While I’m processing Nickel City eats, I will jump ahead to say Toronto was a gustatory wonderland. And not a bad place to explore in only 27 hours. Thanks to a Buffalo tip from the woman who persuaded me to surrender rare face time, we were lucky enough to make our base at the Drake Hotel, which turned out to be super-hip as promised but also amazingly hospitable, with no attitude. Since we arrived too early for check-in, we took the super-charming manager’s suggestion to eat in the cafe and had respectable pulled pork sandwich and fish tacos, the latter with a rather innovative filling: cornmeal-battered and fried steelhead trout. I wound up peeling off the tortillas and sloppy cabbage and just forking up the good fish. Both entrees came with fries that looked both desiccated and Boehner orange but tasted pretty satisfying. Coffee, however, tasted pretty awful, Bob reported.
After a jaunt up to the Royal Ontario Museum to see the Crystal addition by Libeskind and take a quick spin through the vaut-le-voyage Bata Shoe Museum recommended by that manager, we made our way to dinner at Lee Lounge, the newly opened addition by Susur Lee. The celeb himself greeted us when we walked in, and we soon settled into a booth with menus for both the bar and the dining room. Bob was smart enough to order Niagara red wine to go with our pupu tower; my usual New Zealand sauvignon blanc seemed too acidic against the great cheeseburger springrolls (with chipotle mayo); edamame with pickled mustard seeds; salmon seviche; chickpea puree with over-browned potato chips, and Peking duck rolls. WIGB? Not sure, but the best part of the evening was peeking in to the kitchen after a trip to the head and seeing the chef/owner himself whipping the cooks into shape.
Next morning we fled the hotel’s bad coffee only to suffer the worst bitter/scorched cappuccino in donkey’s years at T.A.N., a few blocks down Queen Street. An overly sweet pumpkin muffin almost countered it, but it said it all that the barista was pleased when Bob asked for water afterward. “You can tell it’s good coffee if you need water.” Um. No! As they say in Italy.
Afterward we jumped on a $3 streetcar to the St. Lawrence Market, of which I had such intense memories from our first trip easily 20-some years ago. Maybe it was because the stalls were just setting up and restocking after the weekend, but I thought we could have saved Bob’s tiny tokens. We bought some amazing hot mustard from Kozlik’s and a few gifts (Pure honey, cheese curds) from one of the delis but mostly felt underwhelmed. At least we were close by the Flatiron building and walking to it took us past a newsstand where I flipped through a Toronto Life and found Origin touted as the year’s best new restaurant — and a UPS guy outside said it was just a block away. After a detour to the Distillery District one of my consort’s photo friends recommended, we headed there, bags from SOMA chocolate and the overwhelming Bergo’s design store in our hands, outstanding cappuccino from Balzac’s in my belly.
Origin might qualify as the best restaurant of our year so far, despite the AWOL waiters. We sat at the bar and could watch the young crew cooking as well as the street scene outside and the other patrons, ordering and eating with gusto (spicy Spanish fries with chorizo and Manchego looked like upscale poutine). First course: smoked cod croquettes with saffron aioli, which you could almost taste after reading the description. Wok-griddled calamari with pineapple and caramelized peanut sauce followed, a dish that was almost too good because we cleaned the bowl even knowing two more dishes were en route from the performance artists plating just inches in front of us. Then we had three slices of grilled bread topped with fior di latte plus mushrooms, spinach and truffle oil. I’d rate those sensational, but midway through the Chinois duck wrap stuffed with tender meat, pickled cucumber, hoisin sauce, sour cream and sriracha arrived. And it was one of the best duck dishes I’ve ever sunk my retractable fangs into. Only a reflective bowl in front of us prevented us from licking plates, and I normally have self-control. The place gets extra points for offering no drip coffee, only caffeine pulled to order.
The best part of both our better meals was being far afield from our “crash pad,” dazzling as the room and hotel were. I was (stupidly) amazed on realizing how many recommendations, both emailed and in travel stories, cited the same three or four restaurants. Which turned out to be no more than a couple of blocks from the hotel they all recommended. Did I mention the streetcar costs $3?
I always say Montreal is Paris without the jet lag. Toronto is Sydney without the phlebitis.
Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen Street West, 416 531 5042 www.thedrakehotel.ca
Lee Lounge, 603 King Street West, 416 504 7867 http://www.susur.com/
Origin, 107-109 King Street East, 416 603 8009 http://origintoronto.com
Balzac’s in the Distillery District http://www.balzacscoffee.com/
SOMA chocolatemaker in the Distillery District http://www.somachocolate.com/
Bergo design in the Distillery District http://www.bergo.ca/ has everything.
Kozlik’s mustard http://www.mustardmaker.com/