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Friday, 8 January 2010

To Toronto

Mr. F and I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion (read a periodically heated argument) about the comparative virtues of eating (out) in New York and in London.  Needless to say, Mr. F, who hails from across the pond and who was schooled in NYC, is a staunch advocate for the Big Apple.  The central thrust of his argument is that the hapless tourist can pretty much wander into any deli or slice joint in New York and eat something that tastes pretty good and doesn't cost a fortune.  He grumbles that the same cannot be said of London, and that good food is not forthcoming to those not in the know.  Don't even get him started on the rest of the UK.

Now, last time that I was in New York I ate some pretty mediocre food.  Granted, the slices are amazingly good (especially when you've been pacing the streets in sub-zero temperatures, ducking into every en-route Starbucks to take advantage of the heat blowing out over the doors), but I found the food in many of the restaurants that we visited to be non-descript and in some instances plain poor.  Readers should note that we were not going to high end places (I long to visit Per Se, Babbo, Le Cirque, etc., but on this particular visit our finances did not stretch to such indulgences), but were frequenting places recommended by friends.  Little was out and out bad (a dish of sauteed zucchini with hazelnuts served at Supper stands out as having attained the questionable feat of being both watery and greasy.  And there was a memorable breakfast at a Le Pain Quotidien when the kitchen took three go's at serving us two soft-boiled eggs.  At one point there was a dozen eggs, eight of which were rejects, languishing on our table.) but even less sticks in the memory as being truly delectable.

But I digress.  Mr. F and I have recently returned from a trip to Toronto which, for me, represents the middle ground in our argument: Toronto does not boast the array of pizza joints, hot dog vendors and pile 'em high delis that New York has, but its restaurants, cafes and pubs seem to be slightly less hit and miss than those in London.  And it has some really excellent ethnic restaurants serving authentic cuisine that has not been moderated to suit the American/Canadian palate.  Having said that, I would still say that when food in London is good it easily rivalled, if not outshone, what we ate in Toronto.

We managed to pack a fair number of visits to restaurants into our short stay.  Of those I would award stand-out star status to Terroni on Queen Street, Asian Legend on Dundas Street, Brar (I'm not sure where it was) and California Sandwiches.

Let me start with California Sandwiches because it is doing something really life-affirmingly enjoyable, albeit life-shorteningly gluttonous.  Picture this: Mr. F and I, in a vain attempt to counter the effect of too much carousing over the festive season, attend a lunchtime Bikram yoga session in Etobicoke.  We emerge, red-faced and emotionally and physically drained.  I am also feeling a little sick.  Mr. F suggests we go for sushi.  I demur, and turn a shade greener.  We proceed down the highway in the direction of home, passing through what appears to my eyes to be a sort of industrial park.  Mr. F spots a branch of California Sandwiches, and makes a sudden left turn, pulling up right outside the door.  I am nervous but game as my appetite is beginning to rear its ugly head and the nausea is subsiding.  Inside is a basic fast food joint.  The menu over the tills lists about seven sandwiches (meatballs, veal parmigiana, grilled vegetables), several add-on fillings, and a few side orders.  I opt, on Mr. F's recommendation, for the special, eggplant parmigiana.  I hasten to add that this is not the sort of sandwich I would usually order, but the prospects of obtaining avocado salad with pine nuts on wholemeal looked slim.  Our order was taken, we were given a number, and we took our seats, sipping hopefully on our cool bottles of Orangina.

The sandwiches eventually arrived wrapped tightly in silver foil.  Now, I'm not going to pretend that when one opens one of these monsters it's pretty, because it's not.  There is a lot of tomato sauce so the whole thing sort of resembles road kill in a roll.  But the aroma!  And the taste!

Aubergine slices had been coated in bread crumbs and parmesan cheese and then fried.  These were covered in a tomato/marinara sauce, with mozzarella cheese being laid on top.  This concoction was then stuffed into a soft white roll.  It sounds a bit gross, granted, but it could not have been more satisfying: my cockles were well and truly warmed that day.  The presence of this branch of California Sandwiches on the side of the highway does, I have grudgingly to confess, support a Mr. F-type thesis that good food is more readily available in Canada than it is here.  Can you imagine ever being able to find such delight on the side of a motorway or A-road in this country?

