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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Rickshaw Bar

A few weeks ago I met up with my friend Lynsey for some gossip and some South/Southeast Asian street food from Rickshaw Bar on Queen Street West.

We met up at 5:30pm only to realize the restaurant did not open until 6:00pm. I understand why the restaurant opens at 6 o’clock, but you would think they would try to capture the immediate after-work-crowd? I guess there isn’t an after-work-crowd in that area?  We loitered outside on Queen Street for half an hour, people and dog watching, and leaning on hipster bikes. We were seated quickly and there was only one other couple who made the same mistake as us. The restaurant filled very quickly, and by about 7 o’clock it was full.

The restaurant is very simple: smooth concrete floors, simple wooden tables, exposed brick walls with traces of graffiti and tagging, a long dark bar running the length of the restaurant and industrial copper pipe lighting. We were seated at the first table of the long row of banquette seating and were ready to enjoy some food. Like many restaurants in Toronto, Rickshaw is a sharing/tapas style restaurant so we were able to sample across the menu.

I have to mention our server. Or servers with an “s” I should say. When we were first seated, Server #1 seemed great. He was engaging, excited about the food and made suggestions on the menu. He was understanding about my allergies and checked with the kitchen regarding preparation and accommodation of this. Ok, great. A great server can be the difference in feeling comfortable, safe and happy while dining out with an allergy, especially when you have a nut allergy at an Asian restaurant. We tried to order various beef-related dishes (Ismaili beef curry, khao shay, Makai curry) but everything with beef is prepared with cashews and therefore is off-limits to me. Server #1 didn’t make this connection that all the beef is prepared together and that this might be an issue. He had to return to the kitchen several times to confirm if beef dishes contained nuts. We tried to order the khao shay which he said might contain nuts and he would check with the kitchen. He asked for a substitute order in case the khao shay contained nuts so we requested the lamb mishkaki. SERVER #1 NEVER CAME BACK. Not to tell us that yes, in fact because the khao shay is prepared with all the other beef and it will have nuts or that because of this, he had put in our alternate order. FINE.

Then Server #2 came to our table and asked if we would like anything else. We said Server #1 was checking on something for us and that we had another order coming. Server #2 offered to check on that for us. Server #2 actually came back and said no, your replacement order was never put in with the kitchen and no, you unfortunately you cannot order anything with beef because all beef is prepared together. From that point on, Server #2 was our server. I don’t know how or why this switch occurred but I am glad it did. He took care of us for the rest of our meal. He brought us the lamb mishkaki and our desserts. I left a larger tip then I normally would because we were abandoned and then saved by Server #2.

Back to the food. To start we had the Scallop Puri.

IMG_5965The Scallop Puri with scallop tartare, spiced puffed rice, cucumber, chili oil and lime.

This is a beautiful and simple dish. I love the bowl it is served on with its low sides and leaf-like shape, transporting you to a South-East Asian jungle, as if you are enjoying street food, roadside on the edge of a dark and mysterious jungle on a giant tropical leaf from the trees contained in the jungle. The puffs of rice are crunchy, light and with a slightly nuttiness from the rice. The scallop tartare is almost non-existent. You get a bite of fishiness, none of the texture or butteriness of scallops and then it is overwhelmed by spicy citrusy notes. I did enjoy this but it will not satisfy scallop or tartare cravings your may have.

Then we had the Pakora Fritters.

IMG_5966The Pakora Fritters with potato, zucchini, onion, apple and green chutney.

These were delicious. They were very similar in texture and taste to the squash fritters at Sabai Sabai. The vegetables were grated into thick strands that were then battered and fried. The coating was crispy, light and not greasy. It didn’t overwhelm the subtle flavours of the potato and zucchini. The natural flavours of the vegetables were able to compliment the batter, and offer the first tastes of summer. The chutney was fruity and played up the bright flavours of the zucchini.

Next we had the Spiced Coconut Chicken.

