FOOD

This was a year of rein­ven­tion for heavy hit­ters in the city’s food scene Story & pho­tos by NATALIA MANZOCCO

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1 MO­MO­FUKU KO­JIN

The Momo moniker has long been syn­ony­mous with celeb chef David Chang, but the restau­rant em­pire’s new­est Toronto out­ing, which oc­cu­pies the for­mer foot­print of Daisho and Shoto in the Shangri-La Ho­tel, wisely puts home­grown chef Paula Navar­rete front and cen­tre. Billed as a cel­e­bra­tion of the flame (“Ko­jin” is the an­cient Ja­panese god of the hearth), Ko­jin does sim­ple, wellex­e­cuted dishes that pull in equal mea­sure from the chef’s Colom­bian up­bring­ing, Mo­mo­fuku’s pan-Asian oeu­vre and the sea­sonal na­ture of On­tario meats and pro­duce. Ko­jin’s 15-ounce On­tario strip, aged in-house for 45 days, is (un­sur­pris­ingly) one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. But for all the suit­ably Shangri-La dishes on the menu – the stur­geon caviar crepes, the $115 seafood plat­ters – it’s the com­fort-food carbs I dream about at night: hot, fluffy corn­bread rounds with grass-fed honey but­ter, and Tita’s Mash cheese-and-potato skil­let that’s a take on a Navar­rete fam­ily recipe. 190 Uni­ver­sity, at Ade­laide, 647-253-6225, ko­jin.mo­mo­fuku.com

2 ALOBAR YORKVILLE

It’s hard to find fault in Pa­trick Kriss’s lat­est, a tucked-away lounge hid­den in the heart of Yorkville. Not sur­pris­ing, given that Kriss has be­come one of the coun­try’s most cel­e­brated chefs for his work at tast­ing menu spot Alo. But the kinks were worked out of the new spot long be­fore it even ex­isted: the Yorkville off­shoot was cre­ated as a way to give the bar at Alo, which boasts its own à la carte food pro­gram, a lit­tle more real es­tate. That’s great news for the denizens of Bloor West, who now can en­joy an ever-chang­ing menu that puts jaw­drop­pingly fresh seafood, char­coal-grilled meats, play­ful veg­gie dishes and a topflight cock­tail pro­gram cen­tre stage – all without need­ing to make re­sos two months out. 162 Cum­ber­land, at Av­enue, 416-9611222, alo­bary­orkville.com

3 IL COVO

The de­cep­tively Old World look of this Lit­tle Italy tav­ern might make you think you’re in for straw casks of vino rosso and check­ered table­cloths. But be­hind those Game Of Thrones-y front doors, chef Ryan Camp­bell, for­merly of Bar Buca, is of­fer­ing a uniquely mod­ern spin on Ital­ian cook­ing, scat­ter­ing B.C. oys­ters with saf­fron­le­mon pearls (and serv­ing them on a cloud of dry ice) or dunk­ing a shrimp sand­wich in pools of lemon aioli and caviar. Still, he treats the clas­sics with care and re­spect, of­fer­ing up note-per­fect seafood lin­guini and a ri­cotta dish that’s as pretty as a fresco and as com­fort­ing as Nonna-style tortellini in broth on a cold day. 585 Col­lege, at Clin­ton, 416-530-7585, il­covo.ca

4 GOOD HOM­BRES

With his hands al­ready full sling­ing tacos at one of Toronto’s best-re­garded Mex­i­can eater­ies, Cam­pechano chef Daniel Roe found him­self be­ing swept off his feet by whole­sale de­mand for the shop’s hand-pressed tor­tillas. His so­lu­tion: lease a new store­front a few blocks north, bring in a mam­moth tor­tilla ma­chine di­rectly from Mex­ico – and then start sell­ing a few new tacos while he was at it. But though the tor­tillas and masa are the true rai­son d’être at Good Hom­bres, the tacos are so good you’d never, ever mis­take them for an af­ter­thought – par­tic­u­larly the beefy one-two punch of the carne asada and bis­tec, both flame-kissed and dressed with the fresh­est of sal­sas. And if we’re be­ing real here, at $3.75 per taco, I can ac­tu­ally visit more than once ev­ery six months. 374 Bathurst, at Nas­sau, 416-862-0425

5 SARA

With a half-dozen restau­rants and a suc­cess­ful cater­ing en­ter­prise, the Food Dudes have amassed a con­sid­er­able brain trust, much of which was called in to cre­ate the con­cept, menu and lay­out of Sara. But this ain’t a case of too many cooks: The tiny two-floor spot is a seam­less, serene foil to Rasa, all blonde wood and mar­ble, the only art­work the slashes and dashes of colour atop the spare ce­ramic plates. The por­tions and pric­ing un­der­score Sara’s stated goal of be­ing a spe­cial-oc­ca­sion spot – but those plates, like a squid-ink dumpling with bold herbed scal­lop fill­ing and hearty hunks of crab, an ad­dic­tive ve­gan chopped salad and a mini Reuben stuffed with hon­est to good­ness Waygu pas­trami, will make any night one to re­mem­ber. 98 Port­land, at Ade­laide, 416-985-5721, sara.restau­rant

