Ah, the life of a food critic. At year's end, while others frantically try to figure out what to wear and where to party for the festive season, I sift through a truckload of menu memories to see which select few will make the cut for our annual guide to the Top 11 restaurants of 2011. In some cases it was pretty close, but in the end only 11 made the list.
From the open-concept kitchen, one can clearly see that maestro Bruce Woods is in the house, making sure each plate looks flawless before it leaves the line. But how do you reconcile nouveau riche prices with a typically rustic, cucina povera menu. Easy: there is nothing typical going on at Modus. Woods' contemporary take is something to marvel at. Can you think of anything that could really elevate a spinach salad ($14) so it earns its proper place at the dinner table rather than on a styrofoam plate? Woods has. Even more intensely delicate is a veal carpaccio with onionskin-thinness that astonishes. But wowing with that kind of precision is the modus operandi of this kitchen. And a handmade agnolotti will have you convinced that Italian cuisine can indeed compete in the uppity echelons of finer dining with the too-fancy French. When the only real error of the evening is a perfect server who decided to splash a little too much Jean Nate, you know you got a winner. Modus should do well to capture the hearts and tummies of Toronto power-brokers, not to mention local foodies, with the nuovo Italian given snob appeal.
It may not exactly be the type of place that any self-respecting restaurant critic or foodie would even consider putting on their radar. But when a sports bar like Williams Landing comes around, it's hard to keep that nose up in the air for long. Never has any eatery with so many wide screen TVs per inch paid such attention to detail, a rarity even in the finest of dining establishments. What bar and grill have you been to lately where busboys rush to your table at the first sign of a spill like paramedics, a fresh moist towel at the ready. But ambiance is not the only thing in its talent arsenal. Exec chef Marco D'Angelo (formerly e11even) and sous Beman Chan have created what at first glance looks like your typical world-influenced pub grub. But menu selections morph into such unexpected fare in part due to the quality of the ingredients, but more so due to stellar execution. Finesse like this is so unexpected from a sports bar. The owners of Joy Bistro and South of Temperance could do little more to improve on what they've created, namely something phenomenal. Now if only all waiters had the same smile as our server.
Vegetarian restaurants are few and far between. Sure, there are the mainstays like Fressen and Annapurna, but really in a city with more than 8,000 eateries, it is truly surprising that, in spite of our collective interest in healthier living, more haven't popped up like woodlot fungi. But now there's Woodlot, a tree-hugger's paradise which offers as much flesh on one menu to satisfy any bloodthirsty carnivore, but caters to the righteous herbivore with a whole other menu. Longtime friends and co-owners Robyn Donio and David Haman are clearly slow food movement converts, putting out labour intensive dishes that highlight local ingredients. No stranger to inventive culinary fare, chef Haman (formerly of Czehoski) has created an ambitious if unusual suite of selections. Where most restaurants with only one menu fail on focus, Woodlot handles two with competency and cohesion in earnest. Its matchbook says it all: "Honest. Simple. Handmade." But they forgot to add damn tasty.
It's always a sad day when a gastronomic great shuts down. So when Oddfellows dead bolted its doors, local foodies let out a collective sigh, shook their fists at the heavens and groaned mightily at their loss. Mercifully, the mourning period was momentary with the sudden opening of County General in the same sweet spot. This is not just your typical neighbourhood haunt; it is very serious indeed about its food offerings. No surprise there. County General is the brainchild of Splendido co-owners Carlo Catallo and chef Victor Barry, who along with partner/chef "Colonel" Garth Legree (also from Splendido), have re-invented the fine dining experience with the most basic of menu items. Each week CG goes through an entire Cumbrae's pig, using the whole beast, which might explain on this night why they are serving something as delightfully disgusting but delicious as pig face croquettes. Sure you can get burgers and sandwiches anywhere. But a genuine aim-to-please and sincerity in everything they do is something to savour. Call it an eclectic gastropub or a rockin' roadhouse, but call it freakin' great. Never has such fine food been such fun.
Two days after opening, the buzz about Grand Electric is already out, with line-ups well outside the door. If you aren't there before 7 you may as well go home and watch Jeopardy with your Lean Cuisine. Dishes come out fast and furious, fresh and flawless. It's totally mind-blowing how such basic food items can be composed with such intricate detail. Grand Electric will have you stomping your feet and pounding the table with excitement, oohing and ahhing with every bite. Perhaps I exaggerate a tad, but not much. Perfectly simple and simply perfect food that might have you licking and/or eating the paper it comes served on. Expect delicate, thoughtful quality not often seen in usually robust Mexican cuisine. Few restaurants get so many things so right from the get-go. It is indeed a rare and beautiful thing to behold. But Grand Electric is evidence that with the right mix of passion, and a well-thought-out idea, showcased in a friendly unpretentious atmosphere, that the first time's definitely a charm.