Where to stay
The Drake Hotel
Widely regarded as one of the city’s hippest spots, you’ll either entirely love or wholeheartedly despise The Drake Hotel. There’s an artsy atmosphere to the lobby (a slow-motion skateboarding video played upon our arrival), but that doesn’t detract from memorable rooms and excellent service in a prime location. The Drake’s casual restaurant, Drake Commissary, is also worth a visit. Doubles from £138. 1150 Queen Street West, 00 1 416 531 5042, thedrakehotel.ca
Fairmont Royal York
If you prefer your hotel lobbies a little more palatial than party hub, then Fairmont Royal York should be where you rest your high-end head. The hotel is so grand it’s considered one of the city’s landmarks. Inside there are all the amenities you’d expect from a premium hotel with some quirky additions you wouldn’t, including a toy train running through the York Station bar. Doubles from £275. 100 Front Street West, 00 1 416 368 2511, fairmont.com
SoHo Metropolitan Hotel
There’s a multitude of reasons to love this hotel, starting with the arresting Dale Chihuly piece out front and ending with its restaurant Luckee. Rather than a bolt-on, run-of-the-mill hotel restaurant, this is a culinary destination in its own right, and considered by many to be the best Chinese restaurant in Toronto. Doubles from £220. 318 Wellington Street, 00 1 416 599 8800, metropolitan.com
You’d miss the Templar Hotel if you didn’t know it was there. It’s a diminutive boutique famed for both interior design (you’ll feel like you’ve walked into the home of an architect-artist power couple) and being featured in the photography to accompany Toronto pop star Drake’s album Views. Come for the aesthetics, but stay for the Japanese-inspired platform beds and natural linens. Doubles from £110. 348 Adelaide Street West, 00 1 416 479 0847, templarhotel.com
With all the trappings of sleek, urban modernity, the Thompson boasts some memorable features. The late-night diner is surprisingly good. The lobby cocktail bar will comfortably lull you into evening reverie. But quite literally above all else is the panoramic view from the rooftop bar and pool. You’ll rarely find such a jaw-dropping backdrop to a night out. Doubles from £193. 550 Wellington Street West, 00 1 416 640 7778, thompsonhotels.com
Toronto is the capital of Ontario, Canada, and sits
on the north-west of Lake Ontario. Flights from
the UK take around 8 hours. Time is four hours
behind GMT. Currency is the Canadian dollar
(CAD). The average high temperature in June is 25C; the average low is 13C.
Air Canada flies daily to Toronto Pearson International direct from London Heathrow, from £430 return. aircanada.com
British Airways also has daily flights from Heathrow to Toronto and three flights per week from Gatwick, from £478 return. ba.com
Tourism Toronto is the official tourist board, which has a useful website. seetorontonow.com
Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig (Coach House Books, £12) is a gripping novel set in the subway tunnels of Toronto. It tells the eerie story of a group of young girls who contract a mysterious disease and attempt to capture their vision through film.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling by air to Toronto, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 1.56 tonnes of CO2 meaning a cost to offset of £11. 71.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses with a glass of wine or beer,
unless otherwise stated
Considered by many to be the city’s, if not the country’s, best restaurant, this spot is famed for its kitchen finesse. Walking from Chinatown’s humble streets into chef Patrick Kriss’s restaurant is indicative of the Toronto food scene’s relaxed touch: Canadian fare, French cooking and spicy Asian flavours. From £55. 163 Spadina Avenue, 00 1 416 260 2222, alorestaurant.com
Chef-patron Steve Gonzales elevates Latin street-food to accompany some of the city’s standout cocktails, as well as delivering excellent ceviche and hearty rice dishes. Heading upstairs to dance after dinner should be mandatory. Baro might just be the biggest surprise of your trip. From £49. 485 King Street West, 00 1 416 363 8388, barotoronto.com
Head here when your stomach is empty and you’ve a thirst for beer. Their excellent meat is smoked on site. Devour the ribs. Destroy the chicken. Savage the sides. This is a restaurant aiming for greasy fingers and full bellies, but with refined plating and smart twists. From £41. 299 Roncesvalles Avenue, 00 1 416 532 7700, barque.ca
