I’m perpetually playing catch-up with my travel posts, and though this is essentially a year late, I thought it best if I at least got past my 2013 Toronto write-up before we leave for another visit there this weekend. Last spring, I was lucky enough to be able to visit Amanda there twice – once in April for a girls trip with my Mum, and the second in June while attending a conference.
I know one of the reasons why I’ve grown to like Toronto is because it is my sister’s adopted home, and I’ve been able to see it through her eyes. But it’s also hard not to love a city with so many possibilities borne out of density, diversity and history.
I’ve only had positive experiences with Airbnb, and have now used the site to book accommodation in Calgary, Toronto and New York. Particularly in the latter two cities, where taxation levels are quite high, I find the Airbnb rates much more reasonable than hotel prices.
While in Toronto with my Mum, we booked a 1 bedroom + 1 den for the three of us, in a condo just off King and Spadina. It was a great location with its proximity to the subway, streetcar, and Chinatown; so much so that Mack and I will be staying there.
For the conference, I was able to find a cheaper 1 bedroom, much roomier than Amanda and I needed. This unit was notable for having a number of solid independent take-out restaurants just down the street. We felt like residents of the neighbourhood instead of tourists.
King Street condo
Amanda and I ended up at the first Dundas West Festival in June, where a section of the road was closed off for a variety of activities.
Feet on the street
It was a rather long stretch, with sporadic concentrations of extended patios, sidewalk sales and food vendors. It’s taking place again in 2014; I am assuming it will continue to grow!
Pulled pork sandwich from La Rivolta
Talk about a makeshift change room
The festival we were both looking forward to was Woofstock! We both love dogs, though our family has never had one for a variety of reasons.
Proud dog owners came out in droves for the event, offering information, pet-friendly vendors, and of course, a dog agility showcase.
Amanda with an adorable doxie
Odds and Ends
I had heard about Honest Ed’s but couldn’t really tell you about what it actually was. So we went to find out.
It turns out it is a discount store, on par with Army & Navy. It really isn’t worth seeking out, though after seeing photos of The Stop’s Night Market just outside of the building, it turns out Honest Ed’s may have a good use after all.
Amanda’s excited about pants
I had seen Riverdale Farm on Top Chef Canada, and wanted to see how an “urban farm” in the city would look like. Located in Cabbagetown just across the street from an elementary school, the farm is operated by the City of Toronto and is used primarily as a teaching facility. It is open to the public, and does play host to functions as well.
Amanda’s excited about pigs
Livestock are definitely the focus of the farm; I can see how it would be a hit with younger children.
I also had the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak. He was preaching to the choir, but I did still appreciate his message, and giggled like a fangirl when I had the chance to meet him, too!
With Michael Pollan
Caplansky’s was great, offering huge portions and friendly service – we even saw the owner, Zane, bussing tables during our visit!
Their Montreal smoked meat was wonderful, in either hash or sandwich form. I also loved the option of substituting challah for regular bread.
Montreal smoked meat hash
Montreal smoked meat sandwich
Uncle Betty’s was a You’ve Gotta Eat Here! discovery, intriguing because of their use of house-made doughnuts in place of bread or biscuits in their breakfast sandwiches. It was a novel concept, and even though the doughnuts themselves weren’t greasy, I found they didn’t have enough heft to form a savoury sandwich. My Mum’s eggs benedict was a bit better.
Sparse breakfast sandwich plate
On the bright side, the small serving allowed us to indulge in dessert (yes, in the morning) – a doughnut ice cream sandwich. This is definitely something I’d recommend.
Doughnut ice cream sandwich
On the other end of the spectrum, Janice and Bennett took me to the nearly empty Hoof Café for an offal brunch (given the line-up across the street at Saving Grace, a more mainstream brunch restaurant, I’d have to say Torontonians probably weren’t as adventurous as I thought).
My tongue benny was overwhelmingly sour, though the meat had been rendered tender, and to a consistency that reminded me of corned beef. Bennett’s breakfast cassoulet with pork belly was the best dish that day, with a great depth of flavour.
Blood sausage McMuffin
My favourite brunch ended up being at Beast.