Brar is a restaurant on a strip mall (again, another unglamorous venue) somewhere in Etobicoke which serves north Indian thalis.  All of the dishes are vegetarian, and the selection varies each day.  Fresh rotis and naan are made on the premises and are served piping hot.  The subjis are all wonderful, with distinct flavours: no generic, all-purpose "curry" sauces here.  On the day that we went the stand-out dishes included a fragrant saag paneer and a mixed vegetable dish which somehow managed to make cooked green peppers taste moreish.  Three thalis and six rotis cost the princely sum of Can$24.  It's undeniably brilliant value.

I'm not a massive fan of Chinese food, and cannot even pretend to know much about the different regional cuisines that exist in China.  I like Gourmet San on Bethnal Green Road, but I have never had much success on Gerrard Street, and most of the time when I am in the area I will try to persuade my hapless companion to go to Busaba further up Wardour Street.  Asian Legend is a small chain of restaurants which serves an extensive menu of dim sum, soups, noodle and meat dishes.  I have been a couple of times, and on each occasion have found the food to be satisfying, the service generally to be efficient, and the price to be conducive to repeat visits.  On this most recent trip I shared some steamed chicken dumplings with an omnivorous friend - they were rich, meaty and very filling.  I also had a hot and sour soup with shredded chicken, which had a (probably very authentic) gelatinous texture.  The most notable dish was a starter described on the menu as a fried green onion pancake.  It was a thick, doughy pancake, liberally studded with spring onions and fried until golden brown.  It was delicious when dunked in soy.

Lastly, I must mention Terroni, a restaurant to which Mr. F and I have been on about six or seven occasions.  It serves southern Italian food, offering an extensive range of fairly standard primi, secondi and pizze.  They have a strict no changes policy, which I happen to like as it makes one order with more precision and care.  Each meal that I have eaten there has been good: the pizze are thin, crisp, generously topped and served good and hot.  Mr. F is a big fan of the lemon spaghetti, and last time we were there we shared a dish of fried calamari which was perfectly seasoned and served confidently with just a fat wedge of lemon as opposed to any aioli or tartar.

Toronto, being no different from any other big city, also boasts its fair share of stinkers.  Obviously, it is my mission in life to avoid stepping over the threshold of any restaurant serving bad food, but on occasion it happens.  On this visit to Toronto we bumped into some of Mr. F's friends who recommended a number of restaurants for lunch, including Vaticano in Yorkville.  We walked past it, only to see that it was located in a basement and was empty.  But it was a freezing cold day, and the restaurant up the street that we had wanted to try had a queue snaking out the front door. 

Let me tell you, I have never seen a restaurant as tastelessly and vulgarly decorated as Vaticano.  It was done out in a lurid peach colour, which I suspect may have been an attempt at terracotta, and was festooned with nightmarish 2- and 3-D depictions of cherubs, angels, Tuscan buildings, Roman ruins and the like.  Factor into the mix that it was Christmas at the time, and you'll begin to get an idea of the sensory overload that we experienced.  The menu is run-of-the-mill Italian, from which I ordered a rocket and Parmesan salad and a seafood spaghetti.  The salad was fine.  The pasta was really quite bad - the garlic in the tomato sauce had been burnt to a cinder, whilst the mussels and clams were raw.  Now, I like raw seafood in the right context, but the texture of the mussels and clams in this dish made me feel queasy in the extreme.  Mr. F's cacio e pepe was all wrong, and should properly have been described as spaghetti with an alfredo sauce.

So, the upshot is that Toronto is a great place to eat, bar a couple of places which should be given a wide berth.  If anyone's going in the near future let me know, and I'll try to dig out some more recommendations.  In the meantime, I hope everyone's enjoying the new year!

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