Loraine and I went to Toronto this past weekend to visit our friend, Marco, whom we met and got to know in Italy when he got recruited to spend ten hours on a Friday driving us to far-apart wineries in Tuscany. When Marco announced that he was moving to Toronto from Arezzo, we knew that we’d be visiting him in Canada as soon as possible.
Our first stop in Toronto was to Piola (1165 Queen St W, +1.416.477.4652), the restaurant that Marco manages. Loraine ordered the caprese salad and a pizza with red sauce, mozzarella, something else I can’t remember, and prosciutto crudo. I ordered the beet salad and a white pizza with caramelized onions, mozzarella, and prosciutto crudo. We also split two bottles of Italian red wine (one bottle more than we should have) and the profiteroles. I scarfed all that food down like I was starving. If you’re looking for a low-key, casual, delicious dinner of pizza or pasta, you should head to Piola. They make the dough fresh in house, and you can watch them pressing the dough balls into the base for your pizza. Piola also offers all-you-can-eat homemade gnocchi on the 29th of every month. I know it’s homemade because Marco spends days making it with his own hands. (He has a little help, but not enough.)
Saturday night for dinner, we went to Reds (77 Adelaide St W, +1.416.862.7737), which the blogosphere rated one of the best wine bars in Toronto. Loraine checked out the wine list before we braved the pouring rain and walked there from the hotel, and she deemed it satisfactory. This meant that she felt confident enough in the judgment of the wine director there to order a bottle of Canadian wine. I don’t mean that in a snooty way. We don’t have any experience with Canadian wines. We have no idea who the Chateau Montelena or Turning Leaf equivalents are. Without this knowledge, navigating a list of Canadian wines is like picking your way through a minefield.
Our super knowledgeable server at Reds steered us to the 2012 Pearl Morissette pinot noir. She said that Pearl Morissette only sells to restaurants and doesn’t have a cellar door or tasting room, but a quick Google search revealed that as recently as July of this year you could make an appointment and do a tasting with the owner/winemaker, Francois Morrissette. (The pictures I found confirm the lack of a formal tasting room.) You can see on the label that they only made 215 cases. If you can find it, we recommend that you order it. It was delicious (it starts off with a tiny bit of effervescence that was disconcerting but subsided) and went really well both with Loraine’s meal and mine. She had the knife and fork Caesar salad and a grilled cheese sandwich with fries. I had a cup of mushroom soup and the branzino filet on a bed of shrimp and puttanesca. (Watch out for the microgreens on top of the branzino because it’s half evil cilantro.) Loraine let me finish the bottle of pinot noir to go with the cheese I ate for dessert, and she had a glass of ice wine to go with her grasshopper parfait (“dark chocolate and peppermint mousse with chocolate crisps”). By the time we got our coats and umbrellas back from the coat check, the rain had stopped, and we enjoyed the crisp air as we remembered our scrumptious dinners.
In addition to an extensive list of excellent wines, Reds also offers amazing cocktails. The night before, we’d had a terribly disappointing cocktail experience at the Westin. I asked for a Sazerac. Both the waitress and the bartender informed me they’d never heard of it. I ended up with a bland and boring Manhattan; Loraine had a bland and boring pear martini. We both went up to our rooms with the impression that Toronto was not a cocktail town. Reds fixed that misconception before dinner with my maple bacon bourbon Manhattan (“house made bacon infused Bulleit bourbon, sweet vermouth, Ontario maple syrup, and house made bourbon soaked cherries”) and Loraine’s Bay Street Manhattan (“Bulleit bourbon, sweet vermouth, Peychaud’s bitters, house made bourbon soaked cherry”). Cocktails are the perfect appetizer. Nobody will ever convince me otherwise.
