As last year, Jenn and I saved up some money to visit Toronto to celebrate the new year. With the help of some travel credit card points and some creative scheduling with VIA Rail, we treated ourselves to four days and four nights in the Big Smoke (also known as Hogtown), traveling by train. We mostly kept to ourselves, connecting with a handful of Toronto food tweeps and visiting some recommended eateries.
The food scene in Ontario’s capital city is much more developed than Ottawa’s, theirs being more current with global food trends. Ours is somewhat more conservative.
We have found Toronto foodies equally as passionate as Ottawa’s, but much better organized. They gather by the dozens at many more tweet-ups and culinary events. Eateries in Toronto leverage foodies and food bloggers much more. Still, many of the eateries Toronto food enthusiasts rave about have parallels back home.
Before we get into what Toronto has to offer, here is some culinary context. When someone likens food to “train food”, such as a what VIA serves, here is what he or, in the case of Ottawa Citizen Restaurant Critic Anne DesBrisay, she is referring to.
Please don’t see this as an indictment of meals served by VIA. The romanticized dining carts of Agatha Christie’s era are long gone. Today, they have been replaced with small galleys at one end of each passenger car and and in-seat service, each seat equipped with a fold out table. Food is pre-cooked and re-heated. It is rather creative how the modular galley, somehow equipped with heat and refrigeration, can serve meals for so many passengers. We were even offered hot options for our mains.
Yes, there are plastic creamers, butter packets, supermarket rolls and croissants, and Halloween-sized snack packages of “Bits and Bites.” Utensils are made of metal but undersized to fit trays that secure to the fold out tables. Food is served in containers, optimized for their storage, ease of collection, and eventual cleaning.
Breakfast on the way to Toronto
Here is what we were served for breakfast in 2009,
The frittata reminded me of muffin tin frittata’s from Marcello’s Market & Deli, just not nearly as overcooked.
Marcello’s is a national chain of cafeteria-style eateries that cater to large office complexes. It provide food-on-the-go.
Lunch on the way home
Here is what we were served for lunch in 2009,
This year, I was served an appetizer of herb brie and oka with packaged crackers. My main, oversized shells, stuffed with ricotta and spinach and Calabrese vegetable and red pepper sauce. Jenn had the parmesan-crusted tilapia with “Tuscan herbs” on brown rice, plated with broccoli and baby carrots.
I could mention the shortcomings with the food served, off-temperatures, interesting textures, off-seasoning, but this is food intended for 56 possible passengers in a single car. It is adequate to tide passengers over on city-to-city trips.
Our thoughts, if you are going to buy a train ticket with a meal, treat it as your reference meal for what you will eat, hopefully a forgettable one. For us, this year’s was indeed forgettable.
Our first meal in Toronto, dumplings!
After we were settled in our hotel, Jenn and I walked up Spadina Avenue, Toronto’s old Chinatown.
This being its second and larger location, Mother’s Dumplings was written about in the Toronto Star after it relocated. According to food editor Jennifer Bain, Mother’s Dumplings makes 18 kinds of dumplings, some boiled, some steamed, some pan-fried. It is owned by Zhen Feng, who comes from Shenyang in North East China’s Liaoning province, and her husband Rick Stuart, a retired math teacher.
Dumplings are a mainstay of Northern Chinese cuisine. There, the staple crop is wheat, not rice, so the diet is wheat-based, hearty fair for a colder climate. Think chewy noodles, steamed buns, and, of course, dumpling wrappers for filled dumplings.
Inside Mother’s Dumplings, we found spartan tables in a simple dining room, filled with people ordering Northern Chinese food.
The restaurant has the reputation for two things, dumplings made from scratch and a powerful following. We saw University students, entire families, young professionals, people of every ethnicity.
Torontonians seem to like their dumplings. They have been leaving Mother’s Dumplings notes, telling them such.
Also on every table, condiments to go with the dumplings.
We ordered Vicky’s favourite, a large wonton soup ($5.70), to share. It easily fed three people.
Northern style, the soup had thinly sliced dried shrimp, long strands of sea weed, and some decent pork wontons (non-grisly pork wrapped in thin skins that were delicate in the soup, but did not disintegrate). The soup was savoury, not tasting at all instant.
Following Toronto food blogger Bonita’s (@boneats) recommendation, we ordered an unorthodox take on the classic steamed pork and chive dumplings, pork and dill dumplings (10/$6.89).
