Browsing and Sluicing in Toronto and the Niagara Peninsula
Jonathan Ray discovers that Canada’s most vibrant and global city is home to some exceptional restaurants and a vibrant cocktail culture with some of North America’s most exciting wines on its doorstep.
Toronto is an eight hour flight from London (and not even seven back) and is as entertaining a place to visit for a long weekend as New York or Chicago. There are trendy shops and boutiques, fine galleries and museums, a fantastic film festival and the coolest of cool jazz scenes. Best of all, there are some superb restaurants and the cocktail bars are among the most exciting and innovative it has been my pleasure to order a rum negroni in.
My Westjet flight from Gatwick is three hours late and I miss dinner with my date but even that can’t dampen my spirits; I’m in Toronto and I’m going to have a blast. Best of all, I’m going to concentrate on the bars and the restaurants. Oh and the wines. If I stray by chance into a gallery or museum, so be it, but it’s the grub and the booze I’m here for.
I make straight for the Four Seasons and into its dbar where I sink a large glass of 2012 Charles Baker Riesling from just down the road in Niagara. It’s pitch perfect and just what I was after although I didn’t know it. Crisp, clean and apple fresh with typical petrol on the nose, it slips down disarmingly easily.
I order a Yankee Burger and wash this down with a large glass of 2012 Norman Hardie Unfiltered Pinot Noir, also local and also a belter. It’s deeply coloured and concentrated with dark and sour cherry flavours, damsons and a touch of spice. Heavens the wines of Ontario are good! I have a glass of 2012 ‘Stratus’ Syrah to make sure. Yep, I’m sure.
The next morning I head to Kensington Market. I’ve been told this is the melting pot of all melting pots. As I mentioned in my Letter from Toronto, the city is the most racially mixed in the world with 130 languages spoken and half the population born outside Canada. The city council communicates to its population in 30 languages. This crazy mixed up-ness is reflected in the restaurants, bars and shops of Bohemian Kensington Market more than anywhere else where, it is said, 68 different languages and dialects are spoken every day.
This used to be the Jewish market until the Chinese moved in. Now it’s a liberal mix of everything with hippy tee shirt shops, grocers, hardware stores, haberdashers, butchers, fruit stalls and cafes. I spot an Hungarian/Thai restaurant, a Muslim-owned Halal burger restaurant called ‘The Burgernator’ and – my favourite – Rasta Pasta, a Jamaican/Italian restaurant. The slightly rundown streets (a little like Camden in London or how Spitalfields Market used to be) are bustling and I do indeed hear greetings in all manner of languages as friends bump into each other or wave to the shopkeepers.
I spot Herbivore, the vegetarian restaurant with its rain-watered herb and salad garden on the roof and the ‘carden’ – an old graffiti-covered car filled with soil and bursting with flowers, before enjoying a shirt-popping lunch in King’s Noodles on Spadina Avenue [see below].
Toronto is gratifyingly easy to navigate around thanks to its grid-like streets but when getting an address I quickly discover that one needs also to ask for the nearest intersection as streets stretch for miles. Indeed, Yonge Street is famously the longest in the world.
In the afternoon I enjoy a brisk walk around town and do indeed forget momentarily my self-imposed task of only concentrating on food ‘n’ drink and stray into the excellent Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I do penance for this immediately, though, with a brace of cocktails in Barchef and Rush Lane [see below] and a fine dinner in Canoe [see below].
The following days follow a familiar pattern and I eat and drink my way across the city, careful only to consume local beers, spirits and wines. This is in fact no chore at all. Indeed, make no mistake, the wines of Ontario are something special. The Icewines are the most eye-catching but the cool climate Rieslings, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that I encounter are absolutely first rate. And, happily, they are at last being exported to the UK to the likes of the forward-thinking Wine Society and Bibendum. Do keep an eye out for them; you will be bowled over like I have just been.
