An Ex-Montrealer's Guide to Culinary Toronto
This post was prompted in part by chemfemme's lament about trying to find a decent baguette in Toronto (Bonjour Brioche: Are You Serious?), but because it seems to be a recurring theme on this board that Montrealers who move to Toronto aren't always sure where to start to begin to get a handle on Toronto as a food city. Here's a first stab at an intro to Toronto food life for those who have recently made the move down the 401...
As an former Montrealer who has lived in Toronto for several years, I can sympathize with other ex-pats’ frustrations in trying to acclimatize to life in Toronto, especially for those who obsess about things like the perfect baguette and the benefits of having one’s one affordable neighbourhood bistro a block or two from your front door (to mention but a couple). But fear not, Toronto’s actually a great food city. It just takes a bit longer to get a feel for the town, in part frankly because it’s so spread out compared to Montreal, and it has so much to offer.
When we first moved to Toronto it took my wife and me several months (and in some ways, even longer) to really get to know our way around the place, but once we found the neighbourhoods we liked to spend time in, and the kinds of stores, bakeries and restaurants we were looking for, we really grew to love this place. (This was in pre-chowhound and early Internet days; today its actually pretty easy to get oriented quickly, what with resources like this site and others.) The other pleasant surprise was discovering all kinds of things that were distinct from what we were used to in Montréal.
Nowadays, our frequent trips back to our old town are still filled with certain requisite culinary hoarding activities (sorry to all the various bagel shops in Toronto, but I stand by my Fairmount and St. Viateur bagels) and restaurant outings (when I die you can blame Martin Picard at Au Pied de Cochon), but for the most part our larder is stocked right here, at home, in Toronto.
For us, the key differences we’ve noticed between Toronto and Montreal in terms of food culture are (I’m generalizing here somewhat, so please, don’t interpret this as a set of hard and fast rules):
* Toronto is more overtly diverse than Montreal, even though both cities are bastions of variety. Despite Toronto’s old reputation as being a stodgy Anglo town, the truth is that it is a place where no one or two linguistic and/or ethnic cultures have remained predominant, and immigration has created an amazingly complex web of cultural diversity. As a result, Toronto has evolved into a city that is actually defined first and foremost by its ethnic and linguistic diversity, even though the overall lingua franca in business and on the street is English. This has had a direct impact on the culinary culture of the city.
* As far as restaurants are concerned, Toronto tends to be really, really good at the low end (i.e., very affordable, very good food at a wide range of non-North American, Non-Western European restaurants) or at the high end (i.e., Susur, Jamie Kennedy on Church, George, Canoe, North 44, Splendido, etc.). For me it’s the in-betweens that Montreal tends to be really exceptional at: neighbourhood bistros with solid wine lists and very affordable prix fixe menus and à la carte prices. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally, even local hangouts in Toronto tend to be more expensive than comparable places in Montreal.
* For food shopping, with the exception of searching for classic Québec things like artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, and game meats at Jean Talon and Atwater Market (could someone please just make a decent pâté, rillettes or cretons here in Toronto?), and Montréal’s glorious range of patisseries, I generally prefer Toronto to Montreal now. (Or perhaps better put, shopping in the two cities is simply a different experience, one not comparable on the basis of some kind of metric.) Again, you often have to travel to multiple locations for it, but the diversity of green groceries and various foodstuffs of specific regional/ethnic cuisines in Toronto are amazing.
* As much as I love the variety here in Toronto, sometimes I miss the “coherence” of Montréal’s culinary and food scenes. When I talk about this, I’m speaking specifically (and, to be clear, not to the exclusion or denigration of other food and cultural traditions of Montréal) of the predominant food culture: the Québeçois culinary tradition, and the infrastructure of artisans and farms that have evolved in Québec to support it. It’s only a theory, but I think that the focus that Montréal’s local food culture has had (and still does) has enabled it to achieve a level of core excellence that perhaps is at a greater level than what Toronto has yet achieved with its broader range of influences. What Montréal does, it does really, really well. In many respects, the foundations of a true local food culture in the GTA have only began to emerge in the last few decades, as local farmers, chefs and vendors have started to develop a regional food economy, and overtly integrate aspects of the city’s ethnic diversity into things like restaurant menus and the choices available to consumers on local store shelves.
* Most things are more expensive in Toronto. Montrealers will get sticker shock comparing the prices of things at local markets here to those in Montreal.
1. Breads and Pastries:
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a baguette exactly like those you’ll find at places like Au Pain Doré or Gascogne (especially my all-time favourite, the 36 heures sourdough baguettes), but there are many bakers now in Toronto that make exceptional bread, including proper "french" bread. I’ll second some of the recommendations here: Thuet’s breads are really, really, really good, especially the sourdough boule and his Alsatian-style pumpernickel bread; he does a fairly decent baguette as well in a light-sourdough style. An fyi on the croissant though: the Alsace style is very bread-like, not anything remotely like what you’d probably expect. Almost any bread from Fred’s Bread is excellent: Fred's does a spectacular rendition of the classic Poilane bread, and various other items like foccacias, multigrains, and yes, a decent (but perhaps atypical by Montreal standards) baguette.