Architecture and interior design combine to create a unique atmosphere in this small, psychedelic eatery. Similar to its sister restaurant Bar Isabel in its seasonal tapas approach, but different in its casual, bar-side service. The tomato bread is delicious and the octopus cooked to perfection. From £33. 505 College Street, 00 1 647 344 8001, thisisbarraval.com
Enjoy a bird’s eye view of Toronto while working your way through chef Ron McKinlay’s accomplished menu in this slick 54th-floor restaurant, which pays homage to Canada’s native ingredients. Standout dishes include tea-smoked duck breast and tamarack lamb. From £50. 66 Wellington Streeet West, TD Bank Tower, 00 1 416 364 0054,canoerestaurant.com
Forget poutine – Toronto’s truly patriotic fast food is the peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel, which was recently made the official Toronto sandwich by the mayor. Meaty, thick-cut peameal bacon sits ensconced in a fresh bun, topped with maple mustard. It’s garnering international fame with good reason. Sandwich from £3. St Lawrence Market, Upper Level 42, 93 Front Street East, 00 1 416 363 4247
The Hole in the Wall
This little joint lives up to its big name, celebrating small diners and other holes in the wall that are so commonly found across North America. There’s an ever-changing menu and frequent specials, with tongue-dancing Asian spice and piquancy met with mouthy French morsels. Don't leave without first having tried the delectable cocktails. From £27. 2867A Dundas Street West, 00 1 647 350 3564
Toronto is painfully cool. You’ll notice this in bars and restaurants on a daily basis but never with such a palpable hit than here. The plant-based menu takes green stuff to a level rarely achieved without buckets of butter. The food is as tasty as it is nutritious. Smart and always busy. From £39. 1221 Bay Street, 00 1 647 348 7000, plantarestaurants.com
Food and Travel Review
'There are two seasons in Toronto: winter and construction,’ the driver says as we weave from the airport to Downtown. En route, the sunbaked highway is swallowed up by rows and rows of high-rises; a toothy cityscape of towers and cranes biting at the cerulean sky. One thing is as clear as day: winter it ain’t. Construction is a sign of a city on the up. But we’re here to sample something expanding even more rapidly than Toronto’s upward urban aspect. The burgeoning restaurant scene is the talk of touring gastronomes the world over. If you love North America but prefer some genuine European personality to your cities, swerve NYC, they say; Toronto is cleaner, cooler and more cosmopolitan. In the age of Fire and Fury, if Trudeau is the poster boy for Canada’s comparative chill, Toronto is the picture of its liberal values and immigrant integration. And, as the culinary cognoscenti among you know, this level of diversity makes for some very good eating. Indeed, nothing cooks up cheffy creativity quite like a well-tended cultural melting pot. This one has been on the simmer for some time. To be Torontonian is to be from elsewhere. To eat Torontonian, then, is to fill your plate at a veritable buffet of international cuisines. Like Canada’s own Michael Bublé, the city’s history is short but intense. Toronto’s three rivers cut through the land as surely as it does its past. It was with this water – upon imports and exports, waterfront businesses and landfill dredgery – that Toronto was founded, all booze, foods, fuels and factories. It’s a mirror into the city’s past and, right now, a mirror for the strong Canadian sunshine. On our first night, we sample Canadian cuisine at its most high-end. And never has that phrase been more apposite than when describing Canoe, a restaurant that sits entirely aloft Toronto on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower. The view hits you like a bucket of ice-cold Ontarian water to the face. It’s hard to focus on the food with such spectacle vying for attention. But I give it my best shot as I sit down with chef de cuisine Ron McKinlay and greedily make my way through the menu. ‘I didn’t realise how good the food scene was until I got here,’ he tells me, having until recently worked in the UK (under Tom Kitchin), Middle East and Australia. ‘It’s underestimated as it’s so close to powerhouse cities like Montreal and New York. But when you get here, you realise Toronto is massive and food here is massive.’
