Brunch: My Top 10 Picks for Toronto

Brunch is my favourite meal to eat out. I like arriving before the crowds and enjoying a nice, leisurely meal and good conversation. I like ordering something ridiculous and massive off the menu and feeling satisfied until dinner. I like getting my caffeine fix for the week in the matter of an hour or two as I down four or five cups of coffee. I like restaurants that have a comfortable and homey décor and feel to them but with an interesting menu. I don’t want to eat a “big breakfast” with eggs, toast and three types of breakfast meat. I want something I can’t make at home or something that I can’t be bothered to make at home because it will dirty about 27 different dishes. I want a restaurant that is in an interesting neighbourhood, somewhere I want to wander in and out of shops for the rest of the afternoon looking at furniture, records and prints.

On this list you won’t find anything east of Yonge Street. The west is my Toronto. I know that is terrible and very limiting but its brunch. I don’t want to waste an hour or more of my time trying to get to the East End to have brunch at Lady Marmalade only to wait another hour or more in line. I will acknowledge that Lady Marmalade is delicious, unique and cozy. But it’s not my favourite. If I ever move east of Yonge Street this list will dramatically change but for now, west is best.

10. Smith

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Ok, I lied. Smith is east of Yonge. I have only been to Smith once for brunch but I was completely enamoured by it when we visited. It was a quiet fall afternoon, just a few weeks before our wedding and we were seated on one of the most romantic and cozy patios in the city. The patio has taken over a back alley and looks out onto a side street just off Church Street. We were alone on the patio which allowed us to take in everything: the exposed brick walls, the various textures and patterns on the cushions, the lights strung up in a zigzag pattern over head, the single piece of lavender in a antique porcelain cabinet knob turned vase on the rustic wooden table. The whole atmosphere was so simple but so well thought out and put together. This attention to detail and capturing of comfort in décor would translate into the capturing of comfort and warmth into the food.

The Eggs Benedict manages to turn an already adult breakfast item into an even more sophisticated and decadent meal. Instead of traditional hollandaise sauce, the Benedict is drenched in a parmesan leek fondue. Any restaurant that is going to allow me to justify eating fondue at 10 am on a weekend morning is a place that warrants another visit.
I also consider this restaurant worthy of a top-ten spot because Smith is one of the preferred brunch spots of Al and I trust her opinion on most everything.

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Provo Foodbar

Every time I go to the AGO I wonder, patient “Why are there not more restaurant options near this gallery?” My last visit to the AGO was proceeded by a visit to Mother’s Dumplings for lunch as I couldn’t think of a better option closer by – which if I am completely wrong about this, please let me know. But no longer will I have to trek from College and Spadina before or after the gallery in search of food. I can now go across the street to Provo Foodbar.

I went to Provo last Friday night with my friend Lynsey, to catch up about the drama of life over delicious food and drink. Provo opened earlier this year and has been popping up all over my Instagram feed ever since.

Our reservation was for 5:30 and we were seated at a small table near the front of the restaurant. There were a few people there as the after-work crowd shuffled in but it was relatively quiet for early on a Friday night. I would imagine (and hope) that is gets much busier as the night wears on.  The restaurant is deceptively large, with large windows that open at the front of the restaurant onto Dundas Street making the front half of the restaurant seem almost patio-like. There is a long bar anchoring the middle of the restaurant, and more seating at the back of the restaurant up a few steps. It is a huge space that could definitely host an intimate date-night dinner or a large group of friends for any occasion.

We started off with cocktails. Lynsey had the A.G.O.M.G (Smirnoff vodka, prosecco, maraschino, lavender and pomegranate) and I had the Middle Daughter (Bombay sapphire gin, elderflower, vanilla, grapefruit and lemon). The A.G.O.M.G is to be pronounced AGOhmygod and not as “agomg”. The prosecco and maraschino make this cocktail extremely sweet. When the prosecco falls flat the drink becomes almost unbearable to drink. But of course you do because there is alcohol in it. The Middle Daughter on the other hand is a beautifully balanced, strong cocktail. It tastes like spring in a glass – it is fresh, with floral notes and citrus zing to it. I could drink about 30 of these but then I would likely be on the floor. After my one cocktail I switched to beers by Collective Arts Brewing.