As far as baguettes are concerned, I’d say my favourites at the moment are Thuet’s, St. Johns (also made with a subtle sourdough starter) and Brick St. (down in the Distillery District, soon to open also on Logan near Queen). The Brick St. baguette, when it has just come out of the oven, is really awesome. And Ace, the “Premiere Moisson” of TO (in terms of its ubiquity) makes a wide range of very good breads, available almost "anywhere" (supermarkets like Loblaw's, Sun Valley and other stores).
Personally, I’m not a fan of some of the places that others rave about: Bonjour Brioche’s baguette is too white bread-like for me, without a good firm crust; and the quality of their pastry has significantly declined in the last few months for some reason. I’m also not crazy about Célestin’s either: it’s been a bit too dense for my tastes as far as baguettes are concerned (although it is well made; it’s probably more of a personal preference thing).
For pastries (croissant, dessert pastries, etc.) your best bets are probably places that people have already mentioned on Chowhound: Rahier, Cafe Jules Patisserie (on Mt. Pleasant) and Celestin are all very good. Speaking of sticker-shock though, Senses also makes really good patisserie-style desserts, tarts and cakes, but is very, very expensive. For what it’s worth, I’ve never (and most ex-Montrealers I know would agre) understood what people like about Clafouti’s croissants and pain au chocolate: they’re huge and donut-like IMHO. To each their own though, right?
Toronto is are home to wide range of bread and pastry shops from other culture bents, such as Chinese, Portuguese, Italian and various Eastern European bakeries. You'll find them scattered throughout the city, each with its own speciality, each with its own loyal following.
2. Fruits and Veggies:
The very best can be found at the local farmers markets, especially the organic ones: Dufferin on Thursdays; the Riverdale Market in Cabbagetown on Tuesdays; the new Brickworks market on Saturday morning (get there early though for the good stuff), and some things at the North Market at St. Lawrence on Saturdays (although St. Lawrence for green groceries can be a crap-shoot: many vendors simply truck in produce from the food terminal, which is where grocery and corner stores get most of their produce from).
From stores, your best bet is places like Harvest Wagon (sticker-shock again, but honestly, Danny at HW gets the best of the best, whether it’s local or not; I’ve bought things like lettuces or fennel from HW and kept them in my fridge for 2+ weeks and not have them go bad, whereas the same produce from the local grocery store starts to go rotten within a week or less). A second choice would be the St. Lawrence Market, though again, a lot of the produce is not organic and not always sourced from local farms). Third: Whole Foods (albeit, it’s industrial organic, and stocks a lot of foreign market-sourced goods, even when local produce is in season).
3. Dry goods:
Grocery stores for staples and/or St. Lawrence Market and Kensington Market for a mix of staples and harder to find items.
4. Charcuterie and Cheeses:
There are a lot of non-French oriented places all over the city that do things like Portuguese, Eastern European and Italian charcuterie and cheeses, which you’ll must seek out (dig around on the CH Ontario board for recommendations). For somewhere where you can source products from all over (including places like Quebec, New Brunswick and France): the Cheese Boutique, Alex Farms and Chris’ (in the SL market, affiliated with Alex Farms) have the widest selection in the city. The Cheese Boutique is typically a little less expensive than Alex, and is more reliable in terms of quality. Alex has a broad diversity of cheeses, but sometimes they try to sell stuff that frankly is way past its prime. Also, there’s apparently a new place on Dundas near Ossington that does house-made pâtés that a couple of friends who are from France speak highly of. I can’t think of the name off the top of my head. Of special note in terms of local products, despite some idiotic Ontario laws that make it difficult for artisans to produce products of local origin using traditional production methods, there are a few gems:
* Mario Pingue of Niagara Specialty foods makes extraordinary salumi from pork and game meats sourced in Ontario (e.g., a great 24 month prosciutto, various cured sausages). You can find his products at Cumbraes (Cumbraes also carries a couple of Quebec producers’ charcuterie as well).
* Monforte Dairy makes exceptional cheeses from sheep’s and goat’s milk. I really like her fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.
* The Upper Canada Cheese Company in Niagara makes a very good semi soft cheese from Guernsey cow’s milk called Niagara Gold, and also a great ricotta.
Good neighbourhood alternatives for buying charcuterie and cheeses include: All the Best Fine Foods (sticker-shock alert again!), The Leslieville Cheese Market (a small but well chosen selection, with an emphasis on Canadian artisanal cheeses and small production Ontario cured meats), Atelier Thuet and a couple other in the west end (I can’t think of them off the top of my head; we live in Riverdale! Search the board...).