IMG_5967The Spiced Coconut Chicken with green peas, curry leaves and cilantro.

This was my favourite dish of the night. The broth was creamy and thick from the coconut milk and had a touch of sweetness to it. The sweetness mellowed the spiciness of the dish, which allowed the spices to gradually build and the flavor to slowly intensify. Hidden in the luscious broth were tender pieces of chicken that fell part so easily when grazed by a fork or spoon. Ordering rice on the side allows the broth and chicken come together as more of a cohesive whole on a bed of rice, making it more of an entrée rather than a soup. Don’t order the rice if you want to eat as much as possible and not fill up on plain carbs.

And lastly we had the Lamb mishkaki.

IMG_5968The Lamb Mishkaki with grilled lamb, tamarind, mint chimichurri and naan.

Lamb is one of those meats that I have a difficult relationship with. No, it has nothing to do with ethical reasons (I am a horrible person, I know. Did I mention I love veal?) it is the flavor. I don’t mind the taste, I just always forget what it tastes like. Whenever I have the first bite of something with lamb I think “oh right, that is what lamb tastes like.” But that did not happen this time. This time I LOVED the lamb.

It was tender and soft, and had a lighter flavor to it. The lamb is marinated in yogurt which gives it a bit of sweetness and adds to the tenderness. The chimichurri added a floral brightness to the lamb and the naan was a crispy yet doughy plate for it all to sit on. If you like lamb, you definitely need to order this. And if you are like me and you are not sure if you like lamb, you will like it like this.

Although we were absolutely stuffed, we of course ordered dessert. Lynsey had the crispy milk pastry and I had the coconut panna cotta.

IMG_5969Crispy milk pastry with milk, cardamom, almonds and rose petals and the coconut panna cotta with coconut, pineapple and lime.

The panna cotta was light, milky with hints of tropical fruit. It was absolutely delicious and easily rivals any traditional Italian panna cotta I’ve eaten. Although I was absolutely stuffed this did not push me over the edge.

Our meal at Rickshaw was delicious and I would definitely return. The food is accessible but still different from both your every day cuisine and traditional South East Asian food. It expands your horizon to what street food can be and transport you to the crowded street markets of Asia with every bite.

Happy munching!

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Little Fin

I am slowly discovering my new neighbourhood at work: there are trips to St. Lawrence Market to gawk at cheese and meat, wanderings down to the lake to soak up some sun and getting lost on side streets that you otherwise wouldn’t notice unless you pass them ever day.

A few weeks ago I wandered down a side street, Temperance Street, which is just south of Richmond. This little street is being obscured by construction but is the location of Little Fin. Little Fin is a restaurant that I have been eyeing on Instagram since it opened in October 2014 and have been drooling over and wondering when I would get to try ever since.

The restaurant is small, with a nautical/East-Coast vibe to it including marlins on the wall and fresh lobsters walking around in their sea water tank. You order at the counter and then wait in anticipation for your number to be called. On a Friday afternoon the wait was about 20 minutes which isn’t crazy but in the future it might be better to order ahead.

I ordered the Lobster Roll.

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Yes, I contemplated ordering the fried chicken BLT but I thought rationally that the first time trying something at a seafood restaurant, I should probably order the seafood.

The sandwich is $16.00 which seems a little pricey but is fairly standard for a lobster roll: the lobster roll at Buster’s Sea Cove in St. Lawrence Market is $15.00. For your $16.00 you get your choice of sides and I chose the garlic potato wedges and the house salad.
This sandwich looks beautiful but unfortunately, did not have enough lobster for my liking. Half of the sandwich was filled with lettuce, to give the illusion that it is filled with lobster when really it is not. The lobster salad itself it good: large chunks of lobster, fresh dill, small pieces of celery to give the right crunch to the softness of the sandwich and topped with fresh green onion giving a hint of heat and freshness to the sandwich. I would like this sandwich more if it was all lobster, with little to no lettuce but that would probably cost me $40.00.

