Thinking Outside the Box (of KD)

They say the classic macaroni and cheese was introduced to America in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson upon returning to Virginia from a trip to Italy. In 1937 the Kraft Company put it in a box. Growing up, it was my favourite meal. I preferred the spirals. Sometimes emboldened I’d throw in pieces of hot dog. Since then my tastes have broadened—I no longer eat fluorescent orange powder. I do, however, still crave the warmth and comfort of a good hearty bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese. In this, happily, I am not alone. S’Mac, in New York’s East Village, is devoted solely to serving a variety of mac ‘n’ cheese. In Toronto, this revered-among-the-young dish seems to be getting its proper due with the hip and sophisticated. No longer a side dish it has been promoted to entrée status.

Together with my intrepid mac ‘n’ cheese maven we set out to hit five locations in one day. Scouring the downtown hotspots on the way to a carb-induced sleep our list grew, here are Adam’s Piques for five of Toronto’s best:

Trevor Kitchen and Bar
(38 Wellington Street East/ 416-941-9410)
Seared foie gras sits like a bow atop a gift of Macaroni and Asiago Cheese. There is nothing like breaking through a crust of baked cheese into rich creamy pasta. Asiago is blended beautifully with parmigiano-regiano, aged cheddar and chives. The foie gras is four ounces raw, but cooked down it is naturally reduced, and adds distinction to an already luscious bowl. The bar has been raised. ($21)

Caren’s Wine and Cheese Bar
(158 Cumberland Street/ 416-962-5158)
Spicy Baked Mac & Cheese is off-the-hook goodness. Penne noodles are lavished in a blend of sao miguel, cheddar, swiss, and parmigiano-regiano cheeses, and spiced with chilli flakes and chives. The cheese is sharp, layered and textured, and each one complements the others, while thick chunks of prosciutto add another dimension of texture and flavour. Creamy, hot, and simmering, this is a really good dish to share along with a house wine. ($16/ $21 with prosciutto)

(99 Yorkville Avenue/ 416-961-2202)
I do believe in love at first sight, and this Truffled Mac & Cheese is all the proof I need. Beneath a golden gruyere crust is a medley of aged cheddar, parmigiano-regiano, and béchamel, with the right touch of truffle oil. Rustically bubbling over the edge, the only challenge here is to have the patience to let it cool before wolfing it down. Accompanied by a generous side of light seasonal greens, this is highly addictive. ($17)

(354 King St. East/ 416-777-9339)
Simply perfect mac ‘n’ cheese! Al dente macaroni noodles and bacon pieces are baked until toasty in asiago cheese with a hint of truffle oil. Creamy with just the right sharpness it makes delightfully filling comfort food that is too good to share. ($15)

(1150 Queen St. West/ 416-531-5042)
When ordering mac’n’cheese, Chef Anthony Rose tells us “it’s all about the sweet peas”. It is true—the sweet peas are little gems that compliment this fusilli pasta so well. Old Cheddar, parmesan, Gouda, goat cheese, and Benedictine blue cheese are melded into a sharp and creamy fusion, while panko crumble herbed with tarragon adds a delightful crunch. ($9)

Honourable mention goes to Holt’s Café (50 Bloor St. West /416-960-7817), where Executive Chef Corbin Tomaszeski offers comfort food at a comfortable price. Baked Mac and Cheese ($7) is chalk-full of white cheddar and creamy béchamel, a touch of truffle oil, and a sprinkling of basil and panko crumbs. Garnished with grape tomato and romaine sprouts, this provides a satisfying and indulgent respite from shopping.

Making my own mac’n’cheese as a kid, it never occurred to me to think outside the directions on the box. These restaurants have refined, but retained, the essence of this quintessential comfort food with fresh, quality ingredients prepared simply and well. Fun and sophisticated–we never had it so good.

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