Fork in the Road thinks you should get out of town on occasion, since dozens of destinations lie within just a couple of hours of the city. In this Excursions column, we’re covering the best places to eat in popular weekend trip locations. See more Excursions and Summer Fridays ideas in our archives.
Just like New York, but like an hour’s flight from New York, Ontario’s capital is anything but provincial, and touching down for a weekend of walking in Toronto rewards curious appetites with endless plates of multicultural dishes. Try Persian tacos, Kung Pao cauliflower, and sloppy banh mi, and sip cocktails filtered with charcoal, ensconced in dewy moss, and scented by burning leaves. Croissants loaded with Oreo cookies and pumpkin pie filling all worth a dunk in your Turkish coffee before the flight home. And if you’re looking for a taste of home, fear not: Ontario gave us Rob Ford, Drake, and Tim Hortons, we returned the favor with restaurants from Daniel Boulud and David Chang, who has five Momofuku restaurants here.
Toronto’s most adventurous cooking lurks in its most culturally diverse neighborhoods — Queen West, Kensington Market, and Chinatown — all easily explored within the confines of a five kilometer perimeter. It’s hard to spot the entrance to People’s Eatery (307 Spadina Avenue, 416-792-1784), where the downstairs barroom menu serves nothing but fusion finger food. Utensils are reserved for the upstairs dining room, so you’ll be licking your fingers after downing hunks of sweet hot barbecued quail, foie gras and chopped liver smeared on plush challah, and pretzel-sandwiched fried tongue.
Directly across the street is banh mi traditionalist Nguyen Huong, the parent restaurant of nearby Banh Mi Boys (392 Queen Street West, 416-363-0588). Here, sloppy hybrid Vietnamese sandwiches rival the locals’ love of booze-sopping poutine; look for overstuffed baos, tortillas, and baguettes loaded with greasy fried chicken, pork belly, and meatballs.
Wake up early to hit the line outside Rasta Pasta (61 Kensington Avenue, 647-501-4505), where you’ll witness your $5 jerked chicken lunch special grilled on the sidewalk, assuming you arrive before noon. Otherwise, you’ll walk away with little more than rice and vegetables. If that’s the case, keep on walking to nearby daytime seafood taqueria Seven Lives (69 Kensington Avenue, 416-393-4636) for grilled salmon, smoked marlin and shrimp, and pumpkin mole-smothered octopus.
Sweets and drinks around the neighborhood are a classier affair. Rush Lane (563 Queen Street West, 416-551-7540) and Barchef (472 Queen Street West, 416-868-4800) are producing some of the most ambitious cocktail programs in North America.
Rush Lane’s a haute dive, serving well-thought small plates, like pig’s head corn dogs, and a pallet of ice cream equipped with a palette of edible spray paints. Leave the artistry to the bartenders who mix the gin-and-ginger beer “Beat It” with beet grenadine to make the most drinkable borscht this side of the north Atlantic. See also a smoky spiked Sarsaparilla root beer float that fogs up the table when it’s poured over a frozen vanilla meringue.
Barchef is the Alinea of cocktail bars, and it’s no wonder Grant Achatz wrote the foreword to owner Frankie Solarik’s modern drinks manual. Drinks get smoky here: The Essence of Fall features a fog of burning cedar looming over a glass of brandy, which melts a frozen sphere of Fernet nestled in maple granita. A $45 cherry vanilla Manhattan arrives in a domed cloud of smoked hickory that infuses the drink tableside.
Further afield, you’ll find Thoroughbred Food & Drink (304 Richmond Street West, 416-551-9221), where neighborhood locals cut into Kung Pao cauliflower and fried pumpkin bread after work. The cozy two-story townhouse pub is reinventing classic Tiki drinks.
Or kick back tall boys to classic rock at the authentically rowdy Ronnie’s (69 Nassau Street, 416-340-1110). The grilled cheese spot across the street delivers to the bar.
Come morning, coffee is requisite. Begin with a Turkish latte at Sense Appeal (96 Spadina Avenue, 416-203-0023), for a cardamom perfumed cup to go, and wander Queen West, croissant to croissant.
At Nadege Patisserie (780 Queen Street West, 416-368-2009), bypass the rainbow of macarons for delicate pumpkin-shaped croissants buttered with a smear of pie filling. Then venture farther westward to Clafouti (915 Queen Street West, 416-603-1935), where last year pastry chef Olivier Jansen-Reynaud crafted the Crookie, Canada’s Oreo-stuffed Cronut competitor.
One block south, duck into Soma Chocolatemaker (443 King Street West, 416-599-7662) to warm up with a chili-ginger Mayan hot cocoa, and to stock up on salted milk chocolate bars and hazelnut sandwich cookies.
There are worse ways to choose a hotel than by its restaurants. The SoHo Metropolitan houses Susur Lee’s culinary redemption, Luckee (328 Wellington Street West, 416-935-0400). Forget everything you never ate at the Thompson LES and discover why Lee remains Toronto’s most important chef. The massive dim sum brunch menu features no dish over $10; try the chicken-stuffed rice doughnuts. At dinner, Lee’s kitchen turns out classic yet inventive Chinese cooking, like honey and mustard-dressed Shanghai ham buns.
Attached to the Shangri-La Hotel you’ll find five Momofuku (190 University Avenue, 647.253.6227) restaurants; they’re stacked in a three-story glass box. While Milk Bar offers the full menu of Brooklyn-imported baked goods, Noodle Bar features local pork in its ramen. Extra Spicy Noodle is true to its name — it’s only a matter of time before you succumb to its side of cooling soy milk. At second floor Nikai, fried chicken (for one) with caviar is in regular rotation, and buttermilk biscuits with hot sauce and honey butter stand out at the Ssam Bar-equivalent Daisho.
There’s only one reason to explore the dining scene east of Momofuku, and that’s if you already trekked this far north for a nip of contraband. Cuban rum is nowhere to be found in the States, and it’s nearly as hard to come by at Toronto bars, but two are worth the expedition.
D|Bar (60 Yorkville Avenue, 416-963-6010) is Daniel Boulud’s lounge at the Four Seasons, and while the hotel’s iteration of Cafe Boulud serves the greatest hits of DBGB fare, you can indulge at the bar on an incongruous mix of Cuban bianco Mojitos and regionally inspired fare like Cumbrae striploin tartare and pulled pork poutine.
That’s likewise the case at Carbon Bar (99 Queen Street East, 416-947-7000), an adult TV studio turned upscale barbecue joint where you can chase crunchy and tender wood-fired burnt ends with a Southern Wassail, blending Amaro with Havana Club 3-year.
Even if you can’t get the full bottle through customs, the flight home’s short enough you’ll still feel the illicit buzz standing in baggage claim at JFK.
You can follow Adam Robb on Twitter, @lifevicarious.