Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — It’s quite likely the most diverse city in North America — and possibly the world — and one of the great benefits of the multifaceted community that Toronto has fostered is a culinary scene that seeks new flavours and applauds efforts to bring authentic ethnic cuisine to the forefront.
During a recent visit to the city, I dined at these five restaurants that were especially on the mark when it comes to fitting in with Toronto’s evolving mix of people and tastes.
Madrina Bar y Tapas — I spent six weeks in Spain in 2017 and since returning to Canada have craved the experience that Madrina delivers. Located in the beautiful and joy-inducing Distillery District, Madrina nails many aspects of the Spanish dining experience — down to the large selection of vermouth.
There’s even an attempt at fabricating spherified olives from the famed El Bulli restaurant, the Costa Brava establishment that was the most influential restaurant in the world for many years before shutting down earlier this decade. The results look great. The olives are served on a wooden spoon, appearing like small green egg drops. Although the flavour was a bit too harsh, the ambition of Madrina and its chef Ramon Sibarro shows. Madrina delivers perfectly with other dishes, including a plate of Gran Reserva ham, aged 48 months and often cited as the best variety in the world. Cured at Madrina, it tastes like candy. Patatas bravas come in small servings of two and resemble a millefeuille, with potato rectangles topped with dollops of tomato sauce. It’s inventive and delicious. Cocktails overflow and the wine list is stellar. In so many ways, Madrina is reminiscent of the stellar aspects of dining in Spain.
Location: 2 Trinity Street, Toronto
Kū-kŭm Kitchen — Every Canadian should dine at this restaurant. Through its menu, you learn about the land and the people who have lived here for centuries. Inspired by his Indigenous roots from Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, executive chef and owner Joseph Shawana has brought ingredients to the plate that few outside of Canada’s First Nations community have enjoyed. Seal is served three ways — as a grilled loin steak, in tartare form, and in a pâté similar to liver — and each form is unique. Prior to dining at Kū-kŭm, I had eaten seal in Quebec, Newfoundland, and Nunavut. Each time I found the meat too chewy and the flavour too gamey. Shawana uses spices, time, and care in preparing his version of the meat, which is flown in from northern Quebec. The seal is one of the unique options on Kū-kŭm’s menu. There’s elk and venison, and pemmican, a mixture of animal fat, grains, and berries that once sustained Indigenous communities and Europeans who were in contact with them.
Kū-kŭm will be a challenge for the unadventurous eater and that’s perfectly fine. What Shawana is doing is making a statement by staying true to his roots and bringing the flavours of his people to the rest of us. A handful of Indigenous chefs in Canada — led by Rich Francis in Saskatoon and Shane Chartrand in Edmonton — are reclaiming the culinary heritage of their people and are being courageous enough to showcase it to the rest of their communities. Shawana is among those forerunners. He’s elevating the perception of Indigenous cuisine without compromising on the ingredients or the original recipes.
Location: 581 Mount Pleasant Road, Toronto
Diwan — Museum restaurants are rarely this good. Diwan, the restaurant at the stunning Aga Khan Museum, is a work of art in itself. Inspired by the cuisine of Persia, India, and the Middle East, the restaurant will leave you wanting to come back again and again for its elegant dishes that are precisely spiced. Chicken biryani ($18) is a must, as is the creative Chef Fatoush Salad ($17), which includes local grapes, carrots, cilantro, mint yogurt, cucumber, and a tamarind reduction.
The wine list includes a good selection of Ontario varietals and the Princess of Persia cocktail ($12) is a treat for the eyes and tongue. It features Prosecco, cactus syrup, lychee, pear, Sprite, and pomegrante seeds that are strung along the top of the glass like the jewels of a crown.
Location: 77 Wynford Drive, North York
Bar Sybanne — Chef Howard Dubrovsky is presenting the flavours of his youth, even going so far as to post portraits on the wall of his two grandmothers (one named Sybil, the other Anne, hence the name of his restaurant). The menu leans toward the Middle East. The lamb koftas ($13) were among the best I have ever tried. Despite its home-spun origins, Bar Sybanne is still a bar, and it’s located on Ossington Street, where many exciting things happen in Toronto. So expect liveliness, exceptional drinks, and fun company when you visit.
I was introduced to Bar Sybanne during a tour with Drink TO, which takes guests to five quality locations in a particular neighbourhood for bites and a drink. It’s a good way to discover gems like Bar Sybanne.
Location: 229 Ossington Avenue, Toronto
Tabule — If you desire an even more immersive Middle Eastern dining experience, try Tabule. There are a few locations around the city. I tried the new Souk Tabule in the emerging Cannery area in the city’s east end. It included the best falafel I’ve ever tasted. Like with the establishments on the Drink TO itinerary, Souk Tabule receives frequent diners through a culinary-focused tour. The Culinary Adventure Co., a Canadian Signature Experience, takes guests to diverse and compelling eateries on its walking tours.
Location: 494 Front Street East, Toronto