I loved that they provided a timer with the French press
The Beastwich was an epic fried chicken thigh biscuit sandwich slathered in sausage gravy and pimento cheese. Each component was perfectly executed – there was no weak links in the sandwich.
My Mum couldn’t stop talking about the Korean pork bone soup she had been craving, so our stop that first evening was to the Owl of Minerva.
Pork bone soup
It was delicious. The broth had a kick from the kimchi, while the meat itself was full of flavour.
My Mum is satisfied!
The next night, we decided to try out Daisho, David Chang’s mid-priced Toronto restaurant. The space is absolutely gorgeous, a stunning glass-lined dining room that floats over University Avenue. The laid-back vibe from the main floor Noodle Bar continued in this restaurant, with the servers clothed in t-shirts and sneakers. This was in stark contrast to the table next to us, dressed to the nines in Chanel and Prada.
The experience as a whole was mixed. Service waivered, particularly at the start when no explanation of the menu was provided until about ten minutes after seating. The food was inconsistent; the hangar steak lettuce wraps were excellent, made up of succulent, perfectly medium rare meat. The monkfish, on the other hand, was such a small portion that when it arrived my Mum literally laughed out loud. To boot, it was undercooked.
We shared the famous “crack pie” for dessert, and it actually lived up to expectations, tasting like an intense butter tart. It was sweet, but not cloyingly so.
Playa Cabana Cantina was one of the hottest new taquerias at the time, having just opened up in the Junction. I have no idea what it replaced, but I can only describe it as a dive. In spite of being “new”, it had such a lived-in look I swear I saw a cascade of dust fly when a sign was shifted.
But no matter, this place was packed. And though noise doesn’t usually bother me in restaurants, it did here – halfway through our meal, they dimmed the lights and jacked up the music – so much so that it felt like we were eating in the middle of a dance club.
The food was pretty good though. My favourite were the braised short rib tacos, so tender, with added texture from the crispy shells. Amanda loved the fish tacos, while my Mum really enjoyed the spicy tacos al pastor with fruit-finished Berkshire pork.
Braised short rib tacos
Tacos al pastor
Even on a Monday night, the wait for the popular izakaya Guu was forty minutes. Service wasn’t great compared with our last visit, but the food made up for the neglect for the most part.
A favourite was the meguro tataki, seared BC tuna served with ponzu and garlic chips. I also liked the yakiudon, pan-fried noodles with beef and scallions.
We also ended up at a few restaurants in neighbouring Chinatown that are apparently frequented by Chef Susur Lee. If it’s good enough for Chef Lee, why not?
The first was Swatow Restaurant, with reviews from 1985 still proudly displayed on the walls (I doubt the restaurant has changed much since then).
The food hit the spot, particularly as we ordered the dishes we were craving – fried rice for Amanda and crispy noodles for me.
My Mum’s special noodle soup
Chef Lee’s #2 hangout was King Noodle. This establishment features a kitchen just inside the entrance, tempting diners with aromatic and visual delights as they walk in.
I’m hungry already
We ended up preferring the food at Swatow, but there was no questioning the value at both Chinatown restaurants – our meals were around $30 each time.
Rice noodles with beef
Amanda and I stumbled upon Hawker Bar after the Dundas West Festival. A thirteen seat restaurant, its “rustic” touches included candleholders made of punctured tin cans and menus hand-written on beer carton cardboard.
I appreciated the coconut-laced laksa broth, but the real star was the rendang pork cheek curry. The presentation was a bit too precious for the setting, but the meat just melted away, the heat balanced by a refreshing mandolin-thin cucumber salad.
Rendang pork cheek curry
On the upscale casual side was Richmond Station, the restaurant by Top Chef Canada’s season two winner, Carl Henrich. It didn’t disappoint. The mushroom linguine, creamy and incorporating spinach and truffle oil, hit the spot. Amanda’s wild boar orichette, the pasta also scratch-made, was full of textures and just the right hint of sweetness.
The Station chocolate bar, made of mousse, a florentine crust and peanut brittle, was not as rich as we were expecting, but was the perfect way to end the meal.
Station chocolate bar
I know even more culinary delights await us this week – all I can hope is that I write about it this time in less than a year’s time.