Massive indeed. And it’s moving at a greater pace than most of its neighbours. ‘When I lived out West [Canada], things were slower,’ McKinlay says, as I demolish a spicy, sumptuous dish of sweetbreads with hazelnut curd and local juniper. ‘Here more restaurants are chef-driven. My biggest thing is getting to know the suppliers, and building those relationships.’
By suppliers, McKinlay doesn’t just mean the usual produce sellers. Canoe uses local foragers to ensure the menu is always seasonal and pure wild Canadiana. ‘Whatever is good at that time, we make the most of it – that’s the smart way to approach a menu.’
Ontario’s ground is at the same time verdant and harsh, yielding exciting seasonal fare and, when the extreme winters hit, robust, hardy root veg – ‘We do a lot of slow cooking in winter,’ McKinlay says – making for interesting, ever-changing menus. ‘My executive chef, John Horne, is an encyclopedia of Canadian cuisine. So, I brought what I learned from overseas and he’ll say, why don’t you try it with this, and it’s an ingredient I’m not used to.’
Among the ingredients McKinlay wasn’t used to were ramps – ‘Similar to wild garlic but more leek-like’ – which I later found and purchased in St Lawrence Market, along with spruce tips – ‘Using those in a lamb dish at the moment. Quite citrusy’ – and wild ginger – ‘It’s incredibly floral. We use that in a bean salad. That’s super- local, within 50km of here. Our forager brings it in bags.’
It is at the Saturday farmers’ market at Evergreen Brick Works that I find some of the foragers supplying restaurants like Canoe. Just a short hop out of town, this is the place to gorge on specialities from street-food-style stalls and fill your basket with ingredients made or dug up within a small radius; the most far-flung stuff originating 300km away (a short hop by Canadian metrics), but most a lot closer. The site itself – a characterful old brickworks – is worth a visit in its own right. But, frankly, sod that: we’re surrounded by Ontario’s finest produce and my fork hand is burning.
You’d be remiss not to visit this bustling food bazaar. Local chefs serve up everything from paella with pork belly and duck from a local, all-organic farm to Tibetan dumplings (Toronto has the second- biggest Tibetan population in the world). It’s early summer and the market, with its edible cornucopia, reflects that. ‘Grab some asparagus,’ says Cameron, one of the market’s managers. ‘And make sure you try the strawberries. The reason Niagara makes great wine grapes is the same reason we have superb strawberries. It has a unique weather system, so even when it's crappy, they grow the same found in France. 'McKinlay told me last night that the whole maple syrup thing is no silly cliché. ‘Some of it is like drinking a fine maple 'reserve',’ he said. It only seems right to partake. And the artisanal offerings here don’t disappoint. Trying proper maple syrup is like experiencing a good Bordeaux after years of low-quality Chilean red, or dipping bread in local Puglian olive oil when you’re used to Napolina: there’s just no comparison. We stop at one stall and try a few shots of a complex, not too sweet, just a bit smoky syrup. I buy a couple of bottles. You should do the same. I’d happily sink half a pint of it where I stand.
I decide against it and instead ingratiate myself with a local forager presently beset on all sides by eager customers baying for his impressive panoply of mushrooms. ‘We’ve got folks all over Canada,’ he says of his foraging network, Forbes Wild Foods. He teaches us about foraging as I finger his wares. ‘I do wild mushrooms, both fresh and dry. Jams and jellies using wild berries. Lots of vegetables. People get most excited about our chanterelles. If I had to pick one mushroom to live off, it’d be those guys – they’re so versatile.’
