Having previously refined his craft at the high-end Harbord Street stalwart Splendido, Aaron Joseph Bear Robe opened Parkdale’s unique Keriwa Café last year, emphasizing local, sustainable ingredients shone through the prism of his fine-dining training and Aboriginal heritage. “I love honouring seasonal ingredients, but really I’m just interested in making delicious food,” he says. And though his menu often changes, there’s always a place for bison, a staple of the chef’s culture. To make his bison tongue pemmican, he brines the meat for four days until it has the consistency of pastrami; it’s then sliced thin and served with Saskatoon berries, wild mushrooms, and house-made red fife bannock. Dressed with greens so fresh they look like they’ve been foraged specially for your meal, this dish showcases Bear Robe’s flair for gorgeous plates.

The endorsement: “The dish is a great example of Keriwa’s Native-Canadian style. It’s a modern interpretation, terrific to serve with local spring vegetables, and paired smartly with the light and airy bannock.”—Delux chef Corinna Mozo

Matty Matheson

Cornish hen, $23

Parts and Labour, 1566 Queen St. W., 416-588-7750

Since Oddfellows’ closing last year*, Matthew “Matty” Matheson has settled in at sister restaurant Parts and Labour in Parkdale, where he’s mastered fare that combines French execution with Canadian ingredients. Consider his newest dish: a half Cornish hen that’s brined for 24 hours, then seared between two cast-iron pans and finished with braised kale, beech mushrooms, baby carrots, and Kozlik’s Triple Crunch mustard. Chicken may not be the most exciting protein on the menu, but this dish—with its crunchy, papery skin and the kick from our city’s best condiment—is a sure winner. “I don’t fuck around with molecular shit,” Matheson says. “I consider my food to be more traditional.”

The endorsement: “Matty elevates North American comfort food. The hardest part is finding the balance between food that looks like something mom made and something that comes from a restaurant.”—Leeto Han, chef at Swish by Han.

Nick Liu

Whole fried trout (no price yet)

GwaiLo (no address or phone yet)

After four years spent at Niagara Street Café, Nick Liu has generated huge excitement for his new restaurant, GwaiLo, even though he’s yet to secure its location. The place’s name translates to “ghost man” in Cantonese, a term typically used to describe white foreigners. “I’m Chinese, but I was born in Canada,” Liu says. “The food I cook is a combination of all the cultures I’ve come across, so I call myself a gwai lo.” That combination was on full display at a preview dinner in March, where Liu brought out platters of whole trout, fried to a golden brown and propped up like they were still swimming. It’s a trick he picked up from Nobu, but Liu’s version adds a caramel soy glaze, a sweet Thai chili sauce, and a green curry mayo. The result is a lusciously smoky pink trout with addictive dipping sauces.

The endorsement: “The presentation is very dramatic, fish head and all. The batter is crispy and the fish looks amazing. It just shows great technique and forethought.”

—Jonathan Poon, chef at Chantecler.

Rob Gentile
(voted Toronto’s most influential chef by a landslide)

Spaghetti al nero di maiale, $21

Buca, 604 King St. W., 416-865-1600

After a decade working at a trio of Mark McEwan restaurants, Rob Gentile opened Buca, his ambitious, rustic Italian eatery situated in a high-ceilinged former boiler room off King Street. Two and a half years have since passed and the place is still packed, helped in no small part by the mix of endlessly inventive food with comfortable, family-style dining. Gentile even ducks out periodically to hone his skills in Italy, working as a butcher in the Tuscan town of Montecino and, more recently, at a two-star Michelin restaurant in southern Sicily. That inspiration is evident in his terrific spaghetti al nero di maiale. With noodles made from pork blood and n’duja sausage made of pig hearts, it’s not necessarily a dish for the culinarily cautious, but it’s one that thrives on its delectably strong flavours.

The endorsement: “The blood noodles are so rich, the sausage has real floral heat, and the creamy burrata is so soothing. It’s one of those unique dishes where you can taste all the components in one bite.”—Ted Corrado, executive chef at Compass Leisure

Grant van Gameren

Baked kale and persimmon salad, $13

Enoteca Sociale, 1288 Dundas St. W., 416-534-1200

Last August, when he parted ways with The Black Hoof, Grant van Gameren could have taken any number of the city’s high-profile cooking jobs. Instead, he accepted the executive chef position at Dundas West’s Roman darling Enoteca Sociale, the result of which has been less beef tongue and more bistecca. “Moving to Enoteca really opened doors for me,” says van Gameren. “I’m able to make some of the dishes that never flew at the Hoof.” Take this salad: Crispy, smoky baked kale is accented by shavings of tart persimmon and slivers of earthy king oyster mushrooms, then topped with a sprinkling of farro and toasted pine nuts. Van Gameren’s dish is so balanced, it’s easy to forget the curious facts that it’s both healthy and vegan.

