If your appetite for innovative cuisine in the multicultural city of Toronto was whet by last week's A Taste of Toronto Part 1: Haute Hotels, here’s a look at some of the top places to savor the flavors of the region’s most passionate food producers, in settings both rustic and romantic. In case you didn’t read Part 1 and are wondering why I look like a NASCAR mechanic who’s about to rappel down a skyscraper (yes, that’s me and I thought it would get your attention), read on for info on Toronto’s newest attraction, Edgewalk at the CN Tower, and why you should definitely allow it to take you to new heights (fellas: there have been multiple proposals here in its first three months of operation), before you dine at the tower’s 360 Restaurant, located just beneath it (details on both are below).
St. Lawrence Market: Incorporating what once served as Toronto’s original red-brick City Hall (1845 to 1899) into its cavernous space, the St. Lawrence Market (www.stlawrencemarket.com) is home to about 120 food producers and vendors, each hocking specialties like aged Pecorino (at Scheffler’s Deli & Cheese), pierogies (at European Delight), or aged basmati rice (at Rube’s Rice). Head here to browse for fresh meat, seafood, produce, grains, and spices – as well as more unexpected tasty treats. To get the most from your visit, contact Toronto historian and guide Bruce Bell (www.brucebelltours.ca), who knows the market inside and out (90-minute tours, $25 per person). Here are some of my favorite bites: The peameal bacon on a bun at Carousel Bakery, a hefty $5.75 sandwich that’s stacked with slabs of peameal-crusted Canadian bacon, dripping with sweet or spicy mustard, and held together by a flavorful Portuguese sourdough roll. You’ll clear your sinuses as you sample escalating intensities of mustard at Kozlik’s Canadian Mustard (www.mustardmaker.com), with 30 flavors as varied as lime and honey, or balsamic figs and dates (shown at right). If you’re feeling brave, go straight for the XXX Hot variety. Fun fact: 90 percent of the world’s mustard is grown in Canada – who knew? Another fun bit of market lore is on display at A Bisket A Basket (abisketabasket.ca), where a photo of Pope John Paul II looks down on the display of jellies and jams – including the Pope Jam, an $8 jar of Red Lavender spread (made from strawberries, lavender, and Merlot) and named for the late pontiff after he sampled it during a visit to Toronto and gave it his culinary blessing. Meat is the plate du jour at Whitehouse Meats (www.whitehousemeats.ca), and not just beef, pork, and veal: Gaze into the exotic meats cooler to peruse six-packs of wild game sliders (from $9.99/pound) made from kangaroo, camel, ostrich, buffalo, and venison.
The Market Kitchen: Even non-cooks (a group, as my boyfriend often laments, to which I belong) will feel inspired by all these raw ingredients waiting to be baked, braised, and broiled, so I suggest you plan ahead by booking a hands-on cooking class at The Market Kitchen, an airy, modern space with superb Miele appliances tucked on a mezzanine overlooking the St. Lawrence Market food stalls. Upcoming classes range from The Ultimate Dinner Party to Festive Vegetarian and cost from $45 to $75 per person (you’ll eat what you create). It’s a terrific time for cooks of all stripes.
Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill: Before I walked into the warm and inviting Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill (www.starfishoysterbed.com) and met its energetic, encyclopedic owner and Guinness World Record oyster shucker Patrick McMurray (he opened 38 in one minute!), I could count the number of raw oysters I’d slurped down on one hand (while Patrick, shown at left, eats about six per day). Under Patrick’s tutelage, I learned of nuanced “essences,” from clean to sweet to mineral, contained in these bivalves from around the globe (shown at right),
including Ireland, Prince Edward Island, and New Zealand – and I managed to throw back five raw oysters ($30 for one dozen) like an old oyster-slurping pro. I voted two the best (meaty morsels from New Zealand and Jersey in the English Channel), before turning my attention to the cooked delicacies on the menu (which is updated daily). If it’s available the evening you visit, order the Lake Huron pickerel with crispy Brussels sprouts. Dinner for two starts at $100.
Steam Whistle Brewing: Beer lovers can tour and taste at the 11-year-old Steam Whistle Brewing (www.steamwhistle.ca), located downtown in the historic St. John Roundhouse (a train repair facility built in 1929). Stop by daily between noon and 5pm to sample the brewery’s one and only product, a flavorful Premium Pilsner made from just four fresh ingredients and subject to 28 days of cold aging. The mood here is all about fun – if the bright Kelly green décor and signage doesn’t make you smile, the super-friendly guides surely will, as they all have a serious fondness for (and pride in) their product. Tours are available from $10 per person.
