Dilettante's Diary

Restaurants

Home
Who Do I Think I Am?
Index: Movies
Index: Writing
Index: Theatre
Index: Music
Index: Exhibitions
Artists' Blogs
Index: TV, Radio and Misc
Restaurants
NOVEMBER 22, 2017
Nov 3/17
Oct 5/17
Sept 21/17
Aug 3/17
June 16/17
Mar 21/17
Feb 26/17
Feb 9/17
Jan 30/17
Dec 19/16
Dec 11/16
Nov 20/16
Sept 17/2016
Aug 21/16
July 17/16
June 29/16
June 2/16
Apr 23/16
Feb 28/16
Feb 1/16
Jan 27/16
Winter Reading 2016
Dec 15/15
Nov 19/15
Fall Reading 2015
Oct 29/15
Sept 16/15
Sept 4/15
July 29, 2015
July 1, 2015
June 7/15
Summer Reading 2015
May 19/15
Apr 30/15
Apr 19/15
Spring Reading 2015
March 23/15
March 11/15
Winter Reading 2015
Feb 20/15
Feb 8/15
Jan 29/15
Jan 20/15
Highs 'N Lows of 2014
Dec 19/14
Dec 2/14
Nov 10/14
Oct 29/14
Fall Reading 2014
Sept 17/14
Summer Reading 2014
Aug 22/14
Aug 8/14
July 11/14
June 16/14
May 28/14
Apr 30/14
Apr 16/14
Apr 2/14
March 21, 2014
March 13/14
Feb 11/14
Sept 23/13
Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
June 19/13
May 30/13
Spring Reading 2013
May 10/13
Apr 18/13
Mar 29/13
March 14, 2013
The Artist Project 2013
Feb 25/13
Winter Reading 2013
Feb 7/13
Jan 22/13
Jan 12/13
A Toast to 2012
Dec 19/12
Dec 16/12
Dec 4/12
Fall Reading 2012
Nov 17/12
Nov 6/12
Art Toronto 2012
Oct 23/12
Oct 4/12
Sept 28/12
Summer Reading 2012
Aug 26/12
Aug 8/12
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
July 14/12
June 28/12
MIMC
May 27/12
May 20/12
May 4/12
La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
Apr 21/12
Apr 6/12
Mar 22/12
Mar 9/12
The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
Feb 26/12
Feb 11/12
Jan 23/12
Jan 15/12
Jan 7/12
Dec 20/11
Dec 12/11
Nov 27/11
Nov 18/11
Nov 7/11
Art Toronto 2011
Oct 22/11
Oct 17/11
Sept 30, 2011
Summer Reading 2011
Aug 11/11
July 28, 2011
July 19/11
TOAE 2011
June 25/11
June 20/11
June 2/11
May 14/11
Apr 29/11
Toronto Art Expo 2011
Apr 11/11
March 24/11
The Artist Project 2011
March 11/11
Feb 23/11
Feb 7/11
Jan 21/11
HIGHS 'N LOWS OF 2010
Jan 17/11
Dec 21/10
Dec 6/10
Nov 11/10
Fall Reading 2010
Oct 22/10
Summer Reading 2010
Aug 9/10
Aug 2/10
TOAE 2010
July 16/10
The Shack
June 27/10
June 3/10
May 5/10
April 17/10
Mar 28/10
Mar 17/10
The Artist Project 2010
Toronto Art Expo 2010
Feb 22/10
Feb 3/10
Notables of '09
Jan 11/10
Dec 31/09
Dec 17/09
How Fiction Works
Nov 24/09
Sex for Saints
Nov 11/09
Housekeeping
Oct 22/09
Oct 6/09
Sept 18/09
Aug 23/09
July 31/09
July 17/09
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
Toronto Fringe 2009
Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
June 28/09
June 6/09
Myriad Mysteries 2009
May 10/09
CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
April 14/09
March 24/09
Toronto Art Expo '09
March 1/09
The Jesus Sayings
Feb 8/09
Jan 26/09
Jan 10/09
Stand-outs of 2008
Dec 24/08
Dec 4/08
Nov 16/08
Oct 27/08
Oct 16/08
Sept 26/08
Sept 5/08
July 21/08
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
July 5/08
June 23/08
June 4/08
May 18/08
May 4/08
April 16/08
March 26/08
Head to Head
Feb 26/08
Feb 13/08
Jan 30/08
Jan 17/08
Notables of 2007
Dec 30/07
Dec 8/07
Nov 22/07
Oct 25/07
Oct 4/07
Sept 18/07
Aug 29/07
Aug 8/07
Summer Mysteries '07
July 20/07
June 28/07
June 8/07
May 21/07
May 2/07
April 14/07
March 23/07
Toronto Art Expo 2007
March 8/07
Feb 16/07
Feb 2/07
Jan 24/07
Notables of 2006
Dec 27/06
December 11/06
November 28/06
Nov 8/06
October 14/06
Sept 22/06
Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
Sept 6/06
August 12/06
July 18/06
June 27/06
June 9/06
May 23/06
Me In Manhattan
May 2/06
April 12/06
March 17/06
March 9/06
Feb 16/06
Feb 1/06
Jan 11/06
Dec 31/05
Dec 12/05
Nov 25/05
Nov 4/05
Oct 24/05
Sept 7/05
Sept 16/05
Sept 1/05
Aug 10/05
July 21/05
Me and the Jays
July 10/05
June 15/05
May 18/05
April 27/05
April 18/05
April 8/05
March 21/05
Feb 28/05
Feb 21/05
Feb 4/05
Jan 28/05
Jan 19/05
Jan 5/05
About Me
Dec 20/04
Dec 5/04
MOVIES
BOOKS
RE-READINGS
MYSTERIES/CRIME books
VIDEOS and DVDs
PLAYS
OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Note: This page is closed. No more restaurant reviews.

Intro

Readers have been asking whether I’m going to start reviewing restaurants. On the understanding that cuisine is certainly one of the arts, I’ve decided to do so.

Given that we go out to dinner at least once a week, we’ve acquired a considerable knowledge of restaurants, especially ones in North Toronto. But what you’re going to get here won’t be the typical restaurant reviews. I’m no specialist in the finer points of gastronomy. But I do appreciate good food and my usual dinner companion, (i.e. my wife) is an excellent cook who has been gifted with a very discriminating palate.

However, since nobody’s picking up the tab for us, don’t expect a comprehensive rundown of all the menu items. Sometimes, I may offer a chatty report on one dining experience. Or maybe a summary of several visits to the same eatery; or, perhaps, brief mention of several places.

In the interests of fairness and accuracy, I’ll indicate how often we’ve attended any given restaurant. While the attention will be mostly on the food, I’ll mention aspects of the experience that can make a difference to us: the ambiance, the service, the noise level, even the cutlery.

I’ll also try to give an idea of the price range that the restaurants fit into, based on the kind of meal we usually order. Typically, this will include one or two glasses of wine, possibly a shared appetizer, two main courses and a shared desert. For this sort of meal, the prices at the various restaurants will fall into the categories:

Low: below $50 for two

Medium: $50 - $90 for two.

High: $90 - 150 for two

Very high: over $150

Note: As of Jan/11, I'll add the dates of the posting.

Pisco  3249 Yonge Street; 416-482-8880 (Number of visits: 2)

Something new in North Toronto -- a Peruvian restaurant. (It's in the venue that was the site of a couple of previous favourites: Sappori and Osteria.) So far, they've had a "soft opening," which means, apparently, that they haven't settled on the menu yet. We've been there twice and liked it very much both times. The first time, we had something like a beef wellington. It was wrapped in a puff pastry but the contents were some spicy concoction of vegetables. It was very good but we thought the price was a bit high. On our next visit, though, it looked like the price had been lowered. This time, we had two different beef dishes, both excellent. We found the staff to be courteous and solicitous in a very personable way; they were willing to discuss at length our needs and how the restaurant might meet them -- dealing, for instance, with our problem with music that was somewhat obtrusive and a bit too peppy

Price range: Medium

The Copper Chimney 2050 Avenue Road; 647-436-2538  www.the-copper-chimney.com  (Number of visits: 1)

We're probably the last people in this part of town to try this place. It's been getting rave reviews since its opening roughly a year ago. We found it to be fully up to the top billing. The many dishes we tried were perfect, our favourite, perhaps, being Lamb Pasanda (with cashew nuts and saffron sauce). Even the nan was better than usual. The staff were very obliging, in a cozy familial way. When they found out that we were marking a birthday, our gulab-jamuns came with ice cream, even though we hadn't ordered it.