The endorsement “Grant’s dish shows that if you’re working with your flavours properly, you can make a winning dish without extravagant components.”—Matt Blondin, chef at Acadia.

Brandon Olsen

Spicy horse tartare, $16

The Black Hoof, 928 Dundas St. W., 416-551-8854

Van Gameren left a big hole in The Black Hoof’s cubicle-sized kitchen, but Brandon Olsen has filled it effortlessly—keeping tables and stomachs full with his imaginative menu, while upholding the restaurant’s charcuterie and off-cut theme (blood custard, anyone?). “I ask myself three questions when I come up with a dish: What am I using, what am I trying to achieve, and what’s the reference point?” Olsen says. He applied that to his spicy and mildly sweet horse tartare, which has been winning over even the least adventurous diners. Olsen wanted to twist the typical steak tartare, so he uses horse for its silkiness, adding homemade hickory sticks for their texture and pickled ramps for a slightly sour punch. A caper hollandaise sauce—a wink to the egg yolk that traditionally tops tartare—is the delicious final touch.

The endorsement: “Brandon makes my heart smile. He’s a really talented kid, and he’s brought a lot of interesting food to the menu. I just love the horse. It’s so smooth and sweet.”—Tutti Matti chef and owner Alida Solomon

Matt Blondin

Shrimp and grits, $13

Acadia, 50 Clinton St., 416-792-6002

Matt Blondin’s not big on playing it safe. Why else open an eatery serving a style of food relatively foreign to Toronto, on a stretch of the city known for its lackluster Mediterranean fare? Yet Little Italy’s Acadia, which focuses on food inspired by the Maritimes and the American South, continues to garner high praise. And while the small menu changes often, one dish that remains is the shrimp and grits. “We try to take it off the menu, but it just gets such great feedback,” Blondin says. To make it, he tops a base of creamy, corny grits with fresh prawns, brined and barely poached, and a crystal-clear consommé. The result is a simple but warming dish. Get it while you still can—Blondin’s leaving the restaurant at the end of the month.

The endorsement: “It’s just a fantastic dish. It’s creamy, cheesy, savoury, and smoky, but what really makes it amazing is the smoked ham-hock consommÉ they put around the rim of the grits.”—Splendido chef Victor Barry

Jonathan Poon

Pork neck with XO sauce, $21

Chantecler, 1320 Queen St. W., 416-628-3586

The unassuming Parkdale bistro Chantecler is far more than French-Canadian inflections and heritage chickens. It’s also where chef Jonathan Poon can play around with new techniques, a testament to his time spent under chefs Claudio Aprile and Jamie Kennedy. For the pork neck with XO sauce—a slightly more refined version of the crispy-skin barbeque pork dish his dad used to cook—Poon combines seared strips of meat, lightly dusted with white turmeric, with a bed of braised lettuce and poached oysters. As for that XO sauce, it’s made in-house from dried seafood a full two weeks before service so the flavours have time to deepen—further evidence of the young chef’s dedication to his craft.

The endorsement: “Johnny’s food is creative and beautiful. He has a delicate touch, which isn’t so common in Toronto.”—Guy Rawlings, chef at Bellwoods Brewery.

Jeff Claudio

Salt cod inari, $6

Yours Truly, 229 Ossington Ave., 416-533-2243

Ossington isn’t hard up for new restaurants, but Yours Truly is a clear stand-out. Chalk it up to chef Jeff Claudio’s commitment to an affordable, ever-changing tasting menu, with vegetarian options and tasty bar snacks to boot. “The kitchen team has meetings every night where we talk about ingredients and techniques we want to try the next day,” says Claudio. “It’s what motivates us.” A signature dish from the late-night menu is the salt cod inari, which traces its origins to a staff meal from Claudio’s previous stint at Scarpetta. Playing on Toronto’s obsession with Asian street food and taking advantage of Little Portugal’s proximity (the cod is from the fishmonger across the street), Claudio stuffs the fish and sushi rice into fried tofu pockets, creating tangy, salty two-bite snacks balanced by a tartar-like Japanese mayonnaise. Added bonus: The tofu pockets hold everything in neatly, so there’s no need for napkins.

The endorsement: “It’s comfort food—it’s like a Filet-O-Fish. That’s not meant to downgrade the dish; it’s the best. The last time I was there, I had eight plates of them. They should just have a cart in front of the restaurant selling them.”—The Gabardine chef Graham Pratt

Click here for a complete close-up view for our Top 10 spread

CORRECTION, MAY 10, 2012: The original version of this article, as it appeared in the May 10, 2012 print edition of The Grid, incorrectly stated that Oddfellows closed four years ago. It in fact closed in February 2011.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: