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Visiting Toronto in late April 2008 - recommendations wanted, please

My husband and I are re-visiting Toronto for four days at the end of this month from New York for our first time in decades. After reading through many ' hound posts, Toronto NOW, Toronto Life and more, I'm overwhelmed with choices and options. We're looking for any really excellent food, and especially anything that doesn't feel as if we might as well be eating in New York. It could be a cheap dive, it could be expensive (but not fancy or stuffy), it doesn't really matter. To complicate things a bit, I don't eat mammal -- he's an omnivore. We're staying at the Hotel Shelby (Sherbourne near Bloor). Perhaps to start things off, I'll list below (in no particular order) some places that have all sounded of interest. Thanks in advance for your help.

Susur Lee
Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar
Jean’s Vegetarian Kitchen
Colborne Lane
Rice Bar
Bistro Bakery Thuet

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  1. Hard to say what doesn't feel like New York. What does New York feel like to you?

    Cava is probably going to be fairly unique, in that it is high-end Spanish cooked by a Scotsman. A truly great chef though. Not sure about the vegetarian selection.

    Susur is closing, so don't bother. He's moving to New York.

    Chiado is good, but pretty stuffy. Lots of seafood.

    You might try Scaramouche for excellent food and an amazing view of the city.

    And Amuse Bouche...

    This is a good book, with an excellent dining section. It's brand new this month, so fairly up-to-date:

    2 Replies
    1. re: grilledcheese

      It's not "feeling like New York" -- perhaps poor phrasing on my part -- so much as looking for someplace that feels as if it's just where and how it should be. Such as a comfortable Portuguese spot with a great acorda; or a restaurant where the chef's inspiration drives the menu and the overall experience, not just flash or trendiness; or maybe someplace using local ingredients and influences when possible. Ideally, when we think back on the deliciousness a year from now, I'd love to be able to place the restaurant instantly in Toronto, not wonder, "now where again did we have that spaghettoni with bottarga?"

      1. re: gbevan

        Cava is pretty darn unique like that.

    2. From your list, I would highly recommend:

      - JK Wine Bar for a great "local" chef. Sit at the chef's bar if you can.
      - Colborne Lane for excellent food with a smattering of molecular gastronomy. CL does fish and other seafood beautifully. Be warned that the wine list is very weak.
      - Starfish for some of the best seafood in the city, and a superb lemon tart and flourless chocolate cake for dessert!
      - Chiado for the best Portuguese around -- definitely an experience you won't find in NYC. The restaurant has a newer "wine bar" section that is much more modern and less stuffy than the original "old world" style restaurant. Order some apps from the wine bar menu (they are fantastic) and order your mains from the restaurant menu.
      - For fun, if you have time, throw Banaboia into the mix to compare against Chiado. Chiado is Portuguese fine dining, Banaboia is Portuguese "homestyle" dining.
      - Perigee is VERY expensive if you go with the tasting menu (they do have an a la carte menu these days, though). It's a lovely space, but I'm not sure it's worth the price any more, especially now that they've glassed in the kitchen. The interaction with the kitchen was my favourite part of the experience there. If you are exploring the distillery district, I would keep it casual -- some sandwiches or savoury pastries from Brick St. Bakery and some wicked chocolates from Soma, washed down with some coffee from Balzacs.

      1. Great list to start with! I can definitely vouch for Susur. Susur Lee, the chef, owns two restaurants in Toronto - Lee and Susur. The latter is high end, and offers only a tasting menu. I like both restaurants but Susur is quite a unique experience: he is creative, uses fresh ingredients and is wonderfully imaginative with his presentation and flavour combinations. I would definitely recommend Susur for a high end night out.

        I also definitely give thumbs up to Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar... I love the atmosphere, and it's one of the few places in the city where the small plates concept is executed well and doesn't feel like a gimmick.

        SKIP Swatow... if you want Chinese (and I really recommend that you do go for Chinese as arguably we have some of the best Cantonese fare outside of Hong Kong and maybe Vancouver here in Toronto), please try out Lai Wah Heen or Grand Chinese Cuisine for dim sum. I've only tried out Grand and I think it offers a fantastic selection of dim sum ... but several experienced TO chowhounds think that LWH is tops.

        I thought Thuet was overrated. Solid bistro food, but not worthy of the high prices, in my opinion.

        Zucca is a great low-key neighbourhood spot for fresh handmade pasta.

        And Starfish is wonderful for seafood....

        Have a great stay here in the city!

        1 Reply
        1. re: Yum2MyTum

          I like Starfish a lot, and it's offers some of the best seafood in Toronto, but it can't compete with a great seafood restaurant in NYC.

          I ate out a lot when I lived in NYC, but I don't remember dining at any particularly good Portuguese restaurants, so I'd second Chiado if you're craving Portuguese and/or seafood while you're in Toronto. I don't find it stuffy, although it is upscale.

          Even though I don't exactly love the food at JKWB, it would offer some things that you wouldn't find in NY, and the ingredients tend to be sourced in Canada.

          I'd add C5 in the Royal Ontario Museum, and Globe, as restaurants that wouldn't have you feeling like you were eating in NY. Globe sources local ingredients, and it's located on the Danforth, just a couple subway stops east of your hotel. If you wanted to visit Greektown, it would be a short walk east of Globe. It is similar to Astoria in some ways, but I think it still has a distinct Toronto vibe. If you like Greek sweets, I'd suggest Athens Pastries for some loukamades or galatobouriko.

          I think Zucca would be disappointing compared to the amazing Italian food that's available in NYC. Noce is very good, but again, it wouldn't be difficult to find something equally good, if not better, in NY.

          Swatow is about the same level as an average Chinese restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown. I wouldn't bother with it while you're here- if you really want Chinese, I'd second the idea of going to Lai Wah Heen. The prices at LWH are not outrageous, they are just higher than what most Torontonians are used to paying for Chinese food. I would think LWH's prices are the roughly the same as Shun Lee Palace or Jimmy Sung's on E 44th. You could have dim sum at LWH for somewhere between $25- $35 per person.

          I'd also second the recommendation of George. The food is truly delicious.

        2. I don't always agree with the NOW critic's opinions but you might consider Foxley and Caju as interesting little neighbourhood spots with good food. Also on his list, La Palette and Harlem get positive comments on the board.

          Toronto's Top 20 Dishes + The City's Quintessential Kitchens

          La Palette
          256 Augusta Ave, Toronto, ON M5T2L9, CA

          207 Ossington Ave, Toronto, ON M6J2Z8, CA

          67 Richmond St E, Toronto, ON M5C1N9, CA

          922 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M6J1G6, CA

          1. Don't waste your time with swatow. nothing special about the food. Mostly known as a place where people go after the club to eat something to soak up the alcohol.

            Something you might think of is one of the west indian places for some good roti. I'm not sure what that scene is like in Toronto, but we've got a lot of good ones (check different threads on roti). Meets your "cheap dive" criteria and non-mammal options.

            1. My Chinese brother-in-law lives on Long Island, and every time he comes to Toronto, he swears the Chinese food here is light years better than what he can get in the NYC area. Unfortunately, downtown Toronto Chinese is either so-so, lacking in refinement (no table cloths, brusque service, etc.), or tremendously expensive (and overpriced IMHO - cf Lai Wah Heen).

              So, bite the transport bullet, take the subway up to Finch and grab a cab from there to some of the many great spots in Markham or Richmond Hill. You will get the best Chinese meal to be had east of Vancouver. Just check the many threads here about Chinese spots such as Ambassador, O-Mei, Grand Yatt, Magic Wok, etc. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

              1 Reply
              1. re: KevinB

                KevinB is right about the food in the burbs, but if you still want Chinese downtown there are some good options. Both Lee Gardens and E-Pan on Spadina (same street as Swatow) are more than decent.

              2. Some comments on listed places and additions of my own....
                If you were willing to have the splurge lunch or dinner, I would say to consider George. It wouldn't be far from where you're staying and the food is out of this world in my opinion.
                Jean's Vegetarian Kitchen is a trip on the subway and is a little off the 'cool' part of Danforth (it's 5 minutes from my house, so I'm well acquainted). Small, cheap and good.
                I would also recommend Julie's Cuban just cause it's in a great residential setting, with good food and great ambiance. If the weather is good, you may even be able to sit outside.
                JK Wine Bar is definitely worth it. Reservations aren't plentiful, so perhaps plan an early stop there if it makes the cut.

                Julie's Cuban
                202 Dovercourt Rd, Toronto, ON M6J3C8, CA

                George Street Diner
                129 George St, Toronto, ON M5A2M6, CA

                1. ...

                  111 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON M5C 1S2, CA

                  1. I totally agree with Phoenikia's posting!
                    Starfish is great by TO standard but why bother when NYC has great seafood restaurants/oyster bar and grills ranging from the incomparable Grand Central Oyster bar to the Michelin 3* Le Bernadin? Also. I would pass on all the Italian on your list like Noce and Zucca. They are no where near some of NYC 's best like Batali's Babo etc. For high end, I would give Canoe a try. Afterall they do serve ' Canadian Cuisine' using lots of 'Canadian' products like Quebec foie gras, NW territory Caribou/Bison, Arctic Char, ice wine, maple syrup...etc. Food is delicious and the view is great ( if you can get a window seat?!!!). Finally, in my opinion, I think Toronto's Cantonese food is amongst the best in North America. Do give Lai Wah Heen a try. Better still, head up to Richmond Hill/Markam for tons more choices! Enjoy!!

                    1. I adore NYC. I have spent a fair amount of time eating in NYC. I strongly recommend you try to get some Chinese while in Toronto. If you are a fan of the soup dumpling, get up to Ding Tai Fun or Shanghai Bund, or both places and do a taste off. (this is in Markham). You won't easily find an equal in NYC. The chinese food in Toronto north of the 401 is special. DIm sum at Lai Wah Heen is also special. But, if you don't eat pork, it won't be as exciting.

                      If you like roti, do go and get Roti. We tried Ali and it was excellent. The vegetarian double was cheap and delicious, and very unique (Deep fried dough, then filled with chickpea curry. So simple, yet so good.)

                      Do hit a market. St. Lawrence market is a madhouse on Saturdays, but it is part of the fun. Search out the raw milk cheeses. I was impressed with the Quebec cheese selection. (I find it funny that I am suggesting Quebec Cheeses on an Ontario board). It's quite the scene on Saturday morning!

                      Have fun!

                      1. Thank you all for your advice. We finally made our choices, with reservations at Canoe and Susur, plans for JK Wine Bar, Banabonia, somewhere in Markham for a Chinese meal, plus some time at the St. Lawrence Market. But our trip was postponed, probably until the fall, so I can't post a follow-up report.