Thursday, October 5, 2017

North American Adventures: Toronto

Recently, we did a short family vacation to Toronto. It’s a big city (4th largest in North America we learned) and there are tons of food options. It was slightly more challenging to research for me than many cities we’ve visited, but I combined sources and talked to a local blogger there and made my choices. (Prices are Canadian dollars).

The first day we landed right at lunch time and I had read about the Dumpling House not too far from our hotel in one of the three (!) Chinatowns in Toronto. It was a kind of hole in the wall place where people line up for one of the crowded tables. It reminded me of some of the places we used to frequent in San Francisco. The man seating you is a bit gruff and it’s not a place to linger. Naturally we wanted dumplings, but there were many things on the menu. We sort of asked the server for advice and she recommended the things we got: fried rice ($7.99), an onion pancake and the fried dumplings ($8.99). We also got an order of the steamed dumplings ($8.99) as well. They come about a dozen to an order, but luckily you can pick up to three flavors per order for a small upcharge. We had a variety of flavors including shrimp and pork, shrimp and veggie, and lamb in order, but the favorite was the pork and chive. The server was right, the pan-fried ones were the best (they cook them in one big piece and then flip them over to serve). However, the fried rice and the onion pancake were quite good as well (the chicken in the rice was shockingly tender). We pretty much inhaled the whole lot of it. Two women stand in the front widow constantly making dumplings, and their business is non-stop from what I could tell.

For dinner that night, it was just my daughter and me (boys were at a soccer—I mean football—game), and we chose Grey Gardens. It’s a restaurant owned by a female chef who is known for her attitude apparently, and that sounded good to me. We started with the house bread plate ($5) that was served with butter and schmaltz. It was interesting bread—grilled to the point that it had a distinct smoky taste even though it wasn’t overly browned. Our shared salad was really good though. It had pea shoots and snow peas and then throughout, this wonderfully tender sliced grilled calamari. There was a dollop of hollandaise next to it as well. You ran your fork through that and then took a bit of the wonderfully acidic salad—it was great and so unique. We both ordered a pasta dish—mine was my favorite. It was papardelle with fried sweetbreads and tiny little chanterelle mushrooms. It was in a light sauce made with ginger ($25). It tasted very rich but somewhat light at the same time. The sweetbreads were fried perfectly. My daughter had ravioli with corn, chorizo and cotija cheese. Also very good, with a little spicy kick. I liked the unique combos here.

Another day we had lunch at El Catrin Distileria in the Distillery District, thanks to a recommendation from my social media friend, @attackresist. We really enjoyed this meal as well, even though he warned me it was a bit pricey. We started with tableside guac ($12.95), which was nice and fresh but needed salt.  The margaritas were also good. The tuna tostadas also very tasty ($16.95) and my daughter enjoyed a burrito. My son had a quesadilla and all was well in the world. We also got some churros for dessert. The chocolate dipping sauce was eww… but the dulce du leche was on point. It was a very enjoyable lunch in the Distillery District where we spent a few hours.

Dinner that night was at Buca, which was the one restaurant everyone had helped pick. It’s Italian, and we all know how difficult that is to find in Indy. Buca was in a sort of busy, hopping neighborhood of bars and restaurants. It was weird though—it was pretty early, but you did not see kids (besides ours) anywhere. I don’t think Torontonians take their kids out to eat much. Anyway, it was a cool restaurant that was set in a basement. Lots of cured hams hanging everywhere and wheels of cheese. We started with the steak tartare. It was interesting because it had a ton of cheese with it, as well as the standard egg. It had a unique taste, but was good. The fried zucchini flowers ($15) were my favorite though. These were stuffed with not just cheese, but also scallop, giving it a heartier flavor. I also liked that they leave the tiny baby zucchini on the stem as well. We also really enjoyed the nodini ($6), which are little bread balls with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Can’t really go wrong here. My daughter loves gnocchi and enjoyed Buca’s version, which were actually stuffed with pesto (in the shape of a cube!) and topped with tomato sauce. Unfortunately the rest of our dinner was just meh. My son’s carbonara had little flavor and the flatbread hubby and I ordered was also doughy and bland, which was weird considering it had porcini mushrooms and gorgonzola on it (as well as mascarpone and rosemary). We enjoyed the restaurant, but it was probably our least favorite meal.