I take a short boat ride to the Toronto Islands, a tiny archipelago a few metres off shore in Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes which between them, I discover, account for a staggering 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water. I hire a bike and spend a happy morning cycling about coveting the little clapboard houses dotted about in the woods. I head up the CN Tower, once the tallest building in the world, and potter about Ripley’s Aquarium (good but not as good as the remarkable one in Atlanta) and the Toronto Railway Museum at the tower’s base. I make up for it by spending a very happy hour trying to understand baseball on the TV in the neighbouring Steam Whistle Brewing taproom, glass in hand.
I eat countless oysters, several stupendous Canadian cheeses and encounter elk for the first time (deliciously tender) and delicacies I’ve never heard of such as fiddleheads, camelina seeds, smoked canola oil, puffed bannock, lingonberries, charred rapini, sea buckthorn, marinated tempeh and the locals’ favourite: poutine.
It’s the wines, though, that stand out and I’m proud to say that none pass my lips that aren’t from Ontario, specifically the Niagara Peninsula. I heartily recommend them and if you can’t get to Toronto fret not, you’ll be seeing a lot of them over in the UK before long.
Places to Eat
Crikey, this is good, as good as any Chinese restaurant I’ve been to anywhere, including Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. It’s a plain and simple spot with formica tables and plastic chairs and won’t be in any tourist guide but it’s spotlessly clean and the staff are all smiles and far more welcoming than their famously grumpy counterparts in Gerrard Street, London W1. Barbecued ducks and whole roast nose-to-tail pigs hang in the window and you can expect to tuck into juicy fresh king prawn rolls, crispy pork (with crackling that I would happily kill anyone for in order to learn how to make), pork barbecued in Chinese five spice and star anise and the most outrageously succulent soy sauce-flavoured chicken. It’s very modestly priced and so popular are its pork dishes that they get through 50 entire pigs a week.
It might be set deep in the unfashionable east end of Toronto, but Ceili Cottage is well worth the cab fare all the way to 1301 Queen Street East. Owner Patrick McMurray is third generation Canadian (his grandparents got off the boat from Ireland just a couple of blocks away) but he’s as Irish as they come with an accent to match (depending, as he admits, on whom he’s talking to and how many Guinnesses he’s had). He holds the world record for the most oysters shucked in a minute and delights in introducing customers to the many varied forms of said mollusc. There is Guinness aplenty and craft ales and whiskies galore to be enjoyed on the sunny terrace (the former forecourt of a garage) or the dark and atmospheric Galway pub-like interior. Tuck into a pint of Barley Days Oyster Stout and the Shucker’s Best Mixed Plate – a dozen different oysters with a lucky 13th thrown in for those purists who don’t demand Tabasco, shallot vinegar or any other new-fangled garnish all of which – according to Patrick – simply bugger up the salty purity of the oyster.
Owned by Top Chef Canada winner Carl Heinrich, Richmond Station is in the heart of bustling downtown Toronto and is invariably packed. Ask if you can sit at the chef’s counter overlooking the kitchen and watch the dedicated team at work. The menu is commendably concise with just five starters and six mains including – depending on the season – asparagus, pesto and caramelised onion purée salad, rabbit two ways with ramp and black pepper dumplings, Muscovy duck with steamed spring vegetables and braised daikon and the fabled burger butchered on site and made from ground brisket and braised short rib and served with beet chutney, aged white cheddar and rosemary fries. The wine list is extensive with over 20 by the glass, starting at $CA11 (£6.25), and the staff could not be nicer nor more accommodating. I feel compelled to have the famous burger on my visit but explain that I’m trying not to eat bread. “No problem at all!” is the response. “We’ll make you a little lettuce ‘bun’ instead so you can still eat it in your fingers.” And they do and it’s spectacular.