The garlic potato wedges were amazing. I am not a huge fan of potatoes (much to GC’s chagrin). I hate home fries and baked potatoes, would much rather have rice than mashed potato, scalloped potatoes are eaten as a vehicle for cheese and French fries are often left to grow cold and limp on my plate or at the bottom of my take-out bag. But these wedges. These could convert me to being a potato person. The wedges are sweet and garlicky, with the right amount of kick from the garlic but not the amount that would give you the breath to ward off vampires and attract Italian Nonnas. The outside is crispy and tough with the skin still being on the potato but the inside is fluffy and starchy. These are a definite must as a side to anything ordered from Little Fin.

The house salad is a safe bet – nothing remarkable but solid and fresh. The next time I visit I will be trying the seaweed salad.

Little Fin is a cute spot that is quick and convenient for me to indulge in seafood during my lunch hour. As an indulgence it will be saved for pay days and definitely not once a month. I will likely not be having the lobster roll again but I wouldn’t say no to trying the crispy haddock sandwich or fried chicken BLT. Oh, and they do breakfast and have a chicken-waffle sandwich. So yes, I think it is safe to say I would be trying a few more items off this menu. Eventually.

Happy munching!

Café Neon

My first brunch of 2016 was at Café Neon, health a restaurant listed by BlogTO as one of the best new brunch places of 2015.

Café Neon is a long, case narrow restaurant on West Queen West that is essentially a coffee shop taking it up a notch and serving food beyond scones and pastries. The interior features cozy tables and tiny booths. There is a large counter located near the front of the restaurant to order various coffees and espresso-based drinks from. The restaurant has a very coffee-house vibe to it: cozy, intimate, with eclectic art and design.

There is actual tableside service which is not always the case with restaurants serving more than coffee. Our server was energetic and excited about their menu which in turn, made us very excited. We hemmed and hawed over the menu and then with prodding from the server I ordered the Eggs Benny.

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IMG_5338The Eggs Benny with two poached eggs and smoked pulled pork on a scone with béarnaise sauce, salad greens and potatoes. Continue reading

Wilbur Mexicana Restaurant

It is no secret that I love Mexican food, especially tacos so it was shocking that I hadn’t yet tried Wilbur Mexicana Restaurant given that it opened over a year ago. A few weeks ago I was finally able to check this restaurant outwith my friends Lynsey and Sarah.

The restaurant is named after the chemist Wilbur Scoville, who created the Scoville scale which is used to measure the heat of peppers. No, this isn’t something that I just randomly know because I am a huge history nerd (which is true); the restaurant provides fun facts on the menu and the table numbers.

The restaurant’s interior is industrial and resembles a 19th century laboratory. There is a combination of sleek countertops, high-top tables and lower tables clustered around tufted-leather booths. The back wall of the restaurant is a feature wall: there is a large, apothecary-cabinet like wall piece that houses dried chilies and other supplies, ready for scientific experiments. The light fixtures are appropriated scientific beakers, giving the restaurant that hipster-industrial cool edge that King West craves.

The restaurant features casual ordering: you order from the front counter, they give you a number which features a stylized drawing of a pepper on the front and the back provides various factoids regarding the pepper. How could I not love Wilbur: good food and knowledge! We each ordered 3 tacos, and starters to share: chips with guacamole, chips with queso fundido and Mexican street corn.

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The Pressed Cubano from La Cubana

When you are in school the easiest lunch is a sandwich. It is quick, and easy and portable. But sandwiches can become routine and boring, pill topped with the same meats, generic cheeses and condiments. There is typically one type of meat, one type of cheese and maybe mayo and mustard. In elementary school it was a turkey breast or ham sandwich with Havarti and mayo. No mustard. I hate mustard. In university, it was an everything bagel, topped with herb and garlic cream cheese, spinach, tomato and sometimes ham. Now lunches consist of soup or leftovers but rarely sandwiches unless they are bought out.

