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Am I too picky?

I was recently posting a reply to the mediocre review of Colborne Lane, and I began to think about the quality of food in this city.

As a warning in advance, I'm a grad student under a fairly limited budget. As food (surpassing even travel) is by a vast margin my biggest joy in life, I can save and justify approximately $100 per person for a spectacular meal on occasion; please keep in mind that this is without standard alcohol pairings, because, sadly, due to health concerns, I cannot consume either wine or beer (martinis and other forms of hard liquor are perfectly acceptable). IMO, for all but the most brilliant of meals, given the lack of alcohol, this should be more than a sufficient cash drop for a fantastic experience.

To give you a sense of my history, I grew up in Ottawa, and I spent four months living in Washington, DC. In Ottawa, largely avoiding the Byward Market and suburbs, with but a modicum of research, I was hard pressed to find restaurants that disappointed me: the service and quality of food ranged from wonderful to stellar. In DC, even without research, the majority of places I ate at were utterly brilliant and the joy of being able to wander into a random safe neighbourhood from a subway stop, pick a restaurant with a nice menu, and have a meal that left me euphorically satisfied was unparalleled. The DC restaurants that didn't quite fit into that category were at least decent, merited the cost, and were definitely repeatable. I can't think of a single abysmal dining experience while I lived there.

Prior to discovering this delightful message board, to which I've adored being a member for about a month as I feel that it's introduced me to a myriad of new culinary options that are far more sophisticated than the rather unimpressive and consistently disappointing choices recommended by NOW magazine and other online sources (a personal thanks extended to all of you wonderful people for this), I found that I simply could not locate restaurants that impressed me. I've eaten at easily 200 restaurants in this city, and seldom do I not leave feeling disappointed and cheated unless the food was almost ludicrously cheap. I became convinced that this city had very little to offer in terms of impressive cuisine.

In my time spent here, I've gained hope on countless occasions. Frequently, though, I read about more costly places that seem to be held in high esteem and gotten tremendously excited over them, but it seems that every five positive reviews are met with five equally negative reviews. Examples include Susur, JKWB, Colborne Lane, Lai Wah Heen, and Edward Levesque's Kitchen. While a couple of those might for a few years be out of my price range, I am amazed that people are willing to take the risk to shell out $200+ a couple for an experience that may be hit-or-miss. For example, Lai Wah Heen: people tout their dim sum but dismiss their dinner. A restaurant at this price point, IMO, should be consistently brilliant, and not just at certain meals.

I don't particularly think that I'm difficult to impress. I do enjoy cooking and baking and feel that I can do it fairly well, albeit no to any professional standard. To give you an idea of me, I have little-to-no formal culinary training, but I have studied several forms of SE Asian (most notably Thai and Malaysian), Indian, Sri Lankan, and Italian cookery extensively. My standards are not ridiculously high, and for brilliant food, I am willing to overlook significant flaws in service, as long as my water glass isn't left empty for ridiculous periods of time and the food is utterly brilliant.

Frankly, I feel that it's utterly pathetic that my favourite Torontonian restaurants consist of Matahari Grill, Thai Paradise, Tokyo Grill, Ethiopian House, and the Keg, which are all *good* offerings for their price, and consistently so, but none of those are truly spectacular and unforgettable, and I hesitate recommending any but a couple of them to visitors.

My tastes are not unrefined and appreciative of haute cuisine, I don't feel. I was in St. Martin in December and ate at several high class French / Mediterranean restaurants, mostly notably one in Grand Case, and was utterly delighted and satisfied to the core of my being, even earth-shatteringly moreso than some of my Ottawa and DC meals, which I felt prior to the experience might just be impossible. It was wonderful, and something I haven't experienced even one single time in Toronto.

I hate the thought of sounding elitist, especially because I'm adamantly not so and because so many of you here hold much more culinary sophistication than I will possibly hope to grasp within the next decade, but I am appalled that, in a greater metropolitan area of five million people, in my very humble and inexperienced opinion, there is such a lack of consistent, satisfying cuisine. Are there any places here that are true finds that merit a moderate cost without fear of disappointment, and if not, why is this the case? There is really absolutely no excuse for this in this city, IMO. I feel sometimes that Torontonians have learned to settle for the mediocre, which is depressing at best.

In termination, I want to assert that I am in no way intending to belittle the opinions of anyone on this board. I have deeply enjoyed reading all of your words, and within the last month, I had read virtually ever post in every thread and thoroughly enjoyed every one of your reviews and perceptions. I thank you all for your valuable input, and I really hope that you can shatter what I hope are my misconceptions about this city.