We ordered 6 different plates to share. We started with two different types of crostini: the Duck Confit Rillette and the White Anchovy and Oven Dried Tomato.

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Both of these were absolutely amazing and captured different seasonal flavours. The Duck Confit Rillette was hearty, smoky and had a richness to it which is perfect for warming up on a cool spring night. It was the right consistency to be spread thickly across the toasted and crispy crostini. It was priced just right – $6.00 for a small pot of rillette and four crostini. The rillettes was more than enough to be spread across four crostini, and we had extra rillette leftover which we obviously spread across other things because you can’t let good food go to waste.

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The white anchovy and oven dried tomato crostini tasted like Italian summer nights. The tomato was blistered and slight caramelized, allowing that sweetness to ooze out of the charred skin and onto the crostini. The tomato was dotted with garlic which was slightly peppery. The white anchovy added the saltiness to the crostini that brought out further sweetness of the tomatoes but were not overly fishy. This is definitely a crostini that easily can and will be recreated at home with fresh tomatoes from the garden.

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Barque

Over the July long weekend, I went to Barque with GC and my sister Theresa. Theresa told us stories of her recent trip to Washington, D.C. and her role in the June provincial election and we ate and listened. I chose Barque because Theresa had never been and I knew it would more then make up for my recent experience at Wallace & Co.

My only complaint about this visit to Barque was that when we were seated, the hostess said that they needed the table in an hour. My response to her was that the success of that was predicated on their service and speed. An hour is more than enough time to enjoy brunch especially if the servers and kitchen are working well together. I have had a few issues with the hosts at Barque. They always give me attitude while seating me, as if I am an inconvenience because I want to eat there. I am willing to overlook these minor run-ins because the food is so delicious.

Theresa and I ordered the Smoked Duck Pancakes.

IMG_0846 IMG_0847 IMG_0848 IMG_0849The Smoked Duck Pancakes with blueberry compote and chèvre.

This is the dish on the cover of Toronto Life’s 2014 Eating and Drinking issue and therefore, there are huge expectations for the taste and presentation of this dish. When it was brought to the table, I was in awe: a huge stack of piping hot and fluffy pancakes topped with blueberry compote and a generous mess of duck dolloped with a thick, creamy scoop of chevre and then drizzled with syrup. Does it get much better than that? This is one of the more beautiful stacks of pancakes that I have been presented with and I’ll admit it is a daunting stack.

The pancakes were sweet, fluffy and held up to all the intense weight that was stacked on top of them. The blueberry compote was sugary, thick and dotted with fresh, real blueberries.

The duck. It was Theresa’s first taste of duck. I love being with people the first time they try a new food. To see that anticipation, excitement and look of satisfaction makes me so incredibly happy. I just want everyone to eat good food as much as possible and I love when I can facilitate that experience. The duck was tender, pull-apart and extremely juicy. It was smoky and added an intense, over-the-top (in a delicious way) richness to this stack. If you have never had duck, this is a great introduction to it. If you hate duck, this dish will change your mind about it. If you love duck, this dish will make you fall in love all over again.

I love, love, love chèvre. It is creamy, smooth, thick and salty. It is the perfect topping for blueberry pancakes. The chèvre was enough salty contrast to balance the entire dish and ensure that it was not cloyingly sweet. It also complimented the salty, fattiness of the duck. Yums.

GC ordered the McDowell’s Ribwich.

IMG_0845The McDowell’s Ribwich with roast garlic mayo, house relish, romaine, and green apple.

Does it get better than a Ribwich? I didn’t think so. Like our pancakes, this dish delivered in flavour, presentation and overall deliciousness. Another yums from Barque.

We already loved Barque and now Theresa does too! If you don’t have brunch plans this weekend, you should probably visit Barque. And if you are busy all weekend, rearrange your schedule, it’s worth the munch.