A few weeks ago I was walking down Ossington Avenue with Giancarlo looking for a spot to grab a coffee. We decided to pop into the La Cubana expecting to be greeted with the brunch menu familiar to us from the Ronscevalles location. This location is very different. It is a long, narrow restaurant with a counter for ordering. The menu consists of sandwiches with some plates but no brunch. The only thing resembling brunch is the breakfast sandwiches on weekends made on weekends.

Disappointed, but still hungry, we both opted to order the Pressed Cubano.

IMG_5603The Pressed Cubano with ham, pork, gruyere, red onion, cornichon, grainy mustard and mayo.

This killed my coffee craving. The sandwich was buttery and cheesy. The pickle and mustard added complimentary tang that worked with the sweet tartness of the onion. The gruyere added a nutty taste and the ham and pork were fatty and delicious. This sandwich is the perfect snack while wandering this neighbourhood. However, if I am craving a Cubano/cubana sandwich I will be visiting San Cosme in Kengsinton Market and I am craving La Cubana I will be visiting the Ronscevalles location for brunch.

Happy munching!

Dirty Bird Chicken + Waffles

A few weeks ago, purchase Cynthia and I tried to enjoy tortas from San Cosme however, mind they had sold out and had closed for the day. We walked around the corner down Kensington Avenue and decided to try Dirty Bird Chicken + Waffles.
Dirty Bird is another small restaurant in Kensington: there is likely room for about 20 people, stuff standing. When you walk into the restaurant there is a large, island-style table that can fit between 8-10 people around, depending on if people are seated or clustered around the table. There is bar seating along the perimeter of the restaurant that can seat/stand another 10 or so people. The restaurant was full when we arrived on Friday night, however, based on arms weighed down with various assortments of craft beer, we knew the majority of the customers would not be staying in the restaurant.
The restaurant’s concept is fairly simple, fried chicken, served in a variety of ways. You can opt to have the fried chicken served in sandwich form or just the traditional, bone-in bucket way. We decided to order the 6 piece chicken meal with sides of coleslaw and fries.
IMG_5622The intention is clearly for this to be enjoyed by one person based on the size of the sides. The coleslaw was nothing special, just your generic, lightly dressed cabbage, without any major bite or tang. I like my coleslaw creamy and tangy, with hints of fennel. The fries were crispy but still soft and pillowy in the centre.
 IMG_5623The chicken was okay. It was not consistently cooked: the thighs were juicy and very crispy and the drumsticks while juicy, were not crispy. When you are only serving two cuts of meat (which is the standard with fried chicken because you don’t fry the breast) you should be able to manage consistency across both types. And fried chicken needs to be just that, fried and crispy. Otherwise you have the grease factor without the crispy delicious coating. The batter was nothing remarkable, just plain frying batter that was well-seasoned but nothing out of the ordinary. The hot sauce was tangy and had a slight bite to it, it added to the chicken in a nice complimentary way.
We were not completely satisfied from our chicken so we order The Swalty for dessert.
 IMG_5624The Swalty, a waffle ice cream sandwich with salted caramel ice cream, caramel sauce and beef bacon.
This was the highlight of the meal for me. The waffle was crispy on the outside but maintained a light, airiness inside. The ice cream (which is made by Ed’s Real Scoop) had the rich, caramelized, saltiness of salted caramel. The ice cream was creamy and had a smooth texture. No ice crystals had formed in the ice cream that can be so jarring and cold when you bite into the ice cream. The caramel sauce was not cloyingly sweet and complimented the subtle salted caramel taste of the ice cream. The beef bacon was crispy, and had a rich smoky flavour to it. The saltiness in the bacon accented the saltiness in the salted caramel ice cream.
Next time I am craving fried chicken, I will not be returning to Dirty Bird, I will likely revisit my current favourite fried chicken restaurant in the city, Bar Fancy. But I think I will have to have another swalty at some point this summer.
Happy munching!