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  1. I think you think too much. For me, I just use review as a reference and I do not take it seriously unless the review of a restaurant is 80% negative. Some people say Susur has bad service and some even say bad food, but I find exactly the opposite. People like Duff wings is flawless but I find it not good at all ...... I also find it not enjoyable if I expect everything to be perfect whenever I go to a expensive/inexpensive place, so I just relax and enjoy the meal.
    Also, $200+ a meal for 2 is a reasonable price to eat at a decent restaurant in Toronto, but it does not gurantee perfect satisfaction.

    3 Replies
    1. re: skylineR33

      Thanks for the feedback. What you say is perhaps the case. I suppose I'm just a bit jaded from reading good reviews in magazines like NOW and being consistently disappointed to trust positivity without weighing it against the negativity, although I value the opinions of the majority of the members here far above a magazine. I know expecting a perfect consensus is virtually impossible given different tastes, but there has to be at least some indication of a majority, IMO, and many places seem to lack that, sadly.

      I don't think $200 is unreasonable for two, although difficult to manage with any regularity in my budget (and I would assume that this would be the case for many), but for that price, while I can overlook service flaws, the food should reflect the bill. If I can get a $100 for two people meal of the same quality, there are problems. It just doesn't make sense to me that in Ottawa and DC, I can consistently buy a meal of significantly higher quality than Toronto for perhaps half the cost, especially given that the cost of living and operating a business, to my knowledge, is higher in DC, which should reflect in the price.

      As another example, I went to toured two islands in Hawaii for a week two and half years ago. I followed my guide book, eating only at recommended restaurants for every meal. Every place I ate at was great at worst, and wonderful at best (even the greasy diners were deliciously satisfying and flavourful), and everything was at most half of the cost of the established and recommended restaurants here in Toronto. Given the comparison of population, it makes no sense to me that I've had very few decent culinary adventures in this city, especially given the fact that I'm sure that ingredient availability is probably at least as good here as anywhere else I've been.

      I can't help but wonder if perhaps the long-term members of this city have just been accustomed to a lower quality of cuisine. This is unacceptable, IMO, when $80 for two could purchase culinary divinity in Ottawa, DC, Honolulu, and St. Martin.

      1. re: vorpal

        I will admit I haven't even skimmed most of what you've written (I will be honest and say it's too wordy for me). But I see you are disappointed by places reviewed by NOW. I am not a high-end diner and I can't afford most of the places written about in Toronto Life, the Globe etc. You would think NOW reviews would be more my thing, but sadly no. Dude gets way too excited about really ordinary spots IMO. These places may not deserve bad reviews, but why review them at all? They also continuously reprint snippets of old reviews that are so out of date, sometimes the places are barely even open (Soul Kitchen). So, I only check out the well-reviewed, *interesting* sounding places in my area. Not the breakfast place on Queen E that serves cereal and closes at 3pm. I do not go out of my way for a NOW "find".
        I guess it's nice that eye has started reviewing places again, too bad the reviews are so uninformative and badly written. Chowhound is the place to get info on the lower end IMO.

      2. re: skylineR33

        I completely agree. You shouldn't be persuaded by reviews - they are just personal opinions. How would you verify the veracity of a, say, East European person cursing East Asian cuisine? Ridiculous. Only heed the advice of a local (i.e. a Jamaican on Jamaican food) - others are just mr/ms-know-it-alls. "Food experts" make me laugh.

        What you want to look out for is tips, warnings, etc. because they are very useful. And I think you have too much expectations from Toronto. This isn't NY, or LA, or SF, or Paris, or Milan, or London, or Tokyo. Toronto is just a big "small town". But we'll get there, sweetie. Someday. ;-)

      3. No, vorpal, you're not being too picky. I, too, find the food served in Toronto's high end restaurants to be disappointing more often than not. When we moved here from Montreal ten years ago, I was delighted to find some very good, innovative, flavourful cooking. It seems to me that, while prices have escalated dramatically since that time, the sensory elements that make for a perfect fine dining experience have diminished. Because of this, we now limit dining in ultra-expensive restaurants to special occasions and are often disappointed.

        My favourite Toronto restaurants tend also to be the smaller establishments featuring the various ethnic cuisines, as well as a couple of bistro-type places that are consistently good, such as Universal Grill (Dupont and Shaw). Travelling to Montreal frequently gives us our fix of the quality of food that I grew up on (my parents always took us to fine restaurants - usually French - for our birthdays) and that, I believe, is still easier to find in Montreal than in Toronto.