So, could we go native and forage Ontario-style ourselves? The short answer is yes, but you should know what you’re doing, particularly with 'shrooms. ‘Avoid farms and roads,’ he says. ‘Within about an hour's distance of the city you start finding some real bush but the further out you go, the better. Go north. Avoid being downriver from farms due to the chemicals they churn out, unless you know they’re organic.’ As we leave Evergreen, we chat about some of the chefs he works with, the most prominent being our friends at Canoe. This man might have hand-picked the very junipers I put away with my sweetbreads last night.
We return to town armed with a recommendation from Cameron: ‘The most exciting food in Toronto is similar to new Nordic cuisine,’ he told me. ‘And the best example is Boralia in the West End.’ Stimulated by sampling wild Canadian produce so close to source, we head to Ossington Avenue and sit down in Boralia, tummies rumbling. ‘We do modern interpretations of historic recipes,’ proprietor Evelyn Wu Morris tells me. ‘A lot of French and British settler recipes, a lot of indigenous recipes, but subsequent immigrant stuff as well – Asian, Chinese and eastern European.’
The menu gives the date of each recipe’s origin: there’s a pigeon pie from 1611 and a 1605 mussels dish, form the first European settlement in Nova Scotia, but it’s modernised with an injection of pine smoke. We try cured bison, shaved super-thin, with cured lardo and local wild blueberries – a take on an old compressed protein bar used by Cree fur traders way back when – served with mixed greens from a nearby farm, dressed in smoked maple and birch syrup. The detail on the plate is, frankly, astounding.
That’s followed by a dish that encapsulates my feelings on Canadian cuisine: grilled whelk with kombu beurre blanc and sautéed carrot. The whelk shell was once used for currency here, Evelyn tells me. The seafood is fresh east coast fare. ‘There’s a lot of umami in this dish,’ she says. She’s not wrong. In my mouth are Asian flavours, Canadian ingredients and classic French techniques. We finish with a whole roasted trout with maitake mushrooms and – an entirely new experience for me – fiddleheads, the curled shoots of the ostrich fern. They’re toxic if you don’t cook them properly. But utterly delicious when you do.
While not as flag-wavingly French as Quebec, Ontario still has bon vivant coursing through its veins. For some proper Gallic fare, you can head to La Banane, just down the road from Boralia, and enjoy, as we did, the excellent seafood platters and some creative, modern twists on French classics. Chef-proprietor Brandon Olsen is best summed up as a young Blanc or Roux on a little bit of acid with access to Canada’s wild ingredients.
The late artist Prince said of Toronto: ‘It’s a melting pot in every sense of the word. There’s all sorts of different people everywhere you go. There’s all sorts of great music, great restaurants and great night spots.’ Correct, Artist Formerly Known As. That’s because 50 per cent of the city’s population were born outside of its walls. And nowhere is that more apparent than when you head into Chinatown.
Or, I should say, Chinatowns. Toronto has four of them. Make your way down Dundas Street and you’ll find yourself on the biggest, catering for the huge Asian population brought to Toronto to work the railways in the late 19th century and as post-war migrants in the early 20th. It’s as you’d expect – gaudy, a bit risqué and completely brilliant. There’s another in town and two out in the suburbs to cater for second-generation, more affluent immigrants. ‘Many of the old-school, authentic restaurants are out in the ‘burbs because of that,’ one local tells me.
Apparent in this city is the dichotomy between old and young tastes, with gentrification muscling in on traditionalism. This is true of Chinatown as well. ‘The Asian kids are queuing up for things like sushi burrito and Japanese cheesecake,’ a store owner says as we ask about a crowd further down the street. ‘The cheesecake is fine. It’s a bit meh but it’s trendy so they love it.’ A few doors down there is indeed a cheesecake queue taking a rather hefty slice out of the street.