Price range: medium

Update on Quince 2110 Yonge Street; 416-488-2110 www.quincetoronto.com (Number of visits: several)

Everybody knows this is an excellent bistro, so there's no need for me to extol its many virtues. (See my original review below.) I just want to mention the exquisite dessert I had there lately: warm almond tart. To many people, that suggests something in a little round crust, with slivers of almond on top. This was more like a wedge of pie, with the consistency of something like quiche. No sign of almond slices but the warm filling was ecstasy-inducing almond-flavoured.There was some  sort of crme fraiche or crme anglaise dribbled over it. It also came with a little compote of blueberries. I found that their slight sourness overpowered the sweetness of the tart. No problem. I put them aside for eating later.

Price range: Medium

The above comments posted on July 15, 2013

********

La Palette 492 Queen Street West, Toronto; 416-929-4900 www.lapalette.ca  Number of visits: 2

This looked like a promising nutrition stop before a show around the corner at Factory Theatre. On a Friday night, you got the impression that this was a happening place, with lots of knowing-looking people eager to get in. For me, the experience proved to be a little less impressive than it was apparently intended to be. The service is brisk and friendly, though. The decor funky: bare brick walls, black and white tile floor, lots of duct work showing, antique-ish wooden chairs, tables covered with cloths in colourful Provenal patterns. But the cutlery struck me as a bit downscale.

I went for the $35 prix fixe. The bread was warm, white soft and not very interesting. A salad of mixed greens with pear slices and walnuts turned out to be less pleasing than it sounded: lack-luster greens, very few and very slim slices of pear, fragments of walnuts rather than unbroken halves. The steak was a good cut – thick and juicy – but the sauce (black garlic butter, port-glazed challots) tasted slightly burned, to me. (Maybe that was the chef’s revenge for my asking for medium well-done.) Yukon gold frites were cooked a bit too long, with the result that they got hard and dry about five minutes after delivery to the table. A flourless chocolate-almond cake was a dense lump, not worth finishing. When that dessert is done right, it should melt in your mouth.

Admittedly, my choices were not very adventurous. The place seems to specialize in more unusual fare such as bison, horse tenderloin, bouillabaisse and a cassoulet with ingredients like duck leg, pork belly and lamb neck. Next time, I should give them a chance to do their stuff with one of those more exotic dishes. 

Update: For my second visit, I didn't venture very far from familiar territory, but the duck breast was very good: thick, tender and perfectly cooked in a demi-glace, on lentils, with green beans that were just right, not over-cooked, still a little crisp. The bread was better than first time: still white and warm, but more chewy and substantial, with a crispy crust. There's no denying, though, that this is a busy, noisy place. Some people enjoy that. I would have liked a somewhat more restful ambiance than the one created by four braying middle-aged men at the next table. But they were having fun.

Price range: Medium

November and December 2012


Update on Mariachi 2084 Yonge Street; 416-481-7111 (Number of visits: several) www.mariachis.ca

We used to enjoy the friendly, funky atmosphere but I can no longer recommend the place for its food. On a recent visit we had chicken enchiladas. The hunks of chicken were hard and unpleasant. The tomato sauce was minimal. So were the sour cream, salad and rice. The red house wine was harsh. A waste of money, even though the bill was not high.

August 8, 2012

*****

Left Bank Bistro 2015 Avenue Road, Toronto; 647-349-5700 www.leftbankbistro.ca Number of visits: 1

Like the previous occupant of this space (a place named Vault, closed about a year ago), this restaurant has taken a name that’s trying to make something of the fact that the premises used to house a bank. However, we did not find our first visit to the new establishment enriching. To start off, no bread was offered unless you wanted to pay 75 cents per slice. The justification given was that some vegetable glop would be provided along with the bread. I know some restaurants in other parts of the world routinely charge for bread but for a restaurant in North Toronto to start doing that strikes me as not very welcoming.

And speaking of welcome, it’s not a very good sign when your server insists on giving you her name, even if she does turn out to be sweet and obliging. If I’m dealing with one server for seven days on a cruise, it might be helpful to know his or her name; but it’s pretentious and unnecessary for servers to announce their names to customers who are on hand for just one dinner.

A "special" appetizer of softshell crab in tempura batter turned out to be tasty enough, once you got used to the idea of eating the shell, but the plate, including greens, was very oily. We fell into the old trap of not asking, before ordering, what a "special" would cost; this one turned out to be extremely expensive: $16. A dish of gnocchi offered a quantity that would be about adequate for a snack, not even a luncheon. The gnocchi were somewhat hard, not at all the melt-in-your-mouth quality. The advertised cubes of squash in the dish were so tiny that they contributed a bit of colour but no flavour. And the bowl itself was too wide and deep: one’s utensil kept falling in. Trout almandine was very good, although, again, there was a problem with quantity: about half the amount you’d expect. The only unquestionably good aspect of the meal was that the serving of red house wine was generous.

One doesn't doubt that the management and staff of a new place like this are working hard to make their enterprise successful. But they need to know about the negative effect some of their practices are having on customers.

Price range: high medium

 

Richlee Ristorante 1959 Avenue Road, Toronto; 416-901-6450  www.richleeristorante.com

We used to enjoy this spot years ago but then it was taken over by new management and transformed into an establishment that didn’t much appeal to us. Nor to anybody else much, it seems. The original owner’s back, with the old name, and the hope is that all the former customers can be won back. It looks like they will be. There’s an old world ambiance to the place: very quiet, lots of dark wood. I’m glad that they’ve got rid of the hokey paintings. The only discordant note, in my opinion, is the chitnzy cutlery. We found the staff to be very polished and obliging. What made the atmosphere notably agreeable was the owner’s strolling around, chatting with everybody, making sure everyone’s wants were attended to.

On this first visit back, we had a caesar salad (very good), then a linguini pescatore and a penne with chicken in a pesto sauce. Both were very good, although the pesto sauce was, I thought, surprisingly oily. The bread provided (Free!) was excellent, but the accompanying pat tasted a little too strongly of liver for me.

Price range: medium

The reviews above posted June, 2012

*****

Bar Mercurio 270 Bloor Street, Toronto; 416-960-3877; www.barmercurio.com (Number of visits: 1)

At first glance, this place looked like it was going to be too upscale and snooty for me. Squeezed into a narrow space on the north side of Bloor, just west of University Ave, it has elegant, long linen tableclothes, hefty cutlery, lofty ceilings and a tony ambiance, accented by dark wood. But it turned out to be a delightful place for a late-night bite after a concert at the nearby Royal Conservatory. Mind you, our being the last customers of the night probably meant that we found the place quieter than it would be during peak hours. The staff – young, friendly and good-looking – were obliging and courteous to a fault. A pizza was priced quite reasonably, around $15. A special treat for me was the show of the owner's  abstract paintings in dramatic reds, blacks and whites.

Prince range: medium

Stack 3265 Yonge Street, Toronto; 647-346-1416 (Number of visits: 1)

This is the latest occupant of a space that has seen two or three other restaurants in recent years. Opting for a family-oriented, middle-of-the-road appeal, it’s bright, open, busy and noisy. A burger (around $9) included two patties, both good. The fries were too. A black bean burger was tasty but difficult to manage, in that it fell apart. A quarter chicken was distressingly bloody inside and a baffled waiter said he didn’t know how that could be because "the chef...the freezer....etc. etc. etc." The young, energetic staff scurried around doing their best but the food wasn’t good enough to make us want to put up with the hectic pace. Note to self: it’s generally a good idea to avoid places that have tv screens stationed strategically overhead.

