toronto


What do you do while 0n vacation in Toronto? Are there other things to do than visit the CN tower? These are valid questions to ask, and ones I’ve thought long and hard about given Toronto’s rather staid and blah reputation. But my trip has been long overdue since I promised bearbear to visit him back in 2001, and with Dawn now living in Toronto, there’s no excuse not to visit. Also, I wanted to judge for myself if Toronto was a worthy town for food, and judging from my weekend there, the answer is there’s quite a bit to eat.

sugar shacking
Woman in pioneer garb standing over cauldrons of steaming sap

One could go sugar shacking just outside the city. While more prevalent in Quebec, we managed to find a maple syrup festival in the Bronte Provincial Park right outside the city. This seasonal activity happens during the  late winter/ early spring months, where sap from maple trees are being harvested and reduced into molten gold syrup, to be doused liberally on pancakes, stewed into baked beans, dunked into ice to make instant lollipops and solidified into solid blocks of maple sugar, redolent of smoke and wood and particularly delightful when thrusted into one’s hand warm, to be popped straight into one’s mouth.

maple candy

Maple candy made into maple leaf molds

No car to venture out of the city? No problem. Another tasty way to spend an hour or two is to vist St Lawrence Market, an indoor food market open seven days a week, serving both the local community as well as tourists looking for a bite. We found ourselves strolling through the market right after a heavy lunch at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar and still couldn’t resist trying assorted samples of cheese and dips, and gladly doled out $3 for a thick slab of lean glazed bacon. Unfortunately we had only just eaten lunch, or else we would have dived right into the snaking lines for humongous veal parmigiana sandwiches or a slab of peameal bacon on a bun, a local delicacy.

stlawrence market

St Lawrence on a busy day

Ethnic neighborhoods are also ripe for exploring. After all, Toronto is the largest metropolitan area in Canada, and one of the most diverse in North America, with 49% of residents born outside Canada (soure: Wikipedia, therefore a little iffy). Cantonese food is famous in Toronto, and while I didn’t manage to go to the suburbs where the Chinese have flocked to, we still had an extremely good meal at New Sky Restaurant in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, where the line for authentic and reasonably priced Cantonese food was really long. With help from Ziyang, a friend from VJ choir and pianist extraordinaire now living in Toronto, we ordered a bountiful table of food, including an expertly steamed fish and a steamed crab and rice dish, the ingredients ensconced in bamboo leafs, resulting in firm, meaty crab and perfectly steamed rice perfumed with crab juices, roe and the mild fragrance of bamboo leaf. I probably had 3 bowls of that rice. Request for the Chinese menu, and you’ll get deals not found in the English menu, and to top everything off, the soup and dessert that were on the house were chockful of goodies and very well made, unlike some lesser restaurants who would serve vegetable dredges in water.

steamed crab rice

Steamed crab and rice at New Sky

Besides Chinese, we also enjoyed piping hot fried Vietnamese spring rolls at Pho Ba Ca and aromatic butter chicken at Bombay Bhel in Missisauga, fondly referred to as Missi and home turf of Andrew and Rachel, two of Dawn’s close friends who also shared several meals with us. Like Toronto city proper, Mississauga is a multi-cultural and quickly growing city, with many authentic and cheap restaurants to cater to its many different migrant communities.

Last but not least, Dawn has a major sweet tooth like me, so besides real meals we also sampled quite a variety of sweet treats, including gooey butter tarts, a Canadian specialty, made with flaky crust and an instant melt-in-your mouth filling that is unadulterated butter and sugar, like a version of a less sticky pecan pie. We drank hot chocolate from Tim Horton’s Canada’s answer to starbucks and dunkin donuts combined, and drove down to Korean Town to pick up a box of twee-looking walnut cakes stuffed with either red bean or potato and nut fillings. The cakes were soft but not too sweet, and the size made it so convenient to keep popping them into one’s mouth. Dawn’s friends also drove us to Missisauga, where I had an encounter with the oatmeal smash drink at Bubble Republic Tea House, a place so popular it has its own facebook page.

walnut cake

Walnut cakes from Korean Town

2 Days in Toronto well spent, without even having to step into the CN tower! So what’s stopping you from visiting?

Dinner theatre. Where once the kitchen and the dining room were kept separate, diners now are clamoring to participate not just in the eating but in the preparation of their meals. No wonder then that the counter seats wrapping Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar’s open-concept kitchen were the most coveted. Unfortunately for Dawn and I, we had arrived too late to score some counter action, and were left content to settle into a comfy banquette right across the kitchen counter. If we couldn’t participate directly with the chefs, we would at least be close enough to eavesdrop.

poutineFor those not familiar with the Canadian food scene, Jamie Kennedy is a well known chef in Toronto, a celebrity not unlike Batali in New York. He co-opts culinary traditions from around the globe but uses local and organic ingredients in a constantly changing menu, and serves the dishes in an updated but uncomplicated fashion. International or Canadian. You could truly spin it both ways.

Poutine for one is a seriously Canadian, or more accurately, Quebecois dish consisting of golden french fries, topped with cheelake troutse curds and gravy. Saturday’s version was a luxe version, with duck confit and spring onions to provide some bite in the rich dish. The fries were golden brown and crunchy, but perhaps a victim of hype, and we found the dish over-salted in general. However, a pairing with with a glass of bold fruity Spanish red from a relatively rare grape – Mencia (good but pricey by the glass) enhanced the duck’s gaminess and enjoyability.

Next up was a lake trout, simply pan-fried and sprune tarterved sitting on a pool of bright green parsley sauce. The sauce looked a little unnervingly green, but was creamy and mild-tasting, perfectly complementing the flaky, meaty and slightly strong tasting filet.

Our favorite savory course turned out to be a bowl of slow braised Moroccan lamb with a side of fluffy couscous. The lamb had a melt-in-the mouth quality and was suffused with the aromas of slow cooked onions, citrus, sweet raisins, cumin and other spices that melded well. A dollop of thick yogurt immediately makes the dish a lot more guilt-free. This is something I could see myself eating straight out of the pot.

We ended lunch with 2 desserts, a buttery prune and ground almond tart with a dark armagnac syrup as well as a custardy orange creme brulee. No-nonsense desserts that satisfied but not too swoon-worthy. That sentence would also sum up our experience, from the space to the service and the meal, one that’s relaxed, satisfying and without attitude. Not a bad way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar

9 Church St, Toronto, Canada

www.jamiekennedy.ca