If by saying Boralia, in Ossington Avenue, west of downtown, celebrates the historic origins of Canadian cuisine and draws inspiration from traditional aboriginal dishes and the recipes of early settlers I make it sound worthy and dull, forgive me, for it’s anything but. The food here is exceptional and the welcome wonderfully warm. Torontonians love it and it’s in everyone’s top ten. Enjoy an exquisitely judged Calvados Old Fashioned as you decide which sharing plates to go for. Everyone will tell you to have the pigeon pie, a public-demanded perennial on the menu, but I suggest l’éclade – a dish of mussels smoked in pine needles and pine ash butter that dates from the early 1600s – cured trout grilled over cedar branches and the absurdly tender and tasty pan-roasted elk with wild rice-crusted egg, cranberry gastrique, burnt onion and radish. My only quibble with this enchanting spot is that it doesn’t celebrate Canadian wine as much as it does Canadian food. There are half a dozen wines from Niagara and the Okanagan Valley, BC, it’s true but only a couple by the glass. That being said the rest of the list is cleverly curated with such treats as a Viura/Viognier blend from Spain, a fine Austrian Gruner-Veltliner, a delicious Alsace Pinot Blanc from Domaine Zinck and first-rate reds from Burgundy, the Rhône, California, Italy, Spain, California and the Lebanon.
Light, airy, modern and spacious, Nota Bene was named Canada’s Best New Restaurant by both Toronto Life and enRoute magazine and it’s a firm favourite with Torontonians not least because it makes an ideal lunchtime pit stop before spending the afternoon at the excellent Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) only a couple of blocks away. Enjoy dishes such as chilled sweet English pea soup, big eye tuna tartare, beer-battered softshell crab and Nova Scotia lobster, pancetta and avocado salad and make sure to leave room for the fine plate of four Canadian (and one Italian) cheeses. The spectacular wine list is crammed with goodies from around the world and Nota Bene is out and proud about its support for Canadian wines with over 40 examples, many by the glass.
The Carbon Bar
If you like smoke, whiskey and meat then the Carbon Bar is for you. Oh, and if you like dance music and Seventies soft porn then it’s for you too. This vast warehouse space with its enormously high ceilings was formerly the Electric Circus night club which later gave its name to a long-running live TV dance show and from where they broadcast the Baby Blue Movies late night erotic TV series. Ahem, or so I hear. Be that as it may, it’s now home to a cool and contemporary cocktail bar and barbecue. Subtle it ain’t, with booming music and rushed service, but the signature cocktail, the Pit-Fired Old Fashioned made from Pike Creek Canadian Whiskey smoked for 40 minutes in the restaurant’s fire pit is an unexpected delight and a great start to any evening. The KFC (no, silly, not that KFC but Korean fried cauliflower) is sweet/sour, chilli-hot and tasty. Wild shrimp ceviche with avocado and lime is a perfect cleanser whilst the slow-cooked St. Louis cut pork ribs are melt-in-the-mouth delicious, ideally served alongside buttered collard greens. Haute cuisine this is not, but of its type it’s top notch. And when you consider the wine list boasts over sixty wines (cleverly listed in just four set price brackets of $CA49, $CA69, $CA89 and $CA129 a bottle) with a so-called Libations List of a further 25 reserve wines (Joseph Phelps ‘Insignia’, Dominus, Sassicaia and the like) plus over 100 whiskies, then I reckon you’re set fair for a pretty fine evening.
Ok, so once you’re inside this resolutely top-end Japanese you could be anywhere in the world – Dubai, say, Hong Kong, New York, London, LA or Paris – discovering that moneyed coke-snorting Torontotrash is no different from the Eurotrash of that ilk, but don’t let that put you off some of the finest Japanese fare this side of Tokyo. The service might be rushed (I couldn’t help feeling that they were trying to turn my table in favour of someone a little younger and more chic) but the grub is utterly, jaw-droppingly delicious. I sat at the onyx-topped sushi bar so I could watch the glamourpusses strut by and the chefs at work. I asked the waiter to ply me with a random selection of dishes until my shirt buttons began to strain and pop and I dined like a king. Dishes such as rock shrimp tempura with yuzu pepper, aioli and wasabi, hamachi ponzu, wagyu beef with truffled sushi rice, salmon tataki, miso spinach and a trio of tuna sashimi followed in quick succession, washed down with Ontario Riesling and Chardonnay. I’ve not eaten better Japanese food, not even in Tokyo, and the people-watching was first-rate too. A post-prandial cocktail on the sprawling rooftop bar rounded things of nicely.