Price range: medium

The Rosedale Diner 1164 Yonge Street, Toronto; 416-923-3122 www.rosedalediner.com (Number of visits: 1)

I’ve been meaning to try this one for years (it’s been something of a legendary presence in mid-town Toronto since the 1970s) but a recent Sunday afternoon offered my first opportunity for a visit. The decor is cluttered and funky in a way that’s supposed to be hip (I think) but doesn’t particularly appeal to me. Steak frites seemed rather expensive to me ($28); the frites were fine but the steak – not very thick – was far from the best I’ve had. The service could be described as diffident but not unfriendly, in an off-hand, casual way. When I asked for some bread, the reaction was like: Oh, you want bread? Yes, of course, we can fulfill such a bizarre request! A little table in the window did provide an entertaining outlook on happenings in the plaza fronting the new condos across the street but I didn’t enjoy the experience enough to want to hurry back.

Price range: high medium

The Burger’s Priest 3397 Yonge Street; 647-346-0617 www.theburgerspriest.com (Number of visits: 1)

My understanding is that this relatively new presence in North Toronto is the second coming of a place further downtown that has made its name as the place for the ultimate burger. Some people hereabouts object to the hokey religiosity associated with the business – the references to nutrition "redemption" and so on. I’m willing to overlook that stuff for the sake of a visit, considering it just a lot of nonsense, but must admit that I’m somewhat puzzled by what appear to be rather serious attempts at preaching the gospel, i.e. the one associated with Jesus, on the restaurant’s website.

Apparently, the rave reaction to the original establishment has carried over to the new location, given that there’s usually a line-up outside. Even when I chose to try it out around 3 pm on a weekday, business was steady, although a few of the sparse seats were available. The burger combo was a good buy (about $10 for burger, fries and drink) but the burger wasn’t all that great, in my opinion. True, the meat was fresh, soft and loosely packed – not the frozen hockey puck you get nearly everywhere – but there wasn’t very much of it: only about half the quantity of a decent burger. The fries were good but I could only eat some of the contents of the huge bag of them. The slightly harried staff were cheerful and helpful enough but the blaring rock music helped to confirm that this wasn’t my scene.

Price range: medium

Edward Street Market & Bistro 14785 Yonge Street, Aurora; 905-841-9500 www.edwardstreet.ca (Number of visits: restaurant - 2; deli - 1)

Personal business north of the city has led to dinner here on a couple of Saturday evenings in the past year. On each occasion, I arrived fairly early, which meant that the atmosphere wasn’t too frantic, but I have a feeling it could get pretty crazy later on. For someone posing as a food critic, it’s somewhat shaming to admit that I had the same thing on the two visits – burger with fries – but it was very good both times, if expensive ($19). For consideration of dessert, a tray of very attractive samples was brought around; that seems to me a very good idea, since verbal descriptions of desserts so often leave you clueless. However, the chocolate pecan tart I chose turned out be rather dry and hard. I suspect that desserts may not be the establishment’s specialty. A cupcake from the adjoining deli at noon was awful: heavy cake and lardy icing. But the ham-and-cheese croissant was very good.

On my most recent experience in the dining room, it was hard to tell exactly who was my waiter, given that various members of the twenty-something staff kept dropping by the table, including one man who appeared to be the head waiter, but they were all very solicitous and personable. A genial older man who seemed to be the maitre d’ or the owner also came to call a couple of times to make sure everything was ok. I found the decor very soothing – dark brown and beige. The pebbles adorning the top of each of the dividers that separated the booths looked like a good idea until a two-year-old in a nearby booth discovered that the stones were loose.

Price range: high medium

The reviews above posted May, 2012

*******

Kitchen: update (See Original Review Below)

We still find this one of the best restaurants in North Toronto. But a recent visit on a Wednesday night made us wonder if it's becoming too popular -- not for its own good -- but for ours. It was only 7:30 but the place was packed and very noisy. If we hadn't made reservations beforehand, we'd have cut our losses and moved on. Nearly everybody in the place seemed to know everybody else: a lot of table hopping. We felt like we were the only members who didn't belong to the club. Clearly, the place is a hit with well-heeled retirees from the same social circles. Next time, we'll try for our usual 6 pm arrival and see if the ambiance is more to our liking.

August, 2011

 

Stratto 1977 Avenue Road, 416-322-0700 www.strattowineandgrill.com

This was our first visit to a place that’s been around for at least a couple of years. We’d often walked by the location on north Avenue Road, not far from the Highway 401, but hadn’t had occasion to drop in until a Monday night in summer when some our favourites in the area were closed. Some people were braving the hot weather and the traffic on a semi-enclosed patio at Stratto, but the cool, welcoming interior with its subdued lighting made us feel we’d stumbled into a trattoria somewhere on a quiet side street in Rome. It also began to seem that we may have found one of the best Italian restaurants hereabouts.

A mini-baguette came nicely warmed, with a dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Strange thing, though, the vinegar sat in the bottom of the bowl and you couldn’t get any of it on your bread. Since bread with oil alone doesn’t cut it with us, we asked for butter – which came readily enough, on second asking. Cesar salad was served up more attractively than in some places: lots of fresh, crispy Romaine lettuce, croutons that weren't too dry or hard, some other crispy things, and a patch of proscuitto. A serving of Fettucine Alfredo, with strips of julienned chicken, was marvellously creamy – almost too creamy, if such a thing is possible. Spaghetti Bolognese had a very fresh, tomato taste. Tiramisu was one of the best we’ve encountered in a long time – very creamy. Even the coffee cup made a good impression. Arriving on a wavy saucer that spoke of a potter’s creativity, the cup had a slightly funnel-shaped handle that your finger fit into very cozily.

We found the service brisk and efficient, remaining friendly and obliging  even when the pace got hectic as the evening wore on. Stratto appears to be a real happening place, given that it was nearly full by 7:30 (on a Monday night, yet!). And the premises are apparently well-designed for sound absorption: lots of brick and wood. Perhaps the open air at the front of the patio helps too. In spite of the fairly intense chatter, you could hear yourselves well.

Price range: Medium (for pasta and pizza; some other things reach into a somewhat higher range: eg. Steak frites for $34.)

July, 2011

*********

Riz North 3321 Yonge Street; 416-322-6789

This site used to be home to a kind of North Toronto landmark – the very upscale "Joy Cherry" women’s clothing store. The location has been empty for about two years since that venerable emporium closed its doors. About a year ago, it seemed a restaurant was almost ready to open on the spot. Vigorous renovation had been going on. But suddenly that project fell through. Now, the place has opened as Riz North, the third North Toronto restaurant owned by Terry Wei, his other two being the original Riz and Lemongrass, both on Bayview Ave.

In keeping with our habit of "opening" new places in this part of town, we dropped in on just the second night of the restaurant’s being in business. The vast space has been appropriately divided into sections by means of booths and partitions. The decor is confined mostly to a classy combination of black, white and silver. I couldn’t quite decide whether the proliferation of chandeliers spelled elegance or kitsch. But, when you visit a room at the back that soars up two storeys, you have to admit that the double-decker chandelier hovering there is dazzling.

We enjoyed very much our first sampling of the fare. Our appetizer of dim sum (shrimp and spinach in little shell-like dumplings) was a tasty, chewy way to start. A plate with chicken teryiaki, including a mound of three kinds of rice and vegetables cooked just right (not too soft), was beautifully presented. A serving of mango chicken with hoisin sauce was somewhat sweeter than wanted, but very good. One thing that added to the pleasure of the meal – not all restaurants pay enough attention to this – was the hefty cutlery (including metal chopsticks).

It was a little difficult to catch the eye of our waiter at times but, overall, the many cheerful young people on the wait staff were courteous and obliging – especially regarding our hopping around the place trying to find a table sheltered from the blast of the air conditioning. That took some doing, given the early evening sunshine pouring in the west-facing windows on Yonge.

Towards the end of our meal, owner Terry Wei stopped by our table to ask what we thought of it all. He says that this version of Riz features mostly Japanese and Thai dishes, whereas the original Riz on Bayview is Pan Asian. Most notably, that restaurant is certified gluten-free. (I think Mr. X said it’s the only so certified Pan Asian eatery in Toronto.) Rolling his eyes at the thought of all the hassle involved in maintaining a certified, gluten-free restaurant, he said he chose not to go down that difficult road with this new project. My guess is that it will provide stiff competition for Cravings the very popular Asian restaurant just a few doors north.

Price Range: Low medium.

