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Toronto Food Diary

A Foodie's Travel Journal


On my recent trip to Toronto, a Canadian city that I've visited many times over the years, meant that I was free to go off the beaten path a bit.

I'd already visited many of the city's foodie highlights, including St. Lawrence Market. On this trip, I was keen to check out a few new places - a sake brewery, TOCA bar and restaurant the new Ritz-Carlton, a cupcake studio -- as well as to try some places I'd missed on previous visits. Here's what happened:

Light Dinner at the Gladstone Cafe

Toronto's Ossington neighborhood has the funky artistic vibe thing happening, and so I was not surprised to learn that the literary event I was scheduled to attend on my first night at town was in that area, at the Gladstone Hotel.

I'd been planning to walk around a bit and menu browse, but a gigantically long line at passport control cut my exploration time short. The Gladstone's menu looked interesting, plus I was enticed by an extensive menu of wines by the glass.

This is a place that fits right into the neighborhood, with exposed brick walls, interesting light fixtures, and a menu of hipster comfort food, including gaspe tourtiere, a traditional pork and chicken pie, honey lavender roast chicken. I went simple, and ordered a grilled calmari salad -- the calamari was cooked just right, and went perfectly with the beet, grapefruit and arugula on my plate.

The Canadian cheese plate included three generous portions of cheese, but I was disappointed by the accompaniments -- only crackers and bread. Bottom line: Gladstone Cafe is just a few ticks shy of being a dinner destination in its own right, but it's a great place to snack before a hotel event.

TOCA at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel

The Ritz-Carlton is one of Toronto's newest downtown hotels, opening its doors in February 2011. This was where I stayed on my visit. If you're going to splurge on this hotel, it's well worth going all the way and staying on a Club floor, which gives you access to the Club Lounge on the 20th floor, which puts out a changing spread of food from breakfast in the morning through dessert in the evening. I had intentions of getting out to explore a few breakfast spots, but was ultimately defeated by the ease of sitting in the lounge, taking in the view of the lake and the CN Tower, while enjoying the copious breakfast spread, which included scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and an assortment of fruit, bread and cheese.

The hotel's restaurant is called TOCA, a restaurant that focuses on contemporary preparations of Canadian specialties, using Canadian ingredients. (Example: "Fancy Fish n' Chips, delicately fried Yarmouth lobster, served with avocado frites.) In a brilliant design move, the restaurant has a glassed-in "cheese cave" -- where cheese is indeed aging, but also where, in between courses, diners are invited in for a tour and an impromptu tasting. (Just try not to order a cheese course after this, I dare you.)

By the way, pre-dinner, it would also be a folly to miss a cocktail in the TOCA Bar, where the mixologists are on the cutting edge of cocktail trends, creating their own syrups (try La Pomme Quebecoise, made with Calvados, pineapple purée, tobacco syrup & Cava), cask aging their spirits, and serving up a delicious array of bar snacks which includes fried capers and -- yes -- candied bacon.

An Oyster Education at Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill

In the era of local food, Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill appears to buck the trend. There's no salt water around Toronto, and so obvioulsy, no local oysters. But, the city is an import hub for Canada's import of European oysters, and Patrick McMurray, a champion oyster opener (record: 38 oysters in a minute) has cultivated relationships with the best oyster producers in the world, from the UK to France, and from both costs of the United States.

Dining at Starfish is an education in all things oyster, and it's best practice to simply put yourself into Patrick's hands and let him assemble an oyster plate for you. Oyster flavor varies tremendously by species and by the waters in which they are grown

On this visit, I tried Galway Flat oysters from Irish waters for the first time, and was entirely shocked by their meaty, metallic and challenging flavor. Minus the shell, I wouldn't have been sure it was an oyster at all. The suggested pairing with Guinness beer was a must do.

Also, it was impossible to stop eating Starfish's wild Irish mussels, steamed in white wine, garlic and creaam, served with (properly twice-fried) house frites.

Cupcake Decorating at Le Dolci

What could be better than letting your inner creative child go wild with food coloring, cookie cutters, and sprinkles, while playing with fondant --the baking world's answer to Play-Doh -- while surreptitiously licking butter cream off your fingers?

Le Dolci puts on two-hour cupcake decorating classes that are basically pure fun. There's no heavy lifting in this -- the cupcakes are made, the butter cream frosting is prepared in advance. But you do learn how to manipulate fondant into fun shapes, including three dimensional animals, and you learn how to properly squeeze a pastry bag so that you can achieve various effects, from a carnation to a rose to a field of grass. And you leave with a box of a dozen cupcakes.

Toronto-Brewed Sake Tasting

Toronto's Distillery District is always on my must-visit list -- whether to hit the original location of SOMA chocolate, or to do what is only historically right and proper and get a beer at Mill Street Brew Pub.

The area got even more fun in 2011 when Ontario Spring Water Sake Company opened its doors, This is sake made with traditional methods, by a Japanese brew master, but with water from a spring in Northern Ontario. (Hence, the name.) There are about 2,000 liters produced here a month, and several available for tasting at the small bar. Sake breweries aren't that common in North America, and so this is also a unique opportunity to sample a by-product of sake production, sake kasu -- a soft, almost tofu-like edible product, that also can be used to make soap and lotion. Spring Water Sake uses it to make a concentrated miso soup base, and also to produce an ice creamesque frozen dessert in Japanese inspired flavors, including black sesame, lemon rind and soy flower.

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