6 CITY BETTY

Any as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween farm-to-ta­ble and Port­landia-es­que pre­ten­sion will in­stantly drain away upon pulling up a booth at this homey “seven-sea­son” Danforth kitchen. There’s been a chang­ing of the guard in the kitchen, with Am­ber Far­rell tak­ing over from found­ing chef Alex Molitz, but the stream­lined, hands-off ap­proach to in­gre­di­ents and the homey-yet-knowl­edge­able ser­vice haven’t wa­vered. Nei­ther has the qual­ity of the menu, which, at present, in­cludes a dish of vine­gary-sweet baby onions with meaty mush­rooms and grilled bread, plus a shock­ingly light and juicy fried chicken, served with ten­der kale and peach hot sauce on a bed of cheesy grits that just might change the way you look at the bat­tered bird for­ever. 1352 Danforth, at Linns­more, 647-271-3949, city­betty.com

7 GI­ULI­ETTA

What­ever void was left on Col­lege by the clo­sure of Bestellen last year, Gi­uli­etta more than fills. Bestellen chef Rob Rossi’s new ven­ture, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with L’Unita’s David Minicucci, is a sleek, in­ti­mate Ital­ian spot with walls up­hol­stered in grey wool and low ceil­ings meant to fa­cil­i­tate close con­ver­sa­tions over an amaro sup­plied from the rolling cart. The food is as fine as you’d ex­pect from any date night spot worth its salt (grilled oc­to­pus with white beans and herbed olive oil is a show­stop­per) but the kitchen doesn’t shy away from tak­ing lib­er­ties with some clas­sic Ital­ian flavour com­bos, like a de­light­fully left-field radic­chio salad with Gor­gonzola, ap­ples and hazel­nuts. 972 Col­lege, at Rusholme, 416-964-0606, giu.ca

8 QUETZAL

Kate Chomyshyn and Julio Gua­jardo ap­proached Grant van Gameren about their up­scale Mex­i­can con­cept back in 2015, and the build took so long the trio were able to open two more restau­rants (El Rey and Ros­alinda) in the mean­time. But Quetzal was worth the wait. The cen­tral fea­ture is a mas­sive fire pit that spans the length of the kitchen. Not only does it turn the restau­rant into a unique sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence – the gor­geous camp­fire scent in the air, the warmth at the back bar (and the com­pli­men­tary spritz bot­tles of cold wa­ter), the un­du­lat­ing ceil­ing pep­pered with vents – but since it’s the sole source of heat within the kitchen, it lends a dis­tinct smoky sig­na­ture to the menu. Though the ce­viches and masabased dishes are wor­thy, un­der no cir­cum­stances should car­ni­vores skip the sausage plate, a Holy Trin­ity of or­angeg­in­ger, clove and cilantro that could sin­gle-hand­edly earn Quetzal its spot on this list. 419 Col­lege, at Bathurst, 647-347-3663, quet­zal­toronto.com

9 SOSO FOOD CLUB

The peo­ple be­hind SoSo started out as club pro­mot­ers, then pro­pri­etors of a fast-ca­sual take­out shop (Otto’s Ber­lin Doner), then a rau­cous beer bar (Otto’s Bier­halle). Now with SoSo, they’ve come full cir­cle, open­ing a scene-y Mi­ami-by­way-of-Bei­jing joint swathed in teal vel­vet and lit with enough pas­tel neon to re-en­act Hot­line Bling. A place like this could coast on looks and cred alone. In­stead, they re­cruited Jasper Hu to cre­ate a jus­tre­vised-enough slate of main­land Chi­nese dishes, in­clud­ing roulade­i­fied mouth-wa­ter­ing chicken, tearin­duc­ing lamb noo­dles and killer braised pork belly with a sea­soned egg. We hence­forth up­grade them from SoSo to darn good. (Look, I’m only hu­man.) 1166 Dun­das West, at Oss­ing­ton, 416-519-6661, soso­food.club

10 BB’S DINER

From the above, you can prob­a­bly gauge that 2018 was a year of ex­pand­ing em­pires – es­tab­lished restau­ra­teurs rein­vent­ing them­selves or toy­ing with new, big-ticket con­cepts. But BB’s is the kind of un­der­dog spot that makes this town such an in­ter­est­ing place to eat: a bunch of young guns see­ing their own his­to­ries un­der-rep­re­sented in the culi­nary scene and band­ing to­gether to cre­ate some­thing that feels true to them. In this case, it’s a Filipino break­fast joint painted in beachy melon pink and fur­nished with the cream of Craigslist, with a menu of clas­sics like ban­gus and lon­gan­isa, plus fried chicken and a right­eous smoked egg­plant dish topped with rosti and aioli. (Fi­nally, a Filipino restau­rant where veg­e­tar­i­ans can party, too.) Our brunch and Filipino food scenes are both richer for their pres­ence, and also, their In­sta­gram cap­tions are an ab­so­lute de­light. 76 Lip­pin­cott, at Col­lege, face­book.com/bb­s­din­erto

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