May, 2011

Bistro 990 990 Bay Street, Toronto; 416-921-9990 Closed.

 

Mariachi 2084 Yonge Street; 416-481-7111 (Number of visits: several) www.mariachis.ca  See Update above, dated August 8, 2012.

You could probably get finer Mexican dining elsewhere in Toronto, but we like this place because it’s relatively cheap, reliable and convenient for North Torontonians. To say that going there feels like "slumming it" would be an exaggeration, but you have to be prepared for a funky atmosphere (plastic plants, crappy art, woodwork painted in gaudy colours). The low lighting and cheerful service help to make all that tolerable. We usually order some sort of enchiladas (chicken or beef); they come with rice and salad. Of the various levels of spicing available, we always plead for the mildest. The sauce that comes with the free nachos is too hot for me. By way of dessert, we’ve tried the churros – something like a sugar-encrusted beignet, with some kind of goo for dipping them in. They aren’t as delectable as some of fond memory from places long gone.

Price range: low medium (March 15/11)

 

Mela 1921 Avenue Road; Closed

 

Gente Trattoria 3471 Yonge Street 416-440-0700 (Number of visits: three -- see Update below)

Our first visit to this place was the night after it opened. Maybe that’s why we found the service, although warm and friendly, a bit slipshod. On the second visit, things ran a little more smoothly. The bread arrived at the table too crisp but the olives on the side were a nice touch. The pesto sauce in a dish of penne with chicken seemed a little pasty. A spaghetti marina included lots of seafood and sauce made with fresh tomatoes. A dish of veal and mushrooms was very good. The question with any tiramisu is always whether it’s going to tend more towards cake or pudding. Ideally, it should hit the perfect midway point between the two, but nobody pulls off that feat anymore the way Signora Rota used to do at the late lamented Dante’s. At Gente, the tiramisu tends towards the light and cakey – not sublime but agreeable.

The decor isn’t quite as classy as in Chase, the previous occupant of the premises, but it’s attractive enough. One thing that bothered us about Gente (more so on the first visit than the second) was the commotion emanating from the owners’ family members and friends gathered towards the back of the room. This has been an issue for us in some other Italian eateries. Maybe such boisterous familial joviality is part of package back home, but it isn’t exactly what some of us snooty North Torontonians are looking for.

Update: This place is apparently thriving. On a recent Saturday night, we couldn't get in, not having a reservation. No trouble getting a reservation on a subsequent Friday, though. A couple of repeat orders (chicken pasta in pesto cream sauce; seafood pasta) were enjoyable again. A pizza -- very thin crust -- was delectable. Most notably, a dessert of profiteroles was scrumptious: real whipped cream and a dense chocolate flavour. The bread, although nicely warmed and served with olives, was light and insubstantial. We still found the service a bit iffy: for instance, a very long wait to take our dessert orders.

Price range: medium

 

Kitchen 1967 Avenue Road  416-551-0468  (Number of visits: One)

We’ve been looking for a chance to try this place ever since it opened, about a year ago. The former occupant of the premises was a French patisserie, caf, delicatessen and catering business – perhaps too multi-faceted an operation to succeed. The restaurant now occupying the spot is intriguing. A small space, with room for about thirty guests – intimate and yet spacious; you don’t feel crowded. The decor is minimalist: black, white and grey, with a few silver accents, and blonde wooden table tops. When we arrived early on a mid-week evening, we were the only diners but by 7 pm the place was beginning to fill it up. So it has apparently become popular with the folk on North Avenue Road. Given that the rather low ceiling is covered with acoustic tiles, we’re guessing that the noise level wouldn’t be too bad, even at full capacity. The service could be described as efficient, courteous and unobtrusive. Best of all, the prices tend towards the low side of medium.

Something that we take as a good omen in a smallish place – the menu is somewhat limited: some appetizers, a couple of pastas, two fish dishes and three or four meat offerings, with daily desserts listed on a chalkboard. The preprandial brown bread was ideal: crunchy crust and chewy interior. Our caesar salad was fresh and crisp, although a little more tangy than we’re used to (presumably due to the lemon juice content). A serving of grilled calf’s liver was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Grilled rainbow trout was very good, although the honey/lemon glaze made it unnecessarily sweet. Garlic mashed potatoes were good, although not very garlicky and (perhaps?) a trifle watery. French fries were ok but not as delectable as real frites. By way of dessert, one very generous serving of dense, fudge-like flourless chocolate cake, with a scoop of intensely-flavoured chocolate ice cream, proved to be more than enough for two people.

Price: Low Medium

 

Pickle Barrel 312 Yonge Street 416-977-6677 and 2300 Yonge Street 416-485-1244 (Number of visits: several) www.picklebarrel.ca

We’ve dined at these two locations a number of times. You don’t expect gourmet feasting but you can usually rely on something a bit more interesting than what you'd get at the typical greasy spoon. On a recent visit to the Pickle Barrel's downtown location, however, we encountered a meal so bad that it needs to be mentioned. A hamburger was hard and crispy on the outside, lukewarm and tasteless on the inside. It was as though it had been cooked long ago and over-heated for presentation. The fries were just as bad, apparently having sat around for hours. The entire plate was virtually inedible. Our waiter offered to try again with the fries but there was no guarantee of any improvement. The two other meals ordered on this occasion were fine. One was a warm spinach salad with slices of chicken breast and cranberries; the other was a grilled chicken hummus wrap. Could the inadequate burger plate be due to the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon and the regular kitchen supervisory staff weren’t on the job?

 

Quince 2110 Yonge Street 416-488-2110 (Number of visits: 3) www.quincetoronto.com

This bistro is another of those places that we visited a couple of times when it was first opened (a few years ago) but we hadn’t had a chance to reacquaint ourselves with it until we were in the neighbourhood recently. Our favourable memories of it were validated by its current status.

First, the ambiance is pleasing: classy but in an under-stated way. Despite the fact that it was almost full on a Saturday night, the background noise somehow remained at the tolerable level of a steady buzz. Is it something about the walls – exposed brick in some places – that enhances sound absorption? Would that many other restaurants would catch on! The only negative notes would be that the meal was a bit slow in coming and the heat in the room was too intense for us. But nobody else seemed to be bothered. The dominant mode of the service was friendly, brisk and professional. We noticed that wait staff were welcoming lots of people who appeared to be long-time patrons. We can see why they would be.

The bread basket, with accompanying hummous, offered some sheets of tasty, dark flaky stuff, but, more to the point, lots of  chewy, substantial white bread with gnarly crust. A warm pear salad with Roquefort cheese hit the right note on a cold night, although I find that type of greens – dangly shreds – can be difficult to fork into your mouth while maintaining your composure. No problem, I guess, as long as you remember not to order it the next time the Queen suggests you to grab a bite together.

The flat iron steak, in the order of steak and frites, was described in the menu as "peppered". Our inquiry revealed that the kitchen was willing to forego the pepper, so the selection proved to be perfect to our taste. The frites were especially good. So was an order of gnocchi with Berkshire pork sausage ragu. The gnocchi were of the melt-in-your mouth kind. Even a glass of red house wine – Washington State Merlot – was better than most house wines.

Alas, there wasn’t time for dessert, due to a theatre date. The dessert that interested us most was carmelized apples in puff pastry with vanilla ice cream. The fact that it was one of just four desserts available reflects the relatively limited scope of the menu. Perhaps that’s the key to quality. When restaurant menus feature too much variety, suspicions of freezers cannot be quelled.

Price range: Medium

 

Moxie's Classic Grill 4950 Yonge Street 416-226-3217 (Number of visits: 3) www.moxies.com

We patronized this one a couple of times some years ago, but, given its northerly location, it isn't  one of our frequent ports of call. However, it turned out to be handy for a drop-in on a recent solo trip to North York. The ambiance -- low lighting and "easy rock," I think, it's called -- isn't exactly our style but that's ok if you're not trying to to talk to anybody. In any case, it seems to suit the hip and cool twenty-something servers. Most of the clientele, in fact, seemed to be young people who were looking for something just a bit fancier than the usual pub for a special dinner.