Canoe is the high temple of contemporary Canadian cuisine much loved by well-heeled Torontonians. Housed on the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower in Wellington Street West with striking vistas of both city and lake, Canoe neatly disproves the theory that the further a restaurant is from the ground and the finer its view, the worse its food. The grub here is brilliant and strictly seasonal, as locally sourced and foraged as possible, each dish celebrating the culture of Canada’s distinct provinces. I had venison tartare with wild mustard and foraged pickles followed by Alberta lamb saddle with fiddleheads (nope, nor me but they’re the deliciously tender, bright green, firled fronds of a young fern and typically Canadian), sea buckthorn, dandelion, capers, anchovy and rosemary beluga lentils. The wine list is awash with fine Canadian wines and I enjoyed a local Trail Estate Sauvignon Blanc and a Cave Spring Chardonnay by the glass, a Hidden Bench Pinot Noir and – with a plate of fine Canadian cheese – a glass of botrytised Pinot Noir, something completely new to me.
Treadwell’s Farm to Table Cuisine
Situated in the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake is the perfect place to stop for lunch between tastings. Depending on the season (it’s bloody hot in summer, savagely cold in winter) you can sit inside or outside on the little terrace and enjoy a long list of wines, many from tiny producers too small to be represented elsewhere, with superb food sourced only from local producers and suppliers and including such delights as homemade and local charcuterie, steamed Ontario asparagus and truffled burnt butter vinaigrette, pan seared East Coast scallops, sesame and hoisin glazed pork tenderloin and homemade herb and potato gnocchi.
Places to Drink
A street corner Spanish-style bar in Little Italy that’s open from 8am-2am, seven days a week. With it’s Barcelona-esque art nouveau wooden panelling it’s a cute spot and no mistake and the cocktails and pintxos are even cuter. If you can’t think of a potion to suit your mood, just tell the barman the flavours and styles you like and he’ll improvise and make a unique one just for you.
Barchef aims to hit all your senses with its cocktails and they are certainly as exciting to look at – even touch, smell and listen to – as they are to taste. The long narrow room with its dramatic back bar and apothecary’s cupboard crammed with infusions and maturing bitters is darkly atmospheric, lit by just a handful of candles. Mellow Seventies music plays on a loop. Cocktails are divided into sweet/sour, sipping and modernist and the Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan I had was a thing of joy. Not as dramatic as the Spring Thaw, though, a blend of campari and vanilla ice granita, camomile and sparkling wine served in a dry ice-shrouded mini garden of moss and foraged herbs.
Slap bang on the opposite side of Queen Street West from Barchef, hip Rush Lane is dominated by its vast picture window open to the street, its fish tank and its lab at the back full of experiments, small oak barrels and maturing blends. Décor is firmly Seventies rather than the bare brick and beam chic favoured in most other bars, although the loudly pulsing music is resolutely contemporary. Cocktails include the Green Goddess (Aviation Gin, ginger juice, lime juice, honey syrup, mint and cucumber) and the Donnie Does Morocco (Havana Club 7, Aperol, Luxardo Apricot, lemon, honey syrup, mint and bitters).
I love little hidden bars like this. On arrival at a nondescript door next to Marben restaurant in Wellington Street West you have to text ‘Knock, Knock’ to a mobile number to be let in. You head down a bare industrial stairwell through a door and a thick velvet curtain and voilà, you’re in cocktail heaven. There’s a marble-topped bar with stools, three or four curved banquettes a wooden pillar, a concrete floor with rugs and, thanks to several mirrors, the bar looks bigger than it is. The bar’s motto is ‘Cocktails, nosh, revelry’ and I certainly stayed there far longer than I’d planned enjoying all three until the small wee hours. The Cognac Manhattan with cognac, apricot calvados, sweet vermouth and bitters was particularly fine I seem to remember.