Our friend John recommended we eat dinner at Canoe, but it’s only open on weekdays. Canoe is part of the Oliver & Bonacini group of fine-dining restaurants (different from a chain of restaurants like Chili’s or Olive Garden). We checked out O&B’s website and discovered that it has a brunch place, Bannock (401 Bay St, +1.416.861-6996). Bannock’s menu looked delicious, and it’s within walking distance of the Westin where we stayed, so we headed there on Sunday around 11am. You know what else was happening on Bay Street in Toronto at 11am? The Toronto marathon. We ended up walking to brunch to stuff our faces with a few hundred people nearing the finish line of their 13.1- and 26.2-mile races, which they measure in kilometers. The first thing we did when we sat down was to order a bottle of Chateau des Charmes, a sparkling wine from Niagara. The Viking’s justification: “We just finished a marathon!” With that blatant lie as the theme for brunch, I ordered steak and eggs, and Loraine ordered French toast with deviled eggs on the side. For dessert, she ordered the espresso martini (Bailey’s, Kahlua, Frangelico, espresso), and I ordered the O&B artisan butter tart. Because desserts are forbidden for me, I ate two heavenly bites and asked the server to take it away. On the one hand, it was a huge waste, but on the other hand, did I mention that those two bites were heavenly?
Marco met us for dinner on Sunday night. He originally suggested Buca, but they were fully booked, so we ended up at Hopgood’s Foodliner (325 Roncesvalles Ave, +1.416.533.2723). When we sat down at our table, Marco told us that the restaurant industry in Toronto considers the Foodliner to be Toronto’s best restaurant. I agree. Loraine and I arrived a little early and had a drink at the bar. Loraine ordered a glass of her beloved muscadet (2010 Domaine des Cognettes), and I ordered a Sazerac (“rye, demerara sugar, Peychaud’s bitters + house bitters, absynthe rinse”). In truth, I would have been happy to drink anything (except the pickle back) off the cocktail menu. The bartender who built the house cocktail list knows his spirits and his cocktails, and his spin on the classics all looked interesting and tasty. My Sazerac was delightful, and he didn’t get mad when I told him not to hold back on the absinthe (some bartenders go light on the absinthe/Pernod/Herbsaint because many people will order a Sazerac not knowing that it’s meant to taste licorice-y, and the uninformed licorice-haters have beaten the bartenders into submission).
The Foodliner specializes in simple but creatively prepared seafood dishes, and everything on the menu is meant to be shared tapas style. The problem with tapas for me is that I end up eating too much. I can’t keep track of all the little nibbles. We ordered the molasses bread and butter; the housemade pickle plate (gherkins, ramps, Romesco cauliflower, and radishes); pork rinds, ham, & smoke; cauliflower & hazelnut salad; potted shrimp; albacore tuna with Vicki’s heirloom tomatoes; and Cape Breton snow crab. Because Marco had been tasting all day at Piola, he didn’t eat much. Despite this, we didn’t send a single plate back with any food on it. Every dish was simple and fresh and had a ton of flavor. You could taste how much thought and creativity the chef invested in each one. We shared two bottles of 2011 Donna Fugata Sherazade, a nero d’avolo from Sicily. We picked it in part because Marco’s brother-in-law has been working for Donna Fugata for a year now, but we ordered the second bottle because of how good it was and how well it went with all of the food.
We talked ourselves into ordering one of each of the three desserts. Our server described both the peach cobbler sundae and the banana nut crunch in loving detail. Seriously, it took him a full three minutes to talk about those two desserts. Then he said, “And we have a chocolate bar.” I asked him why he was underselling it, and he said that it’s chocolate and toffee and caramel, whatever. When we looked at him, waiting, he finally added, “It’s the best chocolate bar you’ll ever eat.” We tried to order only the peach and banana desserts, but he pressured us into also getting the chocolate bar, and he was right. It was the best chocolate bar I’ve ever had. I let myself have one bite of the peach sundae and one bite of the banana crunch. Both were amazing, but we all had a slight preference for the toffee, nutty goodness of the banana nut crunch.
I fell in love with the food, cocktails, and wine in Toronto, but it wouldn’t have happened without the amazing servers that helped us at every meal. I know it’s kind of a cliché that Canadians are really nice, but when it comes to the staff at Piola, Reds, Bannock, and Hopgood’s Foodliner, it’s a cliché for a reason. More than that, each of the folks who served us knew their menus backward and forward and also loved what was on those menus. If you get to go to Toronto, I hope you’ll have the chance to meet some of them in person and try the awesome offerings of the places where they work.