We swerve it and instead follow up on a recommendation from Canoe’s McKinlay. ‘I love Chinatown on Spadina,’ he told me. ‘The dumplings are great. It’s so relaxed; no one hassles you, the food’s excellent. Most of the names aren’t even in English but if you’re the only white guy in there, you know you’re in a good spot.’ Indeed, we’re the only non-Asians here and each morsel of dumpling is a delightful umami explosion that won’t soon be forgotten.
Toronto has long had this eastward glance, with a huge Asian population creating more fusion joints than you can shake a chopstick at. The problem with fusion restaurants is obvious: many amount to little more than transient gimmickry, with disparate cuisines fused where they should have remained firmly dichotomous. Sushi burrito turned out to be as whimsical as you’d imagine. Rasta Pasta in Kensington Market – hipster facade, kitsch interior – is another prime example. It was easy to walk past. As was another messy medley of Hungarian paired with Thai (think of greasy schnitzel and you’ll get the idea). But when fusion restaurants are done well, they’re hard to beat. This culinary job-swapping doesn’t just smash together decidedly separate dishes, à la Rasta Pasta. It also results in shared techniques, unusual flavours, assimilated spices and herbs and histories. One of Toronto’s most successful is Pow Wow Café, run by prominent chef-restaurateur Shawn Adler, which revives the foods of the indigenous Ojibwe people in the form of tacos. It’s indicative of Canada’s attempt to reconcile itself with a bloody past, and represents a sentiment shared by many as they seek to solidify what it means to be Canadian today. It’s also absolutely delicious.
Walk the streets of hipster areas like Kensington Market and Queen West (Vogue called West Queen West the second- hippest neighbourhood – after Tokyo – in the world) and you’ll soon notice that banh mi is also hugely popular in Toronto. The Thai meat served up in a French baguette couldn’t be more Toronto in its soul: Eastern flavours in a French casing.
The French are also for booze. But get drunk in Toronto and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve wound up in Seville. Not for the architecture, of course. But for the late-night, bar-hopping approach to food and revelry. On my last evening I find myself in the company of a group of young Torontonians, who lead me on an intoxicating tapas crawl replete with excellent, albeit not-conducive-to-note-taking, cocktails.
It’s on this mission I discover Bar Raval, probably the standout
venue of the trip. Under a Gaudí-inspired waving wooden roof
that plays Dalí-esque games with your eyes, you’re spoiled with
what’s honestly some of the best Spanish tapas I’ve eaten
outside of Spain. I take some perfectly salty octopus and
bruschetta with which to soak up both a Baby Duck cocktail –
sort of like a negroni – and the atmosphere: a heady mix of
young, bustling diners, good music and good company doused
in easy evening light and cool weather.
From there we try food and drinks at Bar Isabel, Raval’s sister venue, washed down with a few solid North American-style beers at Bellwoods Brewery before heading for more tapas. Full to bursting, we finish the opaque evening (Toronto’s weather is capricious; today has been relentless rain) in BarChef – a cocktail bar with the attention to detail of a Michelin-starred chef. With our drinks we experience textures, smells and smoke. The drive home is hazy, the river occluded by grey skies and cloudy eyes.
If yesterday was a veiled riverside, today it is nude. Perhaps Toronto’s biggest appeal is the expansive horizon line you can enjoy from the beaches and any building with height when the sun is out. For crowded metropolis, this is a rare thing indeed – a decompressing sense of serenity found at the edge of a city eaten by traffic and construction and the hubbub of relentless urbanity. The uninterrupted view to Niagara is quieting.
And that’s what Toronto does to you. It offers skyscrapers and gentrification, crowds and bars and buskers and shops. But it
never feels far from the environment from which it forages its
resources and into which it was dredged. Through the expansive
river and proximity to the wilderness, the desire to feel and feed
local – and despite its six million inhabitants – the city constantly
reminds you that you’re only ever an hour from escaping it,
should you so desire. And because of that, you rarely will.
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