Char No.5 Whisky Bar
Tucked away in a cool corner of the Delta Toronto Hotel, this is a peach of a spot aimed squarely at the whisky/whiskey lover. Head bartender, Ray David (from Co Kildare, Ireland), tells me that there are 150 different whiskies on the list, of which 55 are Canadian, with ambitions for 300. I start with a Ballet d’Or cocktail comprising Canadian Club 100% Rye, Calvados, Cointreau, Herbsaint, Carroll & Co orange bitters and orange zest. It’s complex yet melodic and wistful – not unlike the song from where it gets its name – and tees me up nicely for a cheeky double shot of Crown Royal Special Reserve from the whiskey list. David is experimenting with oak-ageing various of his cocktails and I have a sip of the Vieux Carré he has been maturing in a small cask behind the bar. He reckons another month and it will be perfect.
C’est What is a basement taproom situated right next door to the excellent St. Lawrence Market (named the world’s best food market by National Geographic in April 2012). There are over 60 different Ontario craft beers on the list with a decent selection of Ontario wines and Canadian whiskies too. The grub’s not bad here either. It’s what they call comfort food and is hardly haute cuisine but it’s all freshly cooked to order from locally sourced ingredients, many from the St. Lawrence Market (the buffalo burger in particular is much sought-after). C’est What is on the tourist route, for sure, but it’s also a much-loved watering hole of locals too who come to hang out after work, play pool, sit by the fire or listen to the occasional live music.
Betty’s was originally named Betty Ford’s until the former First Lady of America’s attorneys insisted they desist (there’s a blown-up copy of the litigation-threatening letter on the wall), giving the bar more publicity than they had ever dreamed of. Chic it ain’t, but retro cool it is with a laid back hippy/studenty basement, a first floor party room and a chaotic ground floor bar. There is baseball and basketball on the TVs and a list of 30 or so cask/keg beers and 50 or so bottled/canned beers to die for. You can order them by the glass or by the ‘paddle’ – a tasting selection of four beer’s of your or the barman’s choice.
Places to Stay
The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons is a Canadian company and this is their flagship hotel, recently relocated to a prime position in the heart of Yorkville, downtown Toronto’s swankiest shopping area. It’s ridiculously comfortable with beautifully appointed rooms and is generally acknowledged to be the finest hotel in the city. But it’s not that pricey for a five star hotel, with double rooms currently around £230 a night including breakfast. Best of all, the Four Seasons is home to Café Boulud, a bustling brasserie on the second floor whose signature dishes include truffled boudin blanc with apple and mash, salade au pistou, homemade saucisson sec and pâté de campagne (made by the in-house charcutier), steak tartare and 30 day dry-aged 10oz striploin with sauce béarnaise. There’s a fine wine list to match with many local wines by the glass. On the ground floor there’s dbar, an upmarket hang-out much loved by well-heeled locals in search of an early cocktail en route to dinner or a late nightcap and some jazz on the way home.
The Thompson Toronto
The Thompson is madly hip and trendy and as much a destination hotel for thirty-something Torontonians hitting the town as it is for visitors. There’s a night club in the basement, a bar and a 24 hour diner on the ground floor, a screening room somewhere in the middle and a bar and heated outdoor infinity pool on the rooftop, complete with stunning views of the city. The bedrooms have floor to ceiling windows plus all mod cons and the beds themselves are absurdly comfortable. The public rooms can get crowded and noisy but it’s a great place to base oneself and in which to party if you feel chic and brave enough.
Wineries to Visit in the Niagara Peninsula
There is no question at all that very fine wines are now being made in Ontario, specifically in the south of the province on the Niagara Peninsula. Indeed, the best are extremely fine. Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc are the most widely planted grapes but expect also to see Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Vidal (mainly used for the sublime local Icewines).