        Unfortunately, I don't think you've been having misconceptions about the sophistication of restaurants in this city. You're bang on.

        1. The short answer? Most likely yes. :-)

          Seriously though, I for one would not base my opinions of any place (be it Susur, JKWB, Colborne Lane, etc) solely on what is written about it here or reviews elsewhere. I'd much rather try the place myself and form my own opinions... just because someone you don't know here didn't enjoy JKWB doesn't mean you won't love it. I've had a few great meals there and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to friends. Unfortunately trying everywhere yourself doesn't sound like an option given your student budget so not sure what to tell you.

          I personally happen to think we live in a great city for food and there are hundreds if not thousands of enjoyable options out there, especially in terms of inexpensive ethnic cuisine but also balanced with a nice selection of fine dining spots. I've had fantastic meals at inexpensive restaurants and just ok meals at the 'best' restaurants in the city... I chalk it up to the fact that there is a human element involved in dining so it is tough for even the best places in the city to be on 100% of the time. Having travelled and eaten in many good to great food cities (San Francisco, Montreal, Vancouver, Miami, Rome, New York, London, even Las Vegas for high end) I don't have an issue with the overall quality of the food here... the best places here (say Splendido) at their best are very comparable to the best meals I've had anywhere and even better then some highly reviewed spots abroad. There is definitely a good number of mediocre restaurants, but its the same thing in big cities the world over. Value wise we could be doing better but thats the way it is I guess, Toronto is a big city and things are expensive; even average meals in this city can push the $200 range without a problem. Its a fact of life and is unavoidable so I suppose I've gotten used to it.

          As for Chowhound itself, I rarely if ever use reviews here to convince me one way or the other to check out a new (or new to me) restaurant. If anything its a source of news for new/hidden spots and an opportunity for me to share some experiences/feed my ego through posting. I find the quality/outlook of the opinions on here to be wildly inconsistent as to be expected. You can count equal amounts of people who tend to like everything, those that give negative reviews on almost everything, people showering praise on so-so place, and people who come here with an axe to grind. Grain of salt really, in an open form such as this there is little filtering in terms of quality control so you get what you pay for.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Vise

            No, I dont think your too picky at all. I sometimes feel I am too picky, but when I get consistently let down by restauranteurs and reviewers, it just makes me want to go to No Frills, by some groceries and do my own cooking. Sometimes I think that a good deal of the cost of a restaurant meal goes to the PR firm hired to hustle the restaurant being reviewed. Thre past outings prompted by TO publication reveiws were incredible disappointments. NOON on Bathurst got some nice reviews, even a recent one last weekend in the National Post. Noon was obviously not the resto I went to that was reviewed. A Reuben sandwich with meat straight out of the fridge that wouldn't melt the cheese and with absolutely NO garnish wahtsoever reminded me of Kresge's lunch counter, except for the price. Also when I go into a restaurant in frigid weather and the owner/server is wearing a parka, I should have known I wasn't in for a good time. WEEZIES, reviewed and recommended by NOW magazine was a miserable let down, gristly bits of meat in a warmed over mass of mashed potateoes doesnt add up to an expensive entree, especially with nada else on the plate. Another recomemndation from Toronto Life of a soul food resto, brought out meals that hadn't sold in the past few days and tasted like it.

            Maybe its time to sic Gina Mallet on some of these locations, to assess my expectations.

          2. Vorpal, you’re not too picky, IMO. But I do think you may be giving up too easily on Toronto. Other cities may be a better, easier, fit for you, but I’m sure you can find what you want here; it just may take a little work.

            IMO every city has a distinct food character, shaped by a bunch of things including the climate, the history, and the lifestyles of the people who live there. Like for example, for me, Auckland seems best at cheap, casual cafes. Bangkok is fresh, plentiful, fabulous street food. In London, I find it almost impossible to get anything edible without spending ridiculous amounts of money. (Those are my opinions; obviously other people’s mileage may vary.)

            So Toronto may not suit you well – maybe because our food scene’s designed for people with expense accounts who can afford to waste more money; maybe because the pattern of immigration here just doesn’t match your food preferences; whatever. It’s true that we have too many boring high-end corporate restaurants, too many mediocre places with pretensions, too many chains and bad pubs.