Inniskillin: I may be an oyster neophyte, but I’m plenty familiar with wine. Still, I had a bit to learn about a particular kind of wine that is the specialty of Inniskillin (www.inniskillin.com), a 36-year-old producer located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a few minutes’ drive from Niagara Falls and about 90 minutes from Toronto. Inniskillin is renowned for its ice wine – made from Riesling, Vidal, or Cabernet Franc grapes left on the vine until there’s been three straight days of 17-degree temps. That means these grapes are picked, typically at night, any time from December to February. The resulting wine is luscious, elegant, and intense, with the Riesling being a bit citrusy and the Vidal more tropical. While typically thought of as dessert wines (they pair especially well with chocolate, cheese, and dried fruits), the vineyard’s talented young executive chef, David Penny, whipped up a pan-seared scallop with Vidal butter sauce and ice wine-cured bacon that was a wonderful accompaniment to the Vidal ice wine. The tasting bar is open year-round (Inniskillin also makes traditional red and white table wines and there are additionally special outdoor tasting events, shown at left) making it a great day trip from Toronto when combined with a stop at Niagara Falls.
Cheese Boutique: The best way to describe the Cheese Boutique (shown at right; www.cheeseboutique.com) is to take Zabar’s in New York or the KaDeWe gourmet market in Berlin and move them to a nondescript building on the fringes of downtown Toronto. Founded more than four decades ago by Albanian immigrant Fatos Pristine (who is married to an Italian) and filled to the brim with more than 15,000 products, it’s the spot where the city’s top chefs join ordinary home cooks in search of the best delicacies on the planet – from $9.99 truffle butter and aged balsamic vinegars to “vacca rosa” Parmesan (made from the milk of red cows) that costs five times what normal Parmesan does. The epicenter of the shop is its cheese vault, where a who’s who of restaurateurs and well-heeled Canadians age millions of dollars in prized cheeses (including a 7-foot-long portion of provolone). Don’t set foot inside here when hungry!
360: One of three restaurants located within the landmark CN Tower, 360 (www.cntower.ca) boasts not only a rotating panoramic city and Lake Ontario view (shown at left) from a height of 1,151 feet, but it also lays claim to having the world’s highest wine cellar. Stocking about 4,500 bottles from 550 labels and vintages at a time – the most expensive of which is an 18-liter bottle of 1997 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle that’s priced at around $10,000 – 360 presents the cellar’s wine list on an iPad. All of these wine options complement the superb lunch and dinner menus by Chef Peter George, which on my visit included a flavorful asparagus and goat cheese tart with prosciutto (paired with a crisp 2009 Robert’s Block Riesling) and pan-seared Lake Huron pickerel with East Coast lobster, roasted cucumbers, and sweet corn (paired with a luscious 2009 Henry of Pelham Baco Noir). And don’t miss the stellar wild blueberry and sour cherry crumble with lavender crème fraiche and brown sugar buttermilk ice cream. Lunch, from $104 for two; dinner, from $110 for two.
FRANK: After a visit to the Marc Chagall exhibit currently being held at the Art Gallery of Ontario (through January 15, 2012), head to the museum’s contemporary restaurant, FRANK (www.ago.net/frank), and dine on a Chagall-inspired prix-fixe menu by executive chef Anne Yarymowich (three courses and exhibit admission with audio guide for $65 per person). On the menu: Russian-inspired borscht with Ontario beets, pan-seared steelhead trout on a buckwheat blini, and chocolate rum baba with poached pear. FRANK takes its name from its architect (Frank Gehry, a Toronto native, boldly transformed the restaurant and the museum – including the Baroque Stair, shown at right) and features a seasonal à la carte menu of creative contemporary fare and an exclusive Ontarian wine list, all set amid sleek Danish-inspired design. Dinner for two starts at $100.
Edgewalk: Last, but certainly not least, no taste of Toronto is complete unless you sample the air at 1,158 feet above the city during a 30-minute Edgewalk (www.edgewalkcntower.ca), which unfolds on a 5-foot-wide metal catwalk, located at the equivalent of 116 stories up on the outside of the landmark CN Tower. Just psych yourself up and go for it – the adrenaline rush is amazing, the view is astounding, and you’ll surprise yourself as you release your hands from your harness and lean into the view in the “toes over Toronto” pose or lean back like you own the entire city. Edgewalk reopens in May 2012 and the cost is $175 per person, which includes photos and a DVD of your walk, as well as admission to all CN Tower viewing areas.