The Niagara Peninsula, which lies on the same latitude as northern California to the west and Rome to the east, now boasts around 85 wineries. The winters can be savage, but thanks to the moderating influence of Lakes Ontario and Erie, and the protection of the Niagara Escarpment, the area enjoys a benign climate, which, coupled with a sandy loam soil, is ideal for cultivating grapes and for making wines full of enticing aromas ripe fruit, freshness and a keen, lively acidity.
Icewine – sumptuously sweet wines made from grapes frozen on the vine – first put Niagara on the wine map but there is much else to enjoy now too. Niagara-on-the-Lake is the centre of the winemaking area and is a great place to visit. The many wineries here welcome visitors with open arms and several boast extremely decent restaurants as well as tasting rooms.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is reputedly the prettiest town in all Canada but wasn’t always so pristine. It was a bloody battleground during the War of 1812, held by the British and hotly-contested by the Americans who wished to annex it to the United States. The Americans managed to breech its defences three times, occupying the town for seven months in 1813, before putting it to the torch as they retreated across the river. Re-enactments of these events can be seen regularly at Fort George, now immaculately restored to its 1812 heyday. Although several buildings in Niagara-on-the-Lake survived the fire, much rebuilding was undertaken soon afterwards, and it is this Georgian jewel of a town that remains, home, incidentally to the Shaw Festival, an annual celebration of the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.
If you are visiting Toronto, save the last day for Niagara-on-the-Lake. Hire a chauffeured car from Niagara Airbus (www.niagaraairbus.com), check out of your Toronto hotel and put your bags in the boot and head off. It’s only about 90 minutes from central Toronto to Niagara and if you’re on the evening flight home, you’ll have time to visit three wineries and have a fine lunch at Treadwell’s before heading to the airport.
Marlize Beyers at Hidden Bench near Beamsville makes superb wines. Her Rieslings in particular are exceptional and the winery has never been outside the Canadian Wine Awards top ten since it released its first wines in 2007. There is a charming tasting room here where you can taste the different Rieslings along with the very fine Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. All the wines are made from organic estate fruit and total production is some 10,000 cases. My pick of the pops is the easy-going, fresh fruit 2013 Estate Riesling and the concentrated, vibrant 2013 Locust Lane Pinot Noir.
Southbrook was Canada’s first certified organic and biodynamic winery and winemaker Ann Sperling (who with her husband owns vineyards in both her native British Columbia and Argentina’s Mendoza) is at the top of her game. The winery’s tasting room is a striking modern building designed by celebrated architect Jack Diamond and all the estates wines can be sampled here. Every Friday to Sunday visitors can enjoy the Farmers’ Table celebrating the best in local and seasonal foods. My favourite Southbrook wines are the barrel-aged 2013 Poetica Chardonnay full of tropical fruit, toast and brioche and the supple and beautifully-textured 2013 Wild Ferment Chardonnay.
Henry of Pelham Family Estate
Henry of Pelham was founded by three brothers – Paul, Matthew and Daniel Speck – in 1988 and is one of the region’s very finest producers with superb wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Baco (of which the winery is the leading producer) and, of course, there are the scintillating Icewines. There is an atmospheric and welcoming tasting room and the Coach House Café serves simple but very tasty fare such as smoked trout, tempura halibut, shrimp and lobster roll and braised beef cheek tacos. Highlights among the wines include the succulent, honeyed 2013 Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay, the off-dry and absurdly drinkable 2013 Speck Family Reserve Riesling and the glorious, richly flavoured, barley sugar-sweet 2014 Riesling Icewine.
Other wineries in Niagara well worth a visit include:
Peller Estate www.peller.com
Norman Hardie www.normanhardie.com
Cave Spring www.cavespring.ca
De Sousa Wine Cellars www.desousawines.com
Organized Crime Winery www.organizedcrimewinery.com
Rockway Vineyards www.rockwayvineyards.com
Tawse Winery www.tawsewinery.ca
Jackson Triggs www.jacksontriggswinery.com
For more information about wineries in Niagara visit: www.niagarawineryguide.com
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