            But that doesn’t mean you can’t find places to love here, it just may make it harder. I agree with FlavoursGal; we’re good at small ethnic places – like Albert’s, Mexitaco, Johny Banana, Matahari, Japango, Soul Food, Julie's, El Trompo, Peter’s Chung King. (This is the vein Now magazine's trying to mine, but they’re just hopelessly uncritical.) We have some consistently excellent high-end experiences, like Scaramouche. And a strain of midlevel enjoyable bistro-like spots – Batifole, Pony, La Palette, Le Select, Rosebud. You just need to do your research, make careful choices, and realize that, for a whole variety of reasons, other people may have lower standards than you (and discount their opinions accordingly). You might also want to avoid places that are new, uber-trendy or getting highly-mixed reviews -Trevor, Habitat, Colbourne Lane, Czehoski, Perigee- since, as a grad student, you may rationally be more risk-averse than people who have more money.

            I also wonder if you’re romanticizing your past a little bit – I for sure have had bad food in DC, and I certainly wouldn’t describe Ottawa as ranging from “wonderful to stellar” :-)

            1. Just be happy that you're not stuck in Edmonton.

              I think FlavoursGal and spigot have got it right: Toronto is fantastic for its variety of ethnic cuisine.

              P.S. You say that you're a grad student; are you channelling your paper-writing procrastination into theorizing about Toronto's restaurants by any chance? If so, I can sympathize.

              1. Personally, I have had excellent meal experiences in this city - this after extensive travel to So. California, New York, Italy, and other more 'renowned' dining destinations. In my opinion, Toronto has a lot to be proud of - both on the ethinc side of the spectrum, and the more chef-driven style food. However, where many high-end restaurants in this city falter is in their consistency. I have frequently gone back to a restaurant where I have had a wonderful meal, only to be disappointed when I've dived deeper into the menu. I think that our geographic location may have something to do with this... you can only get fresh local ingredients for a limited time frame during the year. In other times... well, a chef can only do so much with ingredients that have been sitting in a crate for weeks before arriving in the kitchen.

                I think that the high-end Toronto restaurant scene can be compared to the Maple Leafs. No matter how inconsistent, the people come anyway. As consumers, we need to vote with our wallets and reward the places that find innovative ways to be consistently good, and punish those that do not live up to the standard. Hopefully over the years, consistency will evolve. Until then, I'll happily frequent our hit-and-miss dining rooms and look for little gems wherever I can find them. Believe me, they're here. I for one certainly don't mind exploring.

                2 Replies
                1. re: spades

                  "... well, a chef can only do so much with ingredients that have been sitting in a crate for weeks before arriving in the kitchen."

                  spades, this may well be a part of the problem. Our chefs should be using more local produce, even during the winter, and banishing long-distance produce from their menus. There's no need to stick with root vegetables during the winter, either. Greens and other vegetables are hydroponically- or greenhouse-grown year-round in Ontario. Too few restaurateurs and chefs take the trouble to explore and promote our local farmers and the food shed of Southern Ontario. I, personally, would like to see them do more.

                  1. re: FlavoursGal

                    There really is not an abundant supply of local vegetables in Toronto in the months of winter and early spring. The cost to run a greenhouse to grow food in an Ontario winter would force restaurants to charge way too much for dishes. if you go to the St.Lawrence market (north) on saturdays much of the food sold is not local, they are picking it up at the food terminal. Look at your local stores and you will see that most of the stuff is coming from california and south america. This time of year can be even more tricky, even the root veg and squashes are getting sad from too long in the root celler. The greenhouse grown food of Ontario would not be enough to fill the busy kitchens of toronto's restaurants. Alas this is not the main issue of this thread... yes I think you are being too picky, many people expect the food to look like they are dining at the French Laundry, but won't pay FL prices, and when we do pay the steep price we feel we were ripped off because the earth didn't move. Relax, eat, drink, and be merry.

                2. No, you are not too picky. The vast majority of restaurants are mediocre, despite the rave reviews they get on boards like this and in newspapers. Toronto is ok for restaurants overall, but doesn't rank high for a city its size. Yes, it has a of of ethnic food, but it can't compare to places like NY, Chicago or LA for quality of ethnic food. It is also not very good for top end dining. What it has is lots and lots of ok-to good restaurants. But if you want something special, it's very hard to find in Toronto. And When it comes to service, Toronto ranks near the bottom.

                  1. Thanks for posting this. What you said here needed to be said but people are fearful of being flamed for doing so, and I'm glad most are understanding of your position.

