Let’s talk about money. In Toronto, the capital of finance and culture, it is an unspoken rule that what you earn – and, more importantly, what you spend – will get you the best table in the house, kiss-your-ring service and your every gastronomic whim. Kobe beef from Japan? A 1947 Pétrus? Caviar from the Caspian Sea? (We have some in the cooler…) Chocolate from Oaxaca? No problem.
Cynical? Not at all. After 30 years of working as a restaurant critic and columnist, it is clear to me that Toronto has earned world-class status: you can always get what you pay for. Like in other international capitals, our restaurant scene covers the entire spectrum from hole in the wall to luxe haute cuisine; from tiny kitchens offering dishes cooked in countries we can hardly find on the map to esoteric Japanese kaiseki; beef from the world’s most distinctive pastures; food that is organic, vegetarian and raw. Eclecticism rules. Immigration serves us well. Still, the question I am most asked by conservative Toronto is “What’s your favourite Italian restaurant?” It is all documented within these pages.
But let’s get back to money. A new generation of cost-savvy chefs have cut out the middleman and are buying straight from local farmers. Smaller and nimbler restaurants offer received trends and cooking styles from worlds away, but they are adapting to “Think global – buy local.” Not only are they supporting our agricultural industry but they are in sync with their peers – their customers. Sustainability is key: farm to table with no stops between; nose-to-tail butchery. The iPod and iPad youth have discovered the thrill of pulling a carrot from the ground and a ripe tomato from the vine. Foragers are harvesting ramps and dandelion leaves. And we, the consumers, are the lucky ones, for in their zeal and integrity≠mindedness, they are passing the savings along to us. But, wait, does this mean it’s a bargain to dine out in Toronto? Not quite. The $500 dinner for two with wine pairings is still alive and well. Servers still know how to pour Cristal, bone a fish with aplomb and prepare a caesar salad tableside. Sommeliers still offer tasting glasses and are well-versed in recommending a nice little wine that marries well with white asparagus or a chocolate marquis.
“Gourmet” is a word that has expired from our vocabulary. Cause of death: overexposure; “ethnic” has suffered the same fate. Scouring suburban strip malls for diamonds in the rough has taken the place of an afternoon of antiquing. Who wouldn’t want to be the first to discover the oceanic cuisine of, say, Tuvalu in Polynesia.
So what’s in store for us in Toronto this year? Restaurant openings are as eagerly awaited as movie launches, and kitchens are immediately dissected by a rapier-wielding public. It’s a risky business, not for the faint of heart or undercapitalized dreamer. We travel, we have keen palates and high expectations. There are no second chances. As yet, we cannot taste through the Internet, but someone at Apple is probably working on it. No amount of money will make it prohibitive in voracious dining-out Toronto. Stay tuned.