Alo: Toronto's Best Restaurant
Toronto’s restaurant scene exploded in the last five years. In the preceding decade, Summerlicious was a big deal. The participating white-table-cloth expense-account restaurants represented everything you needed to know about the city’s food scene. The 10 best restaurants in 2009, the first list of its sort (to my knowledge) from Toronto Life, includes two that are not in Toronto, two that are in strip malls, one in a museum; the other five are glimmering culinary institutions that you probably have never been to outside of Summerlicious. All the best restaurants of the city have been opened in the last five years, and even more likely in the last three.
This is a city that would have never landed on anyone’s culinary radar until recently. In came izukayas, ramen bars, tapas bars, speakeasies and middle-terranean food. Then followed big names like David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Morimoto. Yes, there is a lot to be hungry for. The food trail became Toronto’s favourite pastime, in a city with barely a museum to go to (or perhaps better put, the only reason to go to museum is to go to the restaurants inside them).
By every account, the food scene in Toronto that was dominated by moguls and chains (read O&B) was taken over by Hipsters who tried to democratize fine dining. Dining became fun and less pretentious. There was so much good food everywhere that there wasn’t any good food anywhere! You would struggle thinking of a place for something formal. A friend had recently asked me for a place he could take his boss. You could obviously settle for the Canoes of the city, but who wants to do that. The only place I could think of was Actinolite. Yours Truly and The Grove had both closed down, and Edulis feels more for family than for work. They ended up going to THR Co., which I had squeezed out in the last minute.
The Toronto food scene seemed in need of a second revival when the best new restaurant is apparently Buca, which I think wins every time it sets up a new table, let alone a new restaurant. And all of the publicity for Yasu, a tiny and mediocre sushi purveyor, is disappointing. Yes, we’ve opened up enough Asian fusion restaurants for every hipster for lunch, brunch and dinner (Dailo, Mr. Flamingo, Patois, R&D, Hanmoto, People’s Eatery, Oddseoul), and nothing that remotely puts Toronto on the world map. When will Toronto get something on the Top 50 Restaurants list?
Then comes Alo. It looks like a pop-up, above a hero burger, a block from where my bike was stolen. A claustrophobic, mental-hospital-esque elevator takes you to the third floor. You feel like you’re going to the dentist. What was I getting myself into? First sights are deceiving. The space is gorgeous, spacious, simple, modern. There’s a fury of servers taking you to table.
There are no blanks. The only mediocre dish is a boring, overcooked portion of lamb shoulder. It has no discernable flavour and could have been mistaken for something you could get across the street at King’s Noodle. Everything else is spectacular. The amuse has peas done three ways – pureed, crushed and dehydrated. It is so vegetal and overwhelming in flavour. The soft warmish oyster, paired with Muscadet (classic!). It lies in a luscious purée of watercress along with softly poached potatoes and lumps of heavenly cream. The sea bream is effectively sashimi, decorated to perfection. But it’s the Japanese dip of chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt that replaces wasabi and gives it punch.
The bread is special – the butter comes ensconced in glass and it’s taken with a shot of Mandiera to coax the richness. The most spectacular dish is the foie gras covered veal tendon. It’s dark and viscous and complicated. It is full of unctuous opulence. The best wine pairing might have been the Chardonnay from Jura, which is able to clean up the tongue and starve you for another bite. Along a similar vein is the soft and flaky B.C. Dungeness Crab in a soupy buttery sauce, covered in foliage. The hamachi is blue-rare sitting in softly acidic sherry vinegar. It is a generous piece and a pleasure to chew through. The last main, a rack of pork loin, is cooked rare like pork should be. It is a luxurious chunk of fattiness that manages to be juicy, tightly packed and crunchy at the same time. It does well in the homemade mustard that looks more like a relish.
The desserts are another success – sorbet returns, but this time it is sweet and dosed with a strong taste of white asparagus. The second dessert comes in white, milk or dark chocolate. The milk chocolate option is a rich cake and ganache. The dark chocolate option is a mousse surrounded by sour cherries. The final dessert is a custard topped with an incredible mélange of berries. It looks almost too precious to eat.
All along the way are spectacular wines – ranging from sparkling to light whites to dark whites to reds and sweet. The walk home is a tipsy one as by this point, not only are you in a state of foodie bliss, but have had the equivalent of a bottle of wine (12 glasses, half glass each). Do the wine pairing. It is a steal at $65. That’s how much any other restaurant of this quality would sell their cheap burgundies for.
I’ve gone as so far as to think that we need no other restaurants in Toronto. I would probably eat out half as much to be able to afford eating here every time (I mean, it pretty much lasts as long as two meals anyway). Of course, to say that the rest of Toronto offers little is wrong. Toronto has successfully made dining fun again; but now it is time to make it special.
This is the only restaurant anyone should talk about, until the next one arrives. And when people come from afar, this should be the only restaurant you take them too. In no other city can you ever get 12 courses and wines to pair for $200, all-in. This is the best money you can spend all year.
Amuse – Pommes soufflees with black pepper aioli.
Domaine Baud Blanc de Blanc Cremant de Jura, 56
Amuse – Buttermilk sorbet with pea puree, pea sprouts and almond oil.
Lameque oyster, Watercress, Potato, cultured cream
Domaine de l'Ecu Orthogneiss Muscadet 2013, Loire, 75 [Viogner, Rhone]
Japanese Sea Bream, Samphire, Kombu, Yuzu Kosho
Domaine Zinck Pinot Gris, Alcase, 62 [Riesling, Alcase]
Bread – pain au beurre, cultured butter bar
Belem’s rainwater Madeira NV, Spain, 54
Quebec Foie Gras, Cockscomb, Veal Trotter, King Oyster
Domain Jean Bourdy Cotes du Jura 2009, 76 [Chardonnay Burgundy]
B.C. Dungeness Crab, Fava Beans, Lime, Chili
Masseria Frattasi Falanghina Taburno ‘Montagna’ 2013, Campagnia,68 [Italian Falanghina]
Hamachi, Chanterelles, Kohlrabi, Sherry Vinegar
Pearl Morissette Cuvee RedFoot Riesling 2013, Ontario,72 [Gruner Veltliner, Austria]
Yorkshire Rack of Pork, Mustard Greens, Grapes, Walnuts
Dalrymple Pinot Noir 2013, Tasmania, 100 [ Pinot Noir, Ontario]
Dorset Lamb Shoulder, Gem Lettuce, Squash, Yoghurt
Listán negro, Canary Islands [Bordeaux blend]
White asparagus sorbet – lemon purée caramel chip toasted amaranth
Chocolate stout cake, dark chocolate ganache, chocolate jam and malted meringue
Monte Faustino Recioto della Valpolicella Classico, 116 2006
Dark chocolate mousse inside dark chocolate tuile with a dark chocolate sorbet, cocoa nib nougatine, sour cherry puree and black sesame espuma.
Concetto 10 Yr Tawny Port, Douro, 88
Fruit & Custard
Château du Trignon Muscat Beaumes de Venise 2006, 68
$89 – tasting; $65 pairing – note the above is the full menu and you would need two people to eat all of the above. Splitting everything is a way to try 12 courses + wines. The wines are excellent and excessive in portion. As most of the wines are special, I have put into brackets what my guesses were (yes we played this game).