The skins were hand-kneaded, carefully worked. The dumplings were hand-wrapped, everyone a little different. Their filling carried a less onion, more herbal flavour than we were used to. Still, they were fresh, made-to-order, not steamed-from-frozen.
Here is why. There is a line of dedicated cooks, making dumplings at Mother’s Dumplings.
They work lighting fast.
Encouraged by what we ordered, we decided on another unorthodox dumpling, lamb siu mai (6/$7.79).
Normally made from pork or beef, the lamb siu mai were also well-made with great textured skins. The lamb gave the siu mai a different flavour.
Finally, we ordered a green onion pancake ($3.89)
It was thick, dense, and relatively unlayered. A good green onion pancake is thin, crisp, and sports thin layers of worked dough inside. It is made by folding dough on itself with oil and finely chopped green onion (scallions).
Therein is the parallel with Ottawa, our Chinatown also had a Northern Chinese restaurant, Northern Han (870 Somerset St W.). Now under different management and likely a new restaurant, it served a great green onion pancake.
Our thoughts, good dumplings with some neat twists on the classics. The green onion pancakes, on the other hand, could use some work.
For dinner that day, we visited a “canteen” in Toronto’s entertainment district.
Oliver & Bonacini: Canteen
Canteen (350 King Street W.) is located in the same building as the TIFF (Toronto International Film Film Festival) Bell Lightbox. It is also beneath the higher end Oliver & Bonacini: Luma restaurant, whose chef we follow on twitter, Chef Jason Bangerter (@chefbangerter).
According to its website, Canteen is a “casual, fresh market café and bakery, as well as a “grab and go” counter.” It is essentially a full-service cafeteria, serving good medium-end food, made responsibly. Its casual atmosphere, a relaxing change.
At the back of the restaurant, there is an an obscured kitchen, preparing a menu from humble, fresh, and seasonal ingredients. There is a counter, serving takeaway food, soups, sandwiches, and bakery. There is a fully equipped bar, with a fixed wine menu. All of the menus are printed and displayed on mid-wall to ceiling signs.
At the front, a dining room that is entirely open, low dividers, and lots of two and four person booths.
What impressed us that evening wasn’t the food. It was the service. Don’t get me wrong, Canteen’s dishes make a good quick dinner. How often do you go to a medium-end restaurant where the server tells you a certain menu item has changed slightly, replacing some ingredients with more seasonal ones. In our case, the hand-made tagliatelle was being prepared with wild mushrooms instead of tomatoes or eggplant.
Canteen positions itself to compete at the same price point as the majority of eat-in chain restaurants like Milestone’s and Boston Pizza. What sets it apart, a line of skilled cooks and chefs in its kitchen, many who switch between Canteen and Luma.
Canteen’s appetizers and mains are made-to-order.
Jenn was impressed by her pasta dish, remarking at its fresh pasta (served al dente) and its tomato-based sauce with chunks of tomato. I’ve only had better thin crust pizza, baked in a wood oven. Otherwise, Canteen serves a decent thin crust pizza, made with slow risen dough (develops flavour), worked to produce a pleasant chew.
Our dessert, the Gateau Basque ($7.00)
While not made to order, the almond flour based cake crust had a shortbread texture. It was paired with vanilla ice cream and an in-house berry preserve, great contrasts.
While we were eating dinner, we watched the front of house, consisting entirely of university-aged students, work the dining room almost like a choreographed ballet. During our meal, we saw rows of window-seats turn over seven times. The booths behind us, three times. The Canteen was a popular destination that Wednesday evening, consistently slammed. Yet, the lineup out of the restaurant was no more than 3 deep. Everyone was seated and given menus promptly. They were served quickly thereafter. We watched the bar re-work incorrect drink orders without argument. We watched tables looked after by more than one server when they seemed neglected, one server just glancing at another.
When we spoke with the host that evening, it turned out the Canteen was short both a hostess and a server. She told us the front of house has had to learn how communicate effectively and organize quickly to handle the many rushes before and after shows at nearby theaters. When I told her I was visiting from Ottawa, she quickly produced promotional material to the TIFF Bell LightBox’s current exhibition of Tim Burton art. When I told her I was a visiting food blogger, she gave me a list of other Oliver & Bonacini restaurants and a leaflet, describing Luma’s multi-course Tim Burton-inspired dinner.
Our thoughts, a good meal with great service.
421 Spadina Avenue, Toronto
Oliver & Bonacini: Canteen
330 King Street W., Toronto
Tags: Canteen, dumplings, Mother's Dumplings, Oliver & Bonacini, Toronto, train food