A classic beef burger was surprisingly good -- juicy and home-made-seeming, rather than the usual hunk of compacted mass that comes from a freezer. I was unexpectedly pleased by the accompanying Dijon sauce, even though it exceeded my spiciness threshold a bit. As for the fries it was the usual story: the first seven or eight were fine but, as they cooled, you were dealing with sticks of congealed grease. I ordered the bargain dessert -- a "bite size" brownie but it turned out to be more like a six-or-seven-bite size. Just the right amount, actually. I hadn't realized it would be white chocolate -- which would have been fine, except that it was stale on the edges and had no taste whatsoever as far as I could determine. However, since it came with vanilla ice cream and a dribble of chocolate sauce, you could scoop that up and enjoy it as if that was what you wanted.

My server was earnest, what with pen and paper and note-making. Kinda got the impression that this was his first night on the job. But he'd already mastered the art of many a more experienced waiter -- disappearing when the customer most needs you. Maybe he was trying to make up for any such  lapse when I asked for the location of the washroom. Until I demurred, it looked like he was going to lead me there by the hand.

Price Range: Medium

 

Vault 20fifteen 2015 Avenue Road. Closed

 

The Burger Cellar 3391 Yonge Street, 647-345-0084 (Number of visits: one) www.theburgercellar.com

Apparently, the vast space of these premises defeated the owners of Chega, the former occupant. Although Chega was popular in the beginning, it seemed that they couldn’t draw in enough people to keep the moderately upscale place going in the long run. So the new owners have downscaled somewhat to produce something that looks like it’s meant to appeal to a wide range of clientele. And it sure does: everything from swinging singles to sincere seniors, business people and family groups including all ages. Our first two attempted visits were thwarted by our not having booked ahead. A third try, early on a weeknight before the crowds arrived, succeeded.

The place is stylishly decked out with lots of wood and low lighting. But we found the food not especially enticing. In an offering of steak frites, the steak was ok but the frites had that tendency to turn dry and sawdusty as they cooled. (Could that be because they start off frozen?) A hamburger – in spite of all the hoop-la about the various kinds on offer – was strictly run of the mill. The wait staff consists largely of enthusiastic and energetic young people. Judging by the noise and the buzz in the air, this is the kind of place where lots of people want to go for a good time. Not us, though.

Price range: medium

 

Vi Vetha 3334 Yonge Street, 416-484-6100 (Number of visits: two) www.vivethabistro.com  

This was the location of the Olive Oil Boutique which, unfortunately, had to close after two years. Now the premises house what is the second location of Vi Vetha, an eatery founded in the Beach area in 2005. It’s a bit more upscale than the Olive Oil but still has a somewhat funky, neighbourhood feel. We’ve had the chicken and pasta in pesto sauce, both with and without cream. Both were good. An order of ribs was plentiful. Some of the ingredients in a seafood pasta, however, were too chewy and tough. (The management offered a $10 coupon by way of recompense.) The service? Cheerful and efficient, if not especially polished.

Price Range: Medium

 

Archeo 55 Mill Street, 416-815-9898 (Number of visits: one) www.archeo.ca

A handy location for lunch with a friend who lives in Toronto’s Distillery District. I’m told that Archeo isn’t as pricey as the restaurant that previously occupied the premises. The odd name of the new enterprise comes from "archeology" -- which relates to the location’s storied past as part of what we take for a historical setting in Toronto. The ambiance is much the same as in the rest of the distillery – lofty brick walls, exposed duct work. However, the small group of clients on hand at midday on New Year’s Eve were accommodated in a sort of alcove to one side of the main door where the feeling was a bit bleaker than in the large main room. But my house salad with slices of chicken breast was excellent. My friend appeared to thoroughly enjoy the special: two small quiches of different kinds, with salad. My order came with just a hard, dry cracker on the side but a request for bread produced a basket of hearty buns. The service was friendly and cheerful.

Price Range: Medium

 

Lolo 2590 Yonge Street CLOSED

 

Sweet Gallery 694 Mt. Pleasant 416-484-9622 (Closed) (Other locations: 350 Bering Ave and 2312 Bloor Street West) www.sweetgallery.redto.com

It was at their Bloor West location that we first discovered the Sweet Gallery. Now the one on Mt. Pleasant has become our more frequent port of call. One of the Sweet Gallery stores (they’ve been in Toronto since 1974) is as close as you can come in Toronto to an old-fashioned European tea room: chandeliers, mirrors, ornate chairs covered in velvet, marble table tops. Not to mention the gracious service. And the sweets on display are worlds way from what you get in your typical Toronto coffee shop: yards and yards of elaborate cakes that look fit to satisfy the courtiers of Louis XIV. (The rum balls go a long way towards satisfying me.) It’s especially pleasant to sit at a table by the stretch of windows down the side of the Mt. Pleasant restaurant and watch the street scene.

That location has also become a handy spot to drop in for a light supper. Not that you should expect exquisite dining – more like something a notch or two above Fran’s, with a touch of European. Recently, a dish of beef goulash with rice, modestly priced around $10, fit the bill nicely. A not very imaginative but hearty salad was included. Often the proprietor is on hand to greet you in a way that manages to be both courtly and casual. For a place that’s aiming for a certain finesse, though, more attention should be paid to the state of the washrooms!

Price range: low medium

 

Osteria 3249 Yonge Street; Closed.

Date of the above postings: Jan 4/11

*****

Positano 633 Mount Pleasant Road; (416) 932-3982; www.positanorestaurant.ca (Number of visits: One)

On a recent movie/dinner trek to Mount Pleasant Road, between Eglinton and Davisville, we had to make a concerted effort to pry ourselves away from the excellent Simple Bistro (See review of it below.) Since this was our first visit to Positano, what follows can be considered a preliminary report.

Our meal started well, with a substantial, chewy bread, served with a warm tomato and basil dip. But the main courses weren’t impressive. The angolotti stuffed with spinach was ok, but the tomato sauce rather bland. A salmon poached in parchment paper arrived at the table almost raw and had to be sent back for more time in the steamer. The medley of vegetables was abundant: tomatoes, roast potatoes, asparagus and fine strips of things like red peppers, carrots and parsnips (I think).

It struck me that Positano, with its somewhat funky decor, makes for a welcoming neighbourhood haunt. Regular customers received effusively friendly greetings from the management. For us, it looks ok for an occasional visit, but not someplace we’d rush back to. The service was competent and professional in a folksy way, nothing particularly polished or sophisticated about it.

Pricing: Medium

 

Aliz 2459 Yonge Street; Closed

**********

Coppi Ristorante 3363 Yonge Street; 416-484-0436; www.coppiristorante.com (Number of visits: 3)

Although this restaurant has been nestled securely in our neighbourhood for nearly twenty years, we’ve only recently started frequenting it. Was it the valet parking that conveyed the impression that the place would be outside our price range? It isn’t, we find.

So we're enjoying excellent meals there. The calf’s liver is unbelievably delicious – and that’s coming from somebody who ordinarily avoids liver. Amazingly tender veal comes in a white wine and lemon sauce. Succulent cornish hen sports an enticing touch of charcoal from the brick oven. Very good pastas include ravioili stuffed with beef cheeks and mushrooms, and spaghetti (spelt for our anti-gluten companion) puttanesca. We’ve also heard good things about the red snapper baked in layers of sea salt (but be aware that it will be priced according to the market of the day).

By way of appetizers, we especially liked grilled octopus on pea greens and fava beans, and mussels with tomato sauce , parmesan and breadcrumbs. We found the caesar salad a bit blah, though, not as fresh or crisp as that served at some other places.

The desserts, so far, haven’t excited us much either. Various sorbets offer lots of tangy flavour and the tiramisu is ok but the lemon tart isn’t nearly as tasty as the one served across the street at the Olive Oil Boutique.

Service at Coppi, under the expert eye of manager Alessandro Scotto (whom, it turns out, we know a little from another life), is smooth and professional. The story behind the restaurant is that owner Fausto di Bernardino was named after the famous cyclist Fausto Coppi who dominated the sport in the 1940s and 50s. Signor di Bernardino’s strong feelings for his namesake carried over, not just to the naming of the restaurant, but also its decor. You may or may not like the huge black and white photographs of sweaty cyclists and their admirers gazing down on you while you dine. But you’ve gotta admit that a distinctive and stylish ambiance is achieved. It’s one of those motifs that you might think would never work but it obviously does.