The next night my daughter and I were on our own again (baseball game this time) and went to Byblos (a place my daughter would like me to point out that she picked out). I really, really liked this place. It was the first place with an extremely friendly server, and the food was excellent. We started with citrus olives that were marinated in chili, preserved lemon and cilantro ($6). They were so good—particularly the lemon part. The other first course we had was the black truffle pide ($17). Pide are like flatbreads rolled up around fillings. This was the best thing I ate the entire trip. And they have a whole bunch of different pide flavors. I would like to try them all. This one was stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and halloumi cheese and truffled crème fraiche. Oh yeah, and sliced black truffles on top. This was mind blowingly good. Warm and crisp on the exterior and gooey and truffley inside. For our main course we split the chargrilled Cornish hen ($36) with sabzi sauce, toum, and topped with shaved crispy fried leeks. The hen itself was so tender and the herby sauce (the sabzi) was nicely accented by the toum, which is like a garlic aioli. We had hand rolled couscous with brown butter, saffron and herbs ($8) and it’s a great accompaniment to the saucy poultry. We also had a side of their Brussels sprouts ($9), which are roasted like you see so often these days, BUT WITH CHEESE. They put big hunks of haloumi in there as well as some tahini and yogurt. Really nice. We didn’t really have room for dessert, but we ordered it anyway. It was a fancy hazelnut chocolate mousse and it was as pretty as it was delicious.

The last place we went as a family for dinner was Bar Isabel. It was a bit of a drive from our hotel, but it was worth it. We were sort of wondering how it would go over when we walked in because it really was pretty much a bar, but they gave us a nice table, and while our server was not especially friendly, he gave us great advice about the menu. It was Spanish tapas and was very traditional. We started with a cheese plate ($18) and a ham tasting ($34). There were three kinds of Spanish cheese including a very strong blue that was the table favorite. The ham plate included Iberico and Serrano. Everyone was happy with these. We also got some Spanish olives ($6) that were delicious. My son was suspicious of the color of them and then ate one, and then promptly ate them all. We had to get more.  Next we had the Jamon croquettas ($9 for 2). These were intensely rich. They were basically balls of cheese and Béchamel with some ham mixed in there and then breaded and fried. Hubby really liked them, but they were a little much for the rest of us. The octopus was highly recommended everywhere I read about the place, so we ordered a quarter of one ($22) (you can get a half or whole also). This was wonderful. The kids were starting to wonder if tender octopus was a thing, and they finally got to have some. It was chargrilled and served with a light, slightly acidic sauce and some chorizo. Delicious. Our server also recommended the “pork secreto” ($14), which was possibly even better. It was seasoned a grilled and was amazingly tender. Served with a wedge of grilled lime—perfect. We also had a side of patatas bravas ($10), which were very traditional and a nice side dish. They’re fried potatoes drizzled with a red pepper sauce as well as a mayo type sauce. The best thing might have actually been our dessert though. I would have probably never ordered this if it hadn’t been for all the reading I did online and the way people raved. It is a Basque cake ($10). This was a small round cake that is not overly sweet. At the table they pour a sherry cream sauce all over the top. It was stunning. So simple, and completely amazing. I have already looked up the copycat recipes. I would say as a complete experience, this was our favorite meal.

So that’s it in a nutshell as far as our food experiences in Toronto. Based on what I saw, you could eat for months here and not repeat a restaurant, and that’s a good quality in a city as far as I’m concerned.


  1. I just booked a trip in April to Toronto, and was thrilled to see you have reviewed some restaurants there. I'd be grateful if you'd share any other recommendations you received, even if you yourself did not dine there.