                    Would you say one of the major problems in this city is a lack of authenticity, and one of your "high standards" is this? We've seen discussions about how un-authentic the Mexican places are (and some of those posts even got quoted in a Toronto Star article), and my friends down on the Gulf Coast fell out of their chairs from laughing so hard when I emailed them the menus from such Toronto "Cajun" places as N'awlins and Southern Accent.

                    Now the Japanese government, insulted by our horrible sushi, is going to come up here and "certify" our restaurants, as two recent articles in the Star and the Globe and Mail mention. I originally posted this here but it got moved to Food Media and News, go to http://www.chowhound.com/topics/388826

                    I said that if the governments of Louisiana and Mexico did this, nothing in Toronto would pass.

                    I won't comment on your assertion that the scenes in Montreal, Ottawa, and Washington, DC are superior to the Toronto one, having not dined extensively at any of them. Maybe I should given your recommendation...

                    1. Very thougtful posting..The interesting part is that if you go to any Chowhound board you read the same thing about all cities...I think that personal food/service preferences have a large influence on how one feels about a given restaurant..Two peopls dining at the same time at the same restaurant eating the same food can/will have different experiences..That is what keeps Chowhounders in the hunt for the next great place to eat! Good luck in your search!

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: tasoid

                        "The interesting part is that if you go to any Chowhound board you read the same thing about all cities."
                        That's a great observation, tasoid. Subjectivity is what this board is all about. For me, it's all about collecting a consensus, or at least several opinions about any restaurant.

                        1. re: Yongeman

                          I am going to come down on the side of "yes, you are being too picky". Toronto has its strengths and weaknesses, and I think with some research, and judicious selection, you can find great food here. I have also travelled the world, both as a student and in business, and have had excellent and terrible meals everywhere. I've dined all over Asia, the US, Europe, and Canada, and what I like about Toronto is the sheer variety of what's available, some of it good and some of it not so good. I have had excellent high end meals, and $200 meals that were just not worth it. But that's happened everywhere. I've had TERRIBLE sushi in Tokyo, and the best of my life. I've had horrible french food in Paris, and superb too of course. So give TO a break.

                          And by the way, if you follow reviews of this town in the Globe and the Post (forget NOW), its been interesting watching Kates and Mallet go at it lately: Mallet seems to be systematically going to all of toronto's high end places, often for lunch, and giving them one or two stars. She recently brutalized Thuet, for example. Mostly these are places that Kates loves, and she definitely travels all over the place, and arguably knows her stuff (though that is a controversial statement on this board!). But Mallet makes some good points.

                          1. re: bluedog

                            I just can't stomach Gina Mallet's opinions, food sense (or lack thereof), or writing style. As much as I often disagree with Joanne Kates, I still read her reviews religiously. Having read a couple of Ms. Mallet's recent reviews, I'm delighted that I do not subscribe to the National Post.

                      2. Vorpal,

                        I will have to agree with other postings here and say that the most enjoyable/interesting culinary experiences I've had so far in this city have been primarily at smaller ethnic establishments. That isn't to say I haven't had some wonderful food at higher end places, but the Toronto scene definitely leans towards a pretentious atmosphere (which I loathe). I've always wondered why this is so, because food for me is so elemental. Why do we need the attitude? So no, you are not being too picky. Especially when you are paying premium prices.

                        The other thing to keep in mind is that some people posting on this board are industry insiders. I'm surprised no one has mentioned this (seems like it's the big elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge). And while I will admit these professionals are clearly "in the know", and have a wealth of food/service knowledge which I lack, they also carry with them inherent biases whether they choose to admit that or not.

                        On the flip side, there are also postings from people whose palates are just not the same as yours, and everybody has different priorities when it comes to their culinary adventures. The best thing you can do is to read as many posts as possible, filter through them as critically as you can, and go with it. I don't necessarily avoid places that get bad reviews here, as I have always believed it's best to make up your own mind. As an example, many, many people adore JKWB. My experience with the food was that it was over salted and bland. After trying every single dish on the menu one night with a large group of people, we all came to the same consensus. There were 2 dishes that stood out, and to me that doesn't cut it. And it was interesting because the group I was with included people who were self-proclaimed "foodies" from Paris, Montreal, Tokyo, and NYC to others who would describe themselves as food "neophytes".

                        Being surrounded by grad students in my line of work, I can sympathize with your limited budget. And obviously, you don't have the luxury of blowing $100 on a disappointing meal. But that' s the way the proverbial cookie crumbles sometimes. You'll just have to take that chance.