Happy munching!

Delux

At the start of June, I get the opportunity to celebrate the birthday of one of the greatest people of all time, Cynthia. As you know, Cynthia is great and is one of my favourite people to share food with. To celebrate this year’s birthday we went to Ossington to have dinner at Delux.

It seems unfair for me to taunt you with this deliciousness as Delux recently just closed but it really was delicious and you need to know about it. There are also talks that they are working on something new so you can look forward to that.

We started off with mojitos and decided to order two appetizers and split an entree. Our first starter was the Grilled Tiger Shrimp.

IMG_0650 IMG_0651The grilled tiger shrimp and tostones.

This was delicious. The avocado was smooth, buttery and fresh with hints of lime. The shrimp was slightly charred and smoky. It was tender and sweet. The tostones were the perfect platforms to serve all this deliciousness on. I preferred these tostones to the ones at La Cubana. They were more tender but still crispy with hints of salty, nuttiness.

Next, we had the Duck Confit Empanada.

IMG_0652The crust was flaky, buttery and tender. It carefully enveloped the soft, delicate duck. The duck was perfect – fatty, salty and tender. Raisins were dotted throughout the empanada. They were soaked, juicy and tender. They were little tidbits of sweetness sprinkled throughout the richness of the duck.

Then we had the Grilled Flat-Iron Steak.

IMG_0655 IMG_0656The grilled flat-iron steak with chimichurri and and shallots.

This was not great and the low point of the meal. We asked for the steak to be cooked medium and it came out rare. It was lightly seared on all sides and very pink, almost purple, on the inside. If the steak had been a high-quality cut of meat this wouldn’t have been a problem but it was not a good cut of meat. The meat was tough and chewy, sinews threaded throughout. Ick. The crispy shallots were the high point of the dish but the condiment should never be the high point.

And lastly, but never least, we ordered dessert. We split an order of Buttermilk Donuts.

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These donuts were the perfect cap to a delicious dinner. They were still warm from being fried, thickly dusted in cinnamon sugar. They were dipped in a thick cream topped with caramel.  The presentation was simple but sweet. It brought back memories of summers at The Ex eating fresh Tiny Tom Donuts. These are the best donuts I have ever eaten (sorry Tiny Tom!). I have found something I love more than churros, which I didn’t think was possible. Yummmmmms.

After dinner we headed up the street to Bellwoods Brewery to enjoy some beers and people watching – the perfect night on Ossington Avenue. Happy birthday Cynthia – it’s going to be a great year!

Happy munching!

Small Town Food Co.

Last week we enjoyed a date night with Al and Jamie at Small Town Food Co., a new snack bar in Parkdale. The restaurant is small and narrow, with a very modern, minimal vibe to it. We were seated at a table near the back close to the bar – a great spot to watch the bartenders create their cocktails.

We each enjoyed a few cocktails. I ordered the Basil Smash and the Vintage ’84. The Basil Smash had Dillon’s Rose Gin, basil, and lemon. This drink was fresh, light and a taste of summer. The basil was pounded to a pulp, releasing all it’s juices and aroma. I am planning on growing basil this summer and will be looking for cocktails featuring it all summer long. It featured Dillon’s gin which is distilled in the Niagara area, a new find which I have tried in two cocktails this spring and can’t wait to try more of. I plan to visit the distillery soon – who’s in?

The Vintage ’84 had Tanqueray gin, cucumber, mint, sugar, and fresh lime. This was very similar to a cocktail I made the other day however, I prefered mine. As the only liquid in the cocktail is the gin, the cocktail was very creamy and thick, instead of fresh and light like I had hoped.

We ordered snacks to share. The server advised that you should order 2-3 plates per person and share, tapas style. The plates are too small to share between a group of four and feel full and satisfied and the bill will quickly add up.

