Toronto for Food Lovers
Mr T and I went to Toronto in June to visit his son – and as a super surprise for us, he got married to his wonderful girlfriend Lewanne while we were there. We couldn’t have been happier. And knowing someone who lives in the city and knows all the best spots has been an added bonus, so most things in this Toronto for Food Lovers guide is down to Lewanne. We also had the pleasure of staying with Lewanne’s parents – her mum has Barbados roots and you can imagine the amazing food Dale (the mum) served us. Glenn (stepdad) served us the fluffiest of pancakes someone cook ask for. Both made us feel welcome in their home and it added to our experience (especially after meeting neighbour Kim who is married to a Greek man who has his own smoker in the garden – you can imagine my excitement).
Dale is an amazing cook and loves cooking for people – we had amazing trout, delicous prawns (shrimps) with a secret spice mix made by her mum (grandma) and so much more. Grandma made the most delicous drop fish cakes with salt cod, nicely spiced with some serious chilli. I would have been very happy being fed by Dale & Glenn but Toronto was calling.
First off, Toronto is a melting pot of diversity, culture, world cuisine and so much more. It is a busy city and I couldn’t live there but if Toronto would be any closer, I would love to visit it for weekends with the girls. The weather was hot and in parts way too hot for me but that didn’t stop me from eating my way around Toronto. Lewanne brought me to her favourite spots which quