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Dec 28, 2013 08:44 AM

Report on Christmas-tide trip to Toronto from left coast Hound

Once again, we ventured out to the wilds of Toronto for a quick four-day trip, this year a week later than last ( so we got a real taste of winter during the first snowstorm of the year.

I'll post in two chunks as it's rather long!

Things were a bit crazy so I didn't even get a chance to post in advance but thanks to some desperate research on the board here and some help from TO Hounds offboard, I managed to put together a decent itinerary.

We had planned to fly out together but the SO ended up coming in a day late from SF so I stuck to my guns and went out for dinner at Bar Isabel the first night. The plane had been delayed an hour and it was really cold so I grabbed a cab, only to arrive to the boiling hot room (a forgotten Toronto thing -- freezing outside, tropical inside!).

I was seated at the bar and very well taken care of all night, starting with the Older Flame, dried apricot, pineapple, mango and fresh lemongrass infused gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, chartreuse flame (usually $14 but see below).

The deviled egg with salt cod, morcilla and Hollandaise was two largeish perfect bites of bar food ($6). I can never resist ordering patatas bravas ($7 for the regular version) and these were tasty if a bit heavy on the green onions. The chorizo verde with escarole ($12) was a great combo, as were the chick peas with pea shoots, crispy mustard seeds and arbol chile, though the latter was not much in evidence ($6).

The plates were all generous apart from the egg, so I was more than full after four. I got a free dessert, Basque cake and sherry cream (usually $8.50), very comforting, and my cocktail was also comped, which I didn't notice till I looked at the bill when I got back to Vancouver. I'm not sure what I did to deserve this largesse, though one staffer mentioned they like to take extra care of solo diners.

There is good reason this place is so lauded and hard to get into. I braved the Red Rocket back to the Royal York.

On Friday morning, I nipped over to Hank's on Church at the behest of the concierge (decent coffee is extremely thin on the ground near the Royal York) and got an okay mocha -- the breakfasts looked quite nice here and the room relaxed.

I then headed to the Gallery Grill at Hart House to meet an old friend for a divine lunch. The space is cathedral-like but somehow still cozy, the service impeccable and the food on point. We started with a gin cocktail and some pear cider. The soup was Jerusalem artichoke which I adore and was perfectly prepared.

The main was a warm frisee salad with fried green tomatoes and Haloumi cheese, an ideal balance of tart, salty and bitter, hearty yet light. Dessert was a proper pudding. Some might find this a pricey lunch but I thought it was great value and would go back in a heartbeat.

Another old pal picked me up and we headed over to the Christmas market in the Distillery District.

This event looks to have outgrown the space as there are now shuttle buses and very little on or near site parking -- the municipal lot we used last year is goe. We got a full detailing on my friend's vehicle in exchange for two hours free parking which would have otherwise cost $14 an hour (!). And the market itself doesn't seem to be all that much better on Friday than it was on Monday.

But the Distillery District is lovely, and a spicy, thick cafe maya and bicerin shared at the beautiful Soma outpost is definitely worth the candle, as is the Bergo store. Kind of a lame schniztel, precooked on a decent pretzel bun, was the only thing we had from the market proper.

Saturday was a full-on snow day. We ventured over to Roncesvalles to try a mocha and a too-large cappuccino from the much-vaunted Cherry Bomb. Better than Hank's but not amazing.

After having tried half a dozen of the most called-out cafes, starting to think that coffee in TO is not at the same level as Vancouver, much less Portland or SF, but it may just be a personal thing.

Up the hill to The Westerly, where we were inadvertently half an hour late, as I thought I had reserved for 11 -- oops. The owners were super good natured about it and seated us right away, only to discover that our friends thought the reso was for noon -- double oops! They scooted over as quickly as they could and again the staff couldn't have been nicer. It helped that the snow was pelting down and there weren't too many people about but still, kudos. The meal was good if not great.

Fresh squeezed OJ to start plus an order of light and not-too-sweet lemon ricotta fritters ($11.95) which were forgotten till I reminded the server but worth the extra wait. Eggs benny tasty if uninspired ($12.95), poached egg breaky ($9.95) solid. Best dish was the creme brulee French toast ($11.50) which lived up to the description. Overall better than our brunch together last year at Lola's Kitchen but probably not a destination brunch.

Next it was off through the now-very significant snow to Bar Hop on College near Spadina for some excellent sampler beer and cider, plus topnotch deep fried things for happy hour.

There were very good fries ($5) with a surprisingly enjoyable chipotle lime mayo dip (not usually a fan of things smoky), giant breaded pickles ($7), garlic doughnuts ($7) and three-cheese jalapeno poppers ($10) with a slightly too-sweet sauce. Someone knows their way around a deep fryer.

I lost my notes so no intel on the beverages we tried but the SO was very satisfied, perhaps not a surprise with 36 craft beers on tap to choose from. Really liked the vibe here and the level of beer geekiness of the affable servers -- they give good advice to augment the cleverly laid out tome of a beer menu. We'd return for sure.

Arrived at Chiado to a very empty room -- they had a lot of cancelations because of the snow. This turned out to be a blessing as they were willing to let us order off the bar menu. It appears that is not normally possible on Friday or Saturday night. We loved all the tapas we ordered, especially the carpaccio of grouper ($9).

We also had grilled tiger shrimp with piri piri ($12), grilled sardines ($7), pan seared quail ($9) and seasonal veg ($7) Service was of course impeccable in a white-table cloth room that seemed to have beamed in from the 90s. Loved that the server showed us a giant platter of fresh whole and fileted fish and seafood before we ordered too.

Photos: main at Gallery Grill, coffees at Soma, interior at Cherry Bomb, French toast and fritters at the Westerly, cider and beer tasters at BarHop, poppers and pickle spears at BarHop

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  1. Awesome trip report, thank you, greyelf! Sorry you got to experience some of the ickier early winter weather we've had in years. Please come back in the warmer months. :o)

    1 Reply
    1. re: TorontoJo

      Thanks Jo! When I left TO I swore I'd never come back in the winter or summer, LOL. I like Sept/Oct best. But the food is great year round, and I missed so many spots I wanted to try (and retry: hello Banh Mi Boys) that I hope to be back again, in whatever month.

    2. Sunday I was up early and decided to check out Dineen per piccola's May 2013 recco for coffee and pastries before meeting the SO at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Very solid mocha here, decent ham and cheese croissant and muffin, nice cappuccino and beautiful shop with friendly baristas. I understand it is crammed to the eyeballs with suits during the week but very relaxed on a Sunday in the snow. I walked overland to get there but was able to take PATH back with a map scribbled out by the barista!

      We worked up an appetite at the very good HHOF for a lunch at Karelia Kitchen with another old friend from Waterloo days. This may have been my favourite meal of the trip. Not fancy, not cutting edge, but so warm and comforting.

      Beautiful service from a husband and wife team, the latter of whom had the patience of Job as I called three times to say we were late, and later, due to crazy traffic and a wrong turn at Albuquerque leading to a detour out along Dupont (!). We did get free parking right in front on Bloor as they are doing street repair which was very cool.

      Our friend was also late (she graciously drove in from Stratford just to see us through some truly wretched highway conditions) so we ended up waiting 15 minutes for a table which was so not a problem but we were hungry by then and managed a decent survey of the many offerings -- there are several menus and a hot table so be sure to peruse everything when you go, and you should go.

      Creemore Springs unfiltered Kellerbier in a can helped wash down roast chicken with smoked bacon smorrebrod open-faced sandwich ($8), potato soup, a side each of excellent beet and rice salad and wheatberry salad plus a tasty if simple potato salad, pitti y panna ($12) Swedish style potato hash with smoked loin bacon and 2 over easy eggs, one blueberry and rye griddlecake ($4) with green apple compote, pork and smoked bacon patty $14 with scrambled eggs, cornmeal and green onion cakes and roast tomato and sweet pepper relish (my favourite -- the patty was spot on and the cakes so savoury and light).

      We finished up with a good French press coffee and an assortment of fika (pastry) including a slice of blueberry cake ($4), buttermilk sponge cake with almond praline ($2.75; my favourite), and cookies (9 for $5) including brown butter sandwich with chocolate ganache, lemon lime butter swirl and ginger black pepper snap, plus bagged housemade parsnip and waffle potato chips to take home. $82 before tip for this avalanche of food.

      In Kensington Market, we perused the excellent Good Egg (lots of great restaurant cookbooks), then the SO bought me an antique Japanese print by Murase Gyokuden at Paradise Bound. We swung by Seven Lives to share an excellent, large fish taco on an outstanding slightly smoky double tortilla ($5), then wandered down to Fika (which we now know means pastry) for an overly sweet white hot chocolate in an uber-cute cafe.

      Made the mistake of seeking a pre-dinner beer at Cloak and Dagger, recommended here Maybe we hit it at an off time (one of the owners did appear to be treating it as his own rumpus room, complete with lots of douchey, drunk parents and their small children who the entire bar was forced to watch doing little dances and run around. The music was impossibly and I felt inappropriately loud for early on a Sunday night, and it was awful (think Katy Perry).

      The 'tender was less than useless in terms of any guidance among the 26 taps (not that we could have heard her anyway) so the SO chose randomly, downed a quick pint and we skedaddled, not even using up our hour of parking.

      Had not realized our dinner target Edulis switched over to tasting menus only in the summer and our late lunch had us worried we wouldn't have room but the SO said we should go for the big menu so we did. Tobey, one of the co-owners, was our primary server and was very patient with us noobs (this was the first tasting menu I'd ever done, excepting omakase).

      While nothing really wowed us, it was an interesting experience in a convivial atmosphere. We were a bit surprised by the low average age of the patrons given the prices; there was even a young dad there with two kids.

      On Monday, I trekked out to the original Easy on Queen near Roncesvalles. It's true that you can't go home again -- I have many fond memories of brunches here when we lived in TO many moons ago but the beloved-in-memory huevos divorciados ($13.95) was not a stellar dish with undercooked potatoes, lackluster tortilla and too-hard beans.

      The server did give me a good suggestion for coffee, so I set out to walk there. Dang, it was a chilly trek! And of course very little was open at 10 am on a Monday. Doggedly, I continued on foot, peeping into Capital which looked worthy, and was rewarded at Mascot which is a funky room with tasty if not quite warm enough mocha. I had a lively conversation with the baristas about whether great white sharks eat orcas (don't ask) and made some notes for this report while I warmed up and waited for Grand Electric to open.

      I had been on the fence about trying GE as some of the reports I'd read made it seem like not my kind of place, plus there was the ever-present lineup. Once I heard they were open for lunch, though, I resolved to try the tacos in the daylight. Sure enough, the rap wasn't punishingly or even really loud, the service was warm and interested, and the tacos ($3.60 each) were very good indeed if a tad small for the price.

      I enjoyed the Baja tilapia one the most (though a slight edge to Seven Lives version, mostly because of the superior slaw), but the server-recommended crispy cauliflower has some serious chops too. I did pick the mint out as I'm not a fan but I'd order it again. Very nice house-made tomatillo sauce as well.

      I felt sufficiently fortified to continue my journey up to County General, where I was meeting a friend for lunch. The burger was as good as promised, the chicken sando less impressive, fries just okay. Great little room with cool interior and mellow service.

      We decided to trek out to Black Creek Pioneer Village to check out the old timey stuff before I had to head to the airport. A quick stop at Mabel's on Roncesvalles netted a turkey and brie and a roast beef sando plus two dessert squares for plane food, all excellent and very reasonable. Thus endeth another whirlwind, food-filled visit to the Big Smoke!

      Photos: interior of Dineen, three x treats at Karelia, Seven Lives taco, interior of Fika, two x tacos at Grand Electric, interior and burger at County General