Also, for cured meats from all over the place and things like olive oils, vinegars, etc., Scheffler’s Deli in the SL Market has a very good selection (note: I don’t buy cheese from them, as I think the cheeses are often stored in the same fridges as the charcuterie; you can sometimes actually taste/smell it!).
Cumbraes (the very best in Toronto, IMHO), the Healthy Butcher, and organic meats at both the various farmers markets and in the North Market at St. Lawrence. I’m not a fan of most of the butchers in the main St. Lawrence Market building: cheap but not high quality meats, the exception being Whitehouse (they have a good selection of free-range poultry and game meats; I’m not that crazy about their beef though). There are also various ethnic butchers that specialize in things you might not find everywhere, or at as decent a price, i.e.: chinese butchers near Spadina or Gerrard, meat stores on or just off the Danforth, etc.
5. Central American/South American:
Various shops in Kensington Market stock a wide range of products and produce from the Central and Southern Americas. You can also get some wicked fresh made Empanadas and Pupusas (I'm sure I'm spelling that incorrectly) in Kensington, either from store front take out places, or from the back of supply stores, where people congregate on the weekend to buy and eat fresh made, simple Latin American foods.
6. Asian and South East Asian:
If you want to blow your mind, go visit one of the shopping centres or supermarkets in the north end of the city, where the diversity of products from Southeast Asia, China and Japan is mind-blowing: places like T&T have tanks full of live seafood, every kind of sauce, spice and Asian fruits and vegetables imaginable. Search the board here and you’ll find a variety of recommendations. Good downtown/near town alternatives are Chinatown on Spadina and Dundas, and to a lesser degree (if you’re an east-ender) Gerrard St. For Indian and Pakistani goods, Gerrard East past Greenwood to Coxwell is a good choice.
7. A few other local sources of info on food, wine and restaurants to get one started:
• www.tasteto.com (in fact, if you want to amass a very solid list of TO related food links, Taste TO is a great plae to start
)• the forums on E-Gullet
• wine-specific: www.vintageassessments.com (Michael Vaughan from the National Post), www.vinquebec.com (Marc André Gagnon’s and Alain Brault’s website that contains reviews of wines available at the LCBO and/or the SAQ; en français), www.winesofontario.org, www.tonyaspler.com, www.torontolife.com/blogs/wine (David Lawrason’s blog).
I've just scratched the surface, and no doubt others will have many other great suggestions, but this should give any new-comer to Toronto, especially ex-Montrealers. enough to keep oneself busy for a good while!
What a great post! It is useful for those transplanted from Montreal, and for those of us who have lived here all (or almost all) our lives!
Even though Toronto has a few good delis that serve Montreal Smoked Meat, I have yet to find one that serves the full fat spicy version from Snowdon Deli that I make sure to have each and every time I get to Montreal. Unless an Ex-Montrealer knows of a place here in Toronto?
My personal pet topic - deli.
The Centre St Deli in Thornhill is the direct spawn of Delisnowdon. The owners of Snowdon and Centre St are, I believe, brother and sister.
They are not exactly the same, but many things are very similar. Neither makes their own smoked meat. Both buy from Lester's. Other items on their menus are much alike.
The most profound difference is that Centre St sells pork products. I don't know whether Snowdon does today, but they certainly didn't in the past. The "stuffed chicken" at Centre St is now made with pork, which appalled me (though I am not in any way kosher).
I was at Centre St last week. I live downtown and don't get there very often. The medium old fashioned I got had a distinct rubbery quality I associate with "industrial" smoked meat. It wasn't spicy. It was very disappointing. I don't know whether this was a random brisket glitch or whether Centre St has taken a distinct, intentional step down the quality latter.
It has occurred to me that Snowdon might have had their meats processed by an outside packer to a custom formula. I've never actually known. But last week's Centre St purchase was a bummer. That said, it is the closest to a Montreal deli experience available in the Toronto area. Period. Pause. Cue tears :-(
Embee, any idea who supplies the old-fashioned smoked meat to Snowdon Deli? Lester's is their supplier for their regular smoked meat(probably made according to their specs). I've never had a bad smoked meat at Snowdon Deli(old-fashioned or regular). Even their corned beef is very good. I always order the meats medium-fat.
Wow! Thanks for the long and detailed post. The analysis is spot on and very helpful (even to non-expats).
Thanks for a great intro to Toronto. I'm originally from TO, and have detected some of the 'attitude' here on Chowhound, frequently from ex-Montrealers. I love to visit Montreal, and enjoy the food there immensely, but you have really gone out of your way to be fair to both great cities.
What an extraordinary post! Not just for ex-Montrealers, but for everyone. While I don't agree with all of your choices, I think you are dead on with most of them. And those that I disagree with are more about palate issues than product quality.
Thank you. I'll try to add some more when I have a bit of time.