Price Range: High medium.

 

The Red Tea Box 696 Queen Street West; 416-203-8882 (First visit)

Joanne Kates of The Globe and Mail has often recommended this as a great place for tea. A recent visit to an art gallery nearby finally gave me an opportunity to try it myself. While the place didn’t live up to my fondest imaginings, it did turn out to be a very different downtown tea time experience.

The front of the dim, narrow shop is crowded with tables displaying the various pastries on offer. Towards the rear of that section, a couple of tables are available for customers but, being practically on top of the cash register, they don’t look very inviting. So I was glad when the server led me further back, through a breezeway leading past the kitchen. We came to a little patio – about four tables – that wasn’t usable because it was such a damp day, then up a few stairs and into a structure at the very rear of the premises, where the server seated me at one of five small tables.

It felt like you were playing house in somebody’s garage or basement: a cement floor, painted red but much scuffed; walls and ceiling a light green that shrieked of end-of-line paint sale; cast-off furniture, some of the chairs featuring thick padding with chrome trim ( la 1930's?). Most of the wooden pieces looked like the kind of stuff that’s been mouldering behind your parents’ furnace for years. Not the sort of thing that would get an antique dealer slavering. But you could see that a decorator’s eye had been at work, trying to impart an artsy look to it all. Cushions and paper lanterns and flowers had been distributed throughout to provide colourful accents to the predominant green.

The menu describes elaborate "high teas"(for about $28), which include an astounding assortment of goodies. Not having anyone to share such a spread with, I opted for a single cup of tea and a piece of chocolate-banana cake with butter cream frosting. Unable to find anything that looked like a normal tea in the list of exotic varieties on offer, I asked for help from the server, who recommended the Ceylon tea, as being the closest to English Breakfast. My "one cup" turned out to be a little pot, that served about two and a half fillings of the small china cup on its mis-matched saucer. The tiny milk jug looked like a teapot from a child’s tea set. The tea was very pleasant. As for my sweet, the so-called buttercream frosting proved impossible to eat. You might as well have sat down with a brick of lard and started spooning it in. Stripped of its icing, the cake was ok, nothing special. No hint of banana as far as I could tell.

The place is so quiet that there was nothing to do but listen to the conversations of other customers. A mother and her daughter were planning some big event, possibly a wedding. The mother was oohing-and-aahing over her large bowl of soup; the daughter was attacking a delectable looking sandwich. At another table, an elderly couple were enjoying an outing with their forty-ish son and his wife. The four of them discussed some home renovation plans, then their various diets, the father’s bread-making routines and so on. Eschewing any baked goods, they were all exclaiming appreciatively over the different teas they had ordered.

The hostess who had greeted me on entering (presumably the proprietress?) was very gracious, and I found the service to be friendly and obliging, if a little amateurish. Next time, I’d like to take a companion so that we could sample more of the menu. In the meantime, it struck me that this was certainly a cozy place to crawl into on a rainy afternoon. Compared to the ambiance of the rest of Queen Street West, the experience almost felt non-commercial – except for the bill: $17 for a piece of cake and cup of tea!

Price Range: High (as tea and pastries go)

 

The Olive Oil Boutique 3334Yonge Street; 416-484-6100 (Number of visits: Three) Closed!

 

Steakfrites 3185 Yonge Street (former location of Mezza Misto); 416-488-0081 (Number of visits: One)

It mystifies us that, within the past ten years roughly, two perfectly acceptable restaurants haven’t been able to make a go of it in this location. Will this one, by some inexplicable stroke of good fortune, fare any better? 

First impressions do not bode very well. Since we dined here on just the third night after the opening, however, this can be considered a preliminary report.

The new decor has brightened the premises with white walls (formerly red), crammed with framed posters celebrating all things French. Attractive as that may be, the place was packed on the night we attended and the noise was horrendous. How do owners accomplish this with a barely-known restaurant? Certainly the clientele could not have been spontaneous drop-ins from the neighbourhood. Is there a website where people can get deals for dining at newly-opened restaurants? Do the owners pack the place with family and friends, like papering a house for the opening night of a theatrical production? Or maybe they call in out-of-work actors to pose as diners...?

The gustatory experience did not live up to all the buzz. We found the steak and frites to be ok, but not exceptional. I’ve had juicier, more generous steaks. The frites were a bit dry. Desserts that we tried were ok (lemon tart) and mediocre (warm apple tart). Bread? Not very interesting. No question, though, that the prices are very reasonable.

Given that the place is so new, we had to put up with lots of glitches in the service. We hope to return when things should be running more smoothly and when the crowd and the noise have fallen back to a more tolerable level.

Price Range: Medium-medium

 

Agostino's 2497 Yonge Street. Closed

 

Richlees (1959 Avenue Road) (416-483-9818) www.richlees.com Number of visits: several [Note: this place has had an over-hauling and a revised name but we haven't yet had a chance to check out the changes.]

Occasionally, I have found the "Mediterranean cuisine" here a bit too elaborate, in a sort of European style -- for instance a salmon that was gucked up with too much overlay. But we enjoyed a recent visit very much. Strangely, though, all the bread (with a liver pate) was hard and dry in a way that didn't seem intentional. Then came a very good mixed green salad with pear and a tasty dressing. For main dishes, a sirloin steak with veggies for one of us, and gnocchi in a cream sauce for the other. The gelato for dessert -- mango and raspberry -- was bursting with flavour.  

This place has a decidedly Old World ambiance -- chandeliers, wood, mirrors, carpet. It's a magnet for the well-heeled geriatric set of North Toronto. You'll have to decide for yourself whether or not you're comfortable with that. The service is classy and smooth, the only discordant note being cutlery that I find rather chintzy.

Price range: Upper Medium

 

Delux (92 Ossington Avenue) (416-537-0134) Number of visits: 2

Normally, we like to visit a restaurant more than twice before committing our impressions to this website. Since this eatery, however, is situated in a part of Toronto that we don't often visit, we're gonna make some comments now, in case it's a long time before we return to it.

A very stylish, hip place -- bare brick walls, minimalistic furniture -- this one dishes up what appears, for the most part, to be very good food. On my recent visit, I had steak frites. The latter were not the skinny French ones I was hoping for but they were good. It disconcerted me a bit that the steak was presented sliced but the flavour was acceptable. A pannacotta for dessert -- pretty much a bland, pudding-like thing -- was sweet but not very interesting. On my first time there, I had a more enticing pastry, as I recall.

The service by the young wait staff is professional in a cool, casual way: tight-fitting t-shirts and designer jeans on the guys. Only problem on my recent visit was that, being the first customer of the night, I had to listen to their chatter and their heavy rock music while they sat at the bar, warming up to their duties. Later in the evening that, obviously, wouldn't be a problem.

Price range: High Medium.

 

Chega (3391 Yonge Street) Closed!

 

MoRoCo 99 Yorkville Ave, Toronto. 416-961-2202 (Number of visits: 2, plus some takeouts)

I stumbled on this place by accident. It’s off the street and up a few steps, in the interior mall that also houses Yorkville’s venerable The Coffee Mill. The MoRoCo premises used to be occupied by an art gallery. Now it’s a taste of Old World elegance – all black and silver and grey, with sparkling chandeliers. You sit at a table on one of the velvety banquettes and you feel swathed in quiet, luxury. The service is discreet and smooth.

The specialty of the house is chocolate. As you enter, there’s a display counter where you can buy all sorts of chocolate treats. In fact, the first time that I dropped in, to investigate the place just out of curiosity and to check out the menu, the attendant at the counter presented me with a just-poured glass of hot chocolate as I turned to leave. It was a very different kind of hot chocolate from what we’re used to at our skating rinks in North America: not nearly as sweet and milky but packing a much stronger chocolate hit. MoRoCo’s truffles are squarish with hard, shiny exteriors, not the buttery, soft kind, but they’re very good. The chocolate croissants, the only items not made on the premises, are from Rahier, on Bayview Avenue – possibly not the best in town but certainly much better than what you get at your neighbourhood Starbucks.