Torteria San Cosme

At the start of March the chef and co-founder behind the Toronto-based Mexican restaurant Milagro opened a street-food style restaurant in Kensington Market called Torteria San Cosme. The restaurant opened the first week in March and Cynthia and I attempted to go on the Friday night and try some tortas but alas, they had sold out and were closed for the evening. Don’t worry! Cynthia and I headed around the corner to Dirty Bird.

It should be mentioned that as a general rule of thumb, I hate Kensington Market. I know, I know. As someone who loves Toronto and loves food, it should be my Mecca. But I hate it.  The majority of my exposure to Kensington is from weekends when I would go downtown with GC and then he would head to work and I would wander through the city. Kensington on the weekends, especially pedestrian Sundays is *cringe* a nightmare. There are too many people who overrun the small sidewalks that are already crowded with stalls and bins of cheap sunglasses, smelly fish and nuts. But I do have my favourites. I love Blue Banana, Kid Icarus, Sanagan’s Meat Locker, Pizzeria Via Mercanti and of course, Toronto Popcorn Company. And no, I haven’t tried Seven Lives. Yet.

IMG_5631Despite my hate for Kensington, I ventured there twice in the span of two days – shocking I know. GC and I ventured down the next afternoon to try some sandwiches. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was still closed. There was a sign on the door advising that the restaurant would be opening slightly later than advertised and there was a queue of about 20 people waiting eagerly for sandwiches. The door was opened about 5 minutes after the new time but we rushed in.

The restaurant is situated on the corner of Baldwin and Kensington and the two exterior walls facing the streets are large, airy windows. Sunlight streams in from the street and highlights the gorgeous tiles that covers the walls and floors. A large, narrow, open concept kitchen is the focal point of the restaurant with a bar giving seating overlooking this kitchen. There is not a ton of seating in the restaurant, we were perched at a chair-rail like bar in a corner behind the entrance.

I ordered the Cubana sandwich.

IMG_5637The Cubana sandwich with smoked ham, adobo pork, bacon, gouda, avocado, chipotle, mustard and tomato.

This is my favourite Cubana sandwich I have tried, and may even well be my favourite sandwich I have ever eaten. The bun (from Blackbird Baking Co. across the street – another Kensington favourite of mine) was substantial and didn’t crumble under all the beautiful meat and other toppings but also was chewy, soft and moist. I didn’t have to force the sandwich into the back of my mouth and rip with my stronger, more prehistoric-like molars.

The smoked ham was a slice of Easter dinner on a bun. It was thick, juicy and fatty. I loved that it was actually a piece of ham clearly cut from a hock rather than deli meat.The adobo pork was spicy and complimented the richness of the ham. And if two types of pork were not enough for you, there is bacon on this sandwich. The bacon is crispy and salty, making it not just a third type of pork but a third, and completely different flavor and texture profile highlighting how versatile pork is.

The condiments added a balance of tartness from the mustard and sweetness from the tomato and the avocado. The cheese melted over the meat and was smoky and cheesy yumminess.

GC ordered the Milanesa sandwich.

IMG_5634The Milanesa sandwich with breaded chicken, manchego, chipotle mayo, refritos, avocado, tomato and onion.

If there is one thing you need to know about GC it is that he loves a a good sandwich, and especially a fried chicken sandwich. While I preferred my Cubana to his Milanesa, this sandwich was exactly what he was looking for. The chicken was crispy and well battered; the batter didn’t peel off the chicken with every bite. It was spicy, crunchy and cheesy.

We thoroughly enjoyed our sandwiches and we can’t wait to go back. This summer will be filled with visits to Kensington Market, picking up take-out from San Cosme and drinking covert beers in parks. It’s going to be an amazing summer.

Happy munching!!!