Toronto: art and fine dining in Canada’s biggest city

The food is hit and miss but Toronto is worth visiting for the art scene

ARRIVING IN Toronto, the first thing that struck me was that everyone had a moustache. The Canadian stereotype is right, I thought. All around me, flannel shirts and moustaches. Great big bushy ones. Not the kind you wax, the kind you use to keep your upper lip warm on moose hunting expeditions. We’re not talking Poirot here – this was Hulk Hogan territory.

I pointed this out to a friend as we walked through the airport. She gave me a strange look. “It’s November,” she said. “...Movember?”

Of course.

It’s exciting when an unjustly held preconception is borne out by experience – imagine stepping off the Eurostar to see a man in a beret and stripy top holding a baguette – but I had jumped the gun. Canada does Movember too.

Coldness is a Canadian stereotype that really does hold true, especially during a November visit. Toronto lies on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. The wind swoops off the water and slams straight into the city, penetrating layers of clothing and forcing most people inside.

Thankfully the Four Seasons, where we were staying, provided us with a car to protect us from the freezing temperatures. After rushing from the car to the Foyer, our bags were taken and we were escorted to Cafe Boulud, the in-house restaurant located on the second floor. It was here, discombobulated with jet-lag, that we were introduced to the dubious pleasures of Canadian fine dining.

Waiting staff in upmarket Canadian restaurants do not just deliver food to your table. They also deliver a lecture on the method of cooking, the ingredients of the dish, the chef’s name and family background, the cuisines that inspire him, the name of the individual cow that you’re about to sink your teeth into and the particular square mile of rural Ontario in which it was reared. I would have been grateful had I been studying for a DPhil in steak au poivre, but all I wanted to do was get on and eat.

I did, however, have some excellent food. At Cafe Boulud, I had a lovely salad of lobster and romaine hearts dressed with lime. The fresh, crunchy vegetables were a great accompaniment to the sweet lobster. The same night, we were advised by the waiting staff to order a side of candied Brussels sprouts with bacon, a deliciously sticky dish that I have since tried to replicate at home, with varying degrees of success.

“Canadian cuisine” has a bit of an oxymoronic ring to it, but there were plenty of authentic treats on offer at St Lawrence Market. Named the world’s best food market by National Geographic in 2012, St Lawrence boasts a thousand tasty ways to improve your chances of having a pulmonary embolism (most Canadian dishes contain either cheese, maple syrup or bacon or all three).

Particularly hazardous is the old Quebecer dish, poutine; a monolithic pile of chips, gravy and cheese curds. It sounds a bit much, but there’s nothing like a poutine on a cold day next to the lake, even if you can only get half way through it.

My most memorable dining experience was at Buca, a modern Italian eatery and one of Toronto’s best restaurants. Here my friend and I were mistaken for hardcore food critics and treated to the restaurant’s showiest menu. Our adventurousness was tested to the limit with a six course meal that included sea-urchin, deep-fried pig ears, lamb brains wrapped in prosciutto and cured lard. Four courses down, we were starting to flag. It was the horse, pork and lamb stew that finally outed us as gastronomic philistines. “Enough!” said my friend, as the waitress spooned an entire farmyard of animals onto her plate. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to eat horse!”

“Its an Italian delicacy,” said the waitress.

“I don’t care, I cannot have any more.”

Two hours later, in the queue for the new Soho House Toronto, my friend was still feeling queasy: not only had we consumed every animal on Noah’s ark, we had consumed every organ of every animal on Noah’s ark.

Perhaps we would fare better in one of Toronto’s top bars. As the name suggests, Barchef has taken the principles of “molecular gastronomy” and applied them to cocktails. Located on Queen Street West, this is the cool side of Toronto. Black minimalist décor, low lighting and indie band Interpol buzzing from the stereo provided the perfect setting for the enjoyment of some mixologically advanced beverages. Tempted by the “fresh lime and vanilla air”, I ordered the Sailor’s Mojito. This came with “beach essence” (dry ice that overflowed onto the table, filling the room with the smell of the sea) and a delicious little piece of “mojito ravioli” (not actual pasta – a delicate pearl of lime and rum that burst as soon as it entered my mouth).

It was delicious, but some of the other cocktails weren’t so good. The two people who ordered the enigmatically named “Cedar” were not rewarded for their curiosity. Cedar trees have been harvested for thousands of years for their durable, decay-resistant timber. They make excellent furniture. They do not make excellent cocktails. For all the talk of molecular gastronomy, the Cedar tasted like someone had squirted Radox Brazilian Promise shower gel into a gin and tonic.

The edible “soil” was no better. I guess it was edible, insofar as I was able to lift it with a spoon to my lips and ingest it. But on that definition, all soil is edible. It doesn’t mean that eating it is advisable. Or pleasant. The whole thing tasted like, well, soil.

With nothing on my itinerary the following day, I set out exploring. Toronto is considered one of the best places in the world to be an artist thanks to generous public arts funding and a large “talent development fund” to which Canada’s TV and radio broadcasters are legally required to contribute. Heading back to Queen Street West, this time on foot, I worked my way slowly from east to west, stopping in each of the many small galleries and bric-a-brac shops. This is where Toronto really thrives.

There are also many characterful places to drink after the theatre or before a gig.

On my last night I went to see a play at the small Tarragon theatre, just outside the centre of the city. Fringe theatre can be hit and miss but John Mighton’s play The Little Years was brilliantly written and acted. Afterwards I headed to a decrepit candlelit bar called the Communist’s Daughter and then on to see a band in upcoming area Dundas West. The band were called Run With The Kittens. They have played 800 gigs in their seven year career and, despite never making it big beyond their hometown, they’ve honed a live act full of show-stopping rock’n’roll and meandering comedy interludes.

I left on a crisp, clear day. The CN Tower looked spectacular against a clear blue sky. I didn’t make it up the tower during my trip, but no matter; in Toronto the real attraction is the art.

NEED TO KNOW
AIR CANADA offers more daily flights from the UK to Canada than any other airline, with up to 63 non-stop flights per week to seven major Canadian cities scheduled this winter. Return flights in economy from London Heathrow to Toronto start from £588.89 including taxes. Visit aircanada.com or call 0871 220 1111.

Rates at Four Seasons Hotel Toronto start at £397.23 on a room only basis (including taxes). Please visit fourseasons.com/toronto or call 00800 6488 6488.