The menu for meals seems to emphasize somewhat lighter fare but there are some more substantial dinners. On our recent visit, Jane had stuffed chicken breast. The chicken itself didn’t have tons of flavour but the stuffing and the accompanying veggies were very tasty. My steak sandwich on a baguette (with salad) was unbelievably good – very tender meat, dripping with flavour. The baguette was crunchy, airy perfection.

But it’s mainly the elaborate, imaginative desserts that get your attention at MoRoCo. We’re always complaining that the North Toronto restaurants have completely run out of good dessert ideas. (Any one for: Tiramisu? Crme Brul, Tartuffo? No thanks!) And yet – irony of ironies – we didn’t order a dessert at MoRoCo. We did take home some delicious cookies but we must return sometime just for the desserts. They look amazing. Expensive though: about $14 each. But they look bounetous enough for satisfactory sharing.

Price Range: High medium

 

Simple Bistro 196 Mt. Pleasant Road, Toronto. www.simplebistro.com (Number of visits: 3 or 4)

Our first visit was on a warm summer night when the small premises were so crowded and noisy that we de-camped to another place up the street for dessert. Which is not to say that the fare at Simple Bistro wasn't worth putting up with a bit of commotion. It's  good French cooking, within a relatively moderate price range. The service is lively, efficient and professional, without over-emphasis on charm. My second visit was early on a winter night when I was the sole occupant until two businessmen arrived. The steak/frites were everything I dreamed of. Given that there was no problem with noise this time, I felt it my duty to give the dessert menu a try. A lemon tart was exquisite.

Update: the so-called "Black Forest Cake." Our server reacted with shocked indignation when we inquired cautiously whether the cake might come with synthetic whipped cream: "We don't serve anything synethtic!" Turns out that there isn't any whipped cream of any kind. It's more of a mousse confection, topped with a cowl of marzipan. Lots of kirsch-soaked cherries, though. A  delectable dessert if you don't have your heart set on traditional Black Forest.

Price range: towards the higher end of medium.

 

Il Fornello King Street, Theatre District, Toronto. (One visit)

If your idea of a good experience of Italian cuisine is a quiet little place, where the sweaty proprietors exert themselves over delectable dishes which they personally deliver to your table, Il Fornello ain't for you. A huge place, bustling with activity, it appears to specialize in serving the middle-class couples and family groups who want a not-too-expensive, but fancy-seeming feed, before heading for a night of theatre. The plates are arranged with great style, the service is brisk and the atmosphere is hopping.

But the food disappoints. My penne with chicken, spinach and mushrooms was supposed to have an oil dressing but it seemed watery. I didn't like the taste but maybe there was some spice in it that doesn't agree with me. Jane's spaghetti carbonara with chicken was very bland. Carrot cake was hearty, though. Bread was good too (two slices brown, two slices white).

Not having reservations, we were escorted to what was obviously one of the less desirable tables -- right in front of one of the main serving areas. But Jane loved being able to watch the preparation of salads, pizzas and desserts. In fact her many questions about it all elicited some smiles and good cheer from our middle-aged waitress who, otherwise, seemed disinclined to show any sign of friendliness whatever.

Price Range: Medium

 

Some Background re North Toronto Eateries:

Ever since Dante Rota closed his fabulous "Dante’s" at 3353 Yonge Street, about eight years ago, we have been looking for a new favourite in the neighbourhood. "Dante's" was perfection. We constantly marvelled at our good luck in that the distinguished Signor Rota had, in his last years before retirement, deigned to open a little eatery near us. In his heyday, he had been the chef at the "Three Small Rooms" at the Windsor Arms Hotel in downtown Toronto. No less an authority than the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic, Joanne Kates, had credited him with bringing Italian cooking to a much higher level in Toronto.

We loved popping into "Dante’s" on a moment’s notice, weeknights or weekends. We usually went early, so reservations weren’t obligatory. Not being the gourmand in the family, I can’t supply an elaborate explanation of what made the cuisine so good. But I do remember hearing rapturous sighs about the fact that everything was very fresh, very original, very authentic. It was here that a culinary stick-in-the-mud like me was encouraged to try something as daring as calamari deep-fried in batter. I actually got to enjoy them and haven't tasted any as good since.

Mostly what I remember, though, were the desserts made by Signora Rota. Her homemade tiramisu was nothing like the ersatz version that restaurateurs now try to pass off as the real thing. Hers was a heavenly cross between cream and cake, oozing chocolate. Simply to look at a plate of it told you that it was too rich to finish by yourself; we usually shared one. Another of Signora Rota’s concoctions that I loved was her zuccotto, a dome-shaped thing, with, as I remember it, a chocolate outer shell and a creamy filling involving sponge cake.

Regarding this dessert, one evening the Rota’s son Carlo, who is now a very successful actor (Little Mosque on the Prairie, etc.) but who often waited on tables then, explained to us that the word zuccotto came from the same root as zucchini, the latter being a smaller version of a somewhat similar shape of thing. Carlo’s presence on the scene exemplified the family-aspect of the enterprise. Quite often, there was a gathering of relatives and friends at one of the back tables. Whenever the Rota’s other son (I don’t remember his name) arrived with his wife and baby, all business had to stop while Signora Rota paraded the baby from table to table to be admired.

Trying to put those happy memories behind us, we keep heading out to sample whatever pleasures the neighbourhood eateries have to offer now. Although we’ve never hit on anything as wonderful as what we experienced at "Dante’s", we have found some places that we enjoy on a regular basis. Here follows mention of some of them. Lots more to come soon.

 

Sapori 3249 Yonge Street; Closed

Ristorante 101 3265 Yonge Street Closed

 

Parmigiano 3186 Yonge Street, 416-489-6688, www.parmigiano.ca (Number of visits: several)

We loved this place when it first opened, about five years ago. It’s in the spot where Ranleigh Avenue ends at Yonge. The location is a bit notorious because, when the previous establishment occupied the premises, a car driving along Ranleigh went straight through the intersection and ploughed into the restaurant, ending up in the back of the room. (I don’t recall whether there were any casualties.)

You’d never guess at that history, given the current ambiance. It’s warm and welcoming, with linen tablecloths, tables quite close to each other. The food has always been good. But it became much too popular for us within a few months of opening. It’s nearly always too crowded on weekends. Some people like to be in the midst of a hive of activity at a restaurant; we prefer to crawl into a quiet corner. We have always found the service to be fine but I recently went for lunch on a weekday with a friend and the waiter was a bit snippy.

Price Range: Medium

 

Soho Bistro 3202 Yonge Street, 416-488-676 www.sohobistro.ca (Number of visits: several)

This is the place we drop into when we want something simple and casual. They do a very good burger, with fries or salad for $10.95. The burger’s thick and tastes homemade, not like the processed burgers you get most places. Sad to say, though, we haven’t much liked anything else we’ve tried here. The pizza’s fat and soggy. To look at the website, you’d think the place was the epitome of style and flavour but it strikes us that the menu is far too ambitious (all sorts of meat and fish dishes) for anything other than the microwave treatment. Besides, you don’t get the impression of any vast staff in the kitchen. The service, however, is cheerful and unpretentious. If the room gets full, the noise can be terrible, as there’s nothing to absorb the voices bouncing off the hard walls and floor. But you can avoid that problem in the summer when the patio’s open.

Update: We've tried some of the salads, with chicken or seafood, and liked them very much.

Price range: Medium (except "Low" for us, given that we usually have just burgers)

 

Mezza Misto 3202 Yonge Street, OUT OF BUSINESS

 

The Monkey Bar and Grill, 3353 Yonge Street, 416-486-2288, www.themonkeybar.ca (Number of visits: a couple)

This is the restaurant that took over the premises of "Dante’s". We understand that the chef/owner is a protegee of Signor Rota’s. We visited the new place once or twice when it first opened, about seven years ago. The food was very good but it’s too pricey for us on a regular basis. We might go back once in a while, on special occasions, except that it’s always packed. It’s one of those places that has really caught on with the cognoscenti of North Toronto who have lots of $$ to throw around.

Price Range: High

 

Piazzetta 3441 Yonge Street, 416-440-1777 www.piazzetta.ca (Number of visits: several)

The pizza’s especially good, coming from a wood-burning brick oven roaring away at the back of the room. The pasta’s ok but we tend to shy away from this place because it has become very popular with families and it can get terribly noisy. The service always seems a bit frantic. Don’t be fooled by the home page pictures on the website which will make you think you’re looking at someplace on a piazza Italy.

Price range: Medium

 

Trio Ristorante 3239 Yonge Street, 416-486-5786 (Number of visits: 5 or 6)

The former occupant of these premises was "Mangia". The young owner had had trouble with his opening, about seven years ago, because, for some reason, neighbours objected to his obtaining a liquor licence. Once he got going, though, it was a very classy place, with excellent food and an understated elegance. The original owner left after a couple of years and the chef took over as chef/owner, offering pretty much the same fare. The place deserved to be very popular but, in the inexplicable way of the restaurant business, it wasn't.

Now the place is re-incarnated as "Trio". I get the impression that the former chef/owner is still involved in the kitchen. The new place (about two years old) is slightly less pricey than the former one and has become extremely popular, especially with family groups. For that reason, we don’t even try to get in on Friday nights. But one evening during a heavy snowstorm last winter, we were the only ones in the place and it was delightful.

Price Range: Medium

 

Gamberoni 3238 Yonge Street, 416-482-3063 (Number of visits: 5 or 6)

This place is hugely popular. That may be partly due to the "typical trattoria" decor: small tables jammed closely together, red and white checkered tablecloths, dark walls with touristy views of Italy. Lately, the restaurant is undergoing renovations around the front window to make it look even more quaint from the street. As far as I can recall, we’ve never had any problem with the food there, although I do remember that spaghetti and meatballs came with very little of the latter. The main reason we don’t patronize the place much – apart from the crowding – is that we have found the service negligent. We’re willing to accept that there’s something about us that causes that but a friend recently visited the place on her own and had the same negative impression.

Price range: Medium

Cravings 3393 Yonge Street, Toronto 416-322-2200 www.cravingstoronto.ca Number of visits: 3 or 4. (Date of posting: Nov 3/08)

This Asian restaurant has a somewhat upscale feel about it in every way except for the prices, which are – surprise – relatively modest. In the short time since its opening, it has become very popular, so you might need reservations on a Friday night.

On our recent visit, we had an appetizer of dim sum with shrimp and spinach. Very tasty. A "very spicy" sauce that came with it turned out to be untouchable, as far as I was concerned. Our main courses – fried rice with chicken and shrimp, and mango stir fry with chicken – were delicious.

We found the service to be charming and discreet. The decor is smart and sleek – mostly black, white and beige. The only problem is with the chairs in the front room, should you be sitting on one of them rather than on a bench against the wall. The back of the chair is low and slanted backwards. That doesn’t matter when you’re leaning over the table to eat; if you try to relax and lean back at any point, however, you find yourself sprawled at a very uncomfortable angle.

Price range: low medium.

 

The White Truffle 139 Broadway, Orangeville, Ontario. 519-941-7583. www.thewhitetruffle.ca (Oct 27/08)

On a recent Thursday evening, a friend and I were strolling the main street of Orangeville, Ontario, looking for a decent place for dinner. After passing up various fast food joints and pubs, we zeroed in on The White Truffle as possibly our best choice. But I entered somewhat warily. From the window, there appeared to be a heavy emphasis on gleaming white linen and shining glassware. That reminded me unfavourably of gussied up small town restaurants that try to pretend they’re dishing up haute cuisine when the only thing haute about them is the prices.

Since there was only one other table occupied, we got a large round table in the window. The waitress told us that the special was salmon and that it was very popular tonight. I was much tempted by the duck breast, as that is one of my favourite treats. But it seemed risky to me to order it in a place where I couldn’t be sure of the quality. Too often, duck breast has appeared with a soupon of the microwave not far behind. So I ordered the salmon; my friend ordered Arctic char.

A few moments later, the waitress unexpectedly plunked down in front of each of us an amuse bouche. It was something in a creamy swirl on a cracker. I think she said it was some kind of a seafood concoction. (I wasn’t taking notes, having not yet decided to do a review.) Very tasty. Then came some home made brown bread with, I think, hummus. We had also, at the waitress’ casual suggestion, ordered some brocscetta, which was very good.

When the salmon came, I simply could not believe how good it was. I had never tasted salmon like it. It had some sort of creamy sauce which, the waitress told me, was a butter-lemon-herbs mixture. My friend said his Arctic char was very good too. Even the accompanying rice struck me as exceptionally good – every grain distinct and just the perfect texture. Some vegetables on the plate were fine but I seldom pay much attention to vegetables; they strike me as the kind of thing you have to eat, so you get it over with as expeditiously as possible.

When dessert was suggested, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to prolong the pleasure. Several of the offerings involved chocolate (not advisable at night because of my caffeine intolerance), so I opted for a warm strawberry/rhubarb tart. It was a long time coming but, thankfully, the waitress returned to the table to assure me that it was in the works. It arrived as a wide flat tart, on a big plate, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on the side and some sort of coulis. The first bite exploded in my mouth with an intense strawberry flavour such as I haven’t experienced from fresh strawberries in many a summer. The crust was of the crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth quality.

Our waitress, a pleasant, casual woman around forty, stood by our table and chatted to answer all our astonished questions. She said the chef/owner had considerable experience world-wide before opening this place about two years ago. (We didn’t get his name.) I certainly hope he makes a go of it. He’s struggling a bit with a somewhat problematic venue: a long, narrow room with a huge air duct over head. The only thing I would change immediately would be the slightly chintzy cutlery. Lots of burgundy paint helps to make the room more elegant but a "martini lounge" at the back adds a slightly louche touch, I think, although it’s probably meant to help draw customers. Speaking of which, I asked the waitress where everybody was. It was 8 pm and we were closing the joint. She’d said earlier that the salmon was popular tonight. With whom? I asked. "Oh," she said, "this is Orangeville. Our busy time for dinner is 5:30."

Price range: Medium

......

At lunch time next day, the caf across the street was turning away people who didn’t have reservations, so we returned to the White Truffle. My quiche lorraine and my friend’s venison burger were good. His sweet potato frites added a little something special. On the whole, though, the lunch wasn’t as exceptional an experience as the previous night’s dinner.

 

The Chocolate Shop on Broadway, Orangeville

Through the above-mentioned lunch at the White Truffle, I’d been debating whether to go for one of the chocolate desserts. Or would I return to the chocolate shop across the street where I’d bought a box of truffles to take home last night? I’d seen an appealing plate of brownies on the counter there. When our lunch waitress – a more business-like, less friendly one this time – plunked the bill down on our table without mentioning dessert, it was clear that the fates had decided for me.

We had to wait a while in the chocolate shop while the owner/chef finished some business with ladies who were buying several gift boxes for friends and family. A very pleasant, middle-aged lady in a white smock and hairnet, the owner had assured us the previous night that she makes all her chocolates herself. Now, when I asked for a brownie, an odd look – somewhat sly or mischievous – came into her eye.

- "They’re fine," she said, waving a hand delicately over the plate of brownies, "but I’m not selling them."

- "Pardon?"

- "They’re quite fine," she repeated, "but I’m not selling them."

- "What do you mean?"

- "I mean, you should just take one."

- "Why?"

- "They’ve been sitting out for a couple of days, so I’m not selling them, but you’re very welcome to take one."

- Determined to force payment on her, I asked, "What do you normally sell them for?"

- "One dollar, but I don’t want you to pay me."

- It turned out that I only had a $20 bill and it was finally agreed, all round, that it would be too much to ask her to make change for the $1 dollar purchase.

So I helped myself to a brownie and my friend did too. Munching them on the way back to the car, we concurred that they were very good. One can only imagine how amazing they might be right out of the oven.

Back home in Toronto, I found that the chocolates in my $10 box of eight were superb -- creamy and buttery. In fact they’re the best chocolates we’ve tasted since the demise of the Belgian Chocolate Shop on Yonge Street in North Toronto a few years go. That place turned out the gold standard for chocolates, as far as we’re concerned. I understand the owners still have a store in the Beaches area of Toronto but we seldom find ourselves out there. It’s nice to know now that there’s an alternative in Orangeville, which is barely any further away. Well, it’s actually about twice as far but, when you’re in pursuit of such good chocolates, who’s counting the kilometres?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com