We ordered four items off the meat section of the menu: the Duck Pogo, the Scotch Egg, Tartare of Deer and the Honey BBQ Pork Ribs. The Duck Pogo had minced duck, and honey dijon. The breading was crispy, and light. The duck was nothing special, it didn’t have the distinct, heavy duck taste to it. The honey dijon sauce was delicious but how could it not be – it was sweet, and spicy and the perfect compliment to deep fried duck.

The Scotch Egg with pork rillettes, a soft egg, and hot sauce.

Scotch EggPhoto credit: Toronto Life

If you have never had a Scotch egg I suggest you try one. Traditionally it is a hard boiled egg that is deep fried. The Scotch egg at Small Town Food Co. is a soft boiled egg encrusted with a salty, fatty casing and then dipped in a slightly sweet, but spicy hot sauce. I would like to enjoy one of these each morning with a cup of tea. This was the perfect first introduction to the Scotch egg and I will definitely be enjoying more in the future.

The Tartare of Deer had hand-cut tenderloin, a quail yolk, and was served with crustini. I love tartare and will almost always order it if I am in a legit restaurant, with a talented kitchen where I know I won’t die from poor quality meat. The fact that I have never had deer was an added bonus. This tartare was good but missed the zing from the capers and had none of the gamey-quality associated with deer. It was ok, but not a hit.

The Honey BBQ Pork Ribs came with potato salad, and double smoked bacon. In retrospect, it was foolish to order ribs with the intention of sharing them. It was a half rack of ribs that we attempted to share between 4 people. We were not given a proper knife to cut the ribs but luckily they were fall off the bone. They were sweet with a bit of tang and were juicy. The potato salad was good and the double smoked bacon was a welcomed addition to your traditional mayo-based salad. I would recommend these ribs but not for sharing and definitely not for the price: $21 for a half rack of ribs? No, thank you.

We ordered three items from the seafood section of the menu: the Oysters Rockefeller, the Scallop Ceviche and the Fish and Chips. The Oysters Rockefeller had grano padano, and spinach. If you love seafood but hate how slimey it can be, then oysters Rockefeller should become your new best friend. As an oyster lover myself, I was excited to try these as I’ve only enjoyed oysters raw. These are everything you want your seafood to be. The oysters are fishy but fresh, with a saltiness that reminds you of the ocean. The cheese and spinach work together to create a cheesy, wilted, salty topping that slides down perfectly with the oyster. You are transported back in time when eating these. You feel like you are in the 1960’s, enjoying martinis at lunch with Don Draper. This is a feeling I love and would want to feel again and again.

The Scallop Ceviche had charred lime and crispy shallots. Scallops are easily and with out a doubt my favourite seafood. Ceviche is the seafood form of tartare (loosely obviously) so of course I was down to try something that combined two of my favourite foods. The scallops were thinly sliced but you could still feel that fleshy texture with each bite. The scallops stood in contrast to the scallops, being a crispy and salty texture that was necessary to round out the dish. The lime gave the entire dish the necessary element to make it a ceviche and offered a citrus, refreshing flavour. Yum.

The Fish and Chips was panko crusted rare albacore tuna, edamame pureé, and tartar sauce. Fish and ChipsThis is obviously the most creative and interesting form of fish and chips any of us had ever had. The tuna was crusted and lightly seared, leaving the center fleshy and pink. The edamame pureé and tartar sauce were a combination of sweet and salty and were a great compliment to the tuna.

We finished off the evening with an order of Bread Pudding topped with bananas. This was not the best bread pudding I have ever had. The chunks of bread were a little tough instead of being moist and soft. The bananas however, were amazing. They were caramelized and sweet and should top everything.

We liked this place, but we didn’t love it. It is overpriced and unsubstantial. I understand the entire basis of this restaurant is bringing farm-fresh local ingredients to the city but at what price tag? Nothing we ordered was seasonal or from a specific local farm, a trend that has become a standard in Toronto restaurants. The prospect of an interesting, successful restaurant is there but under the wrong guise. This is more of an overpriced snack bar rather than a tapas-style sharing restaurant. I would suggest going for one drink and one plate. Out of everything we tried I would suggest the fish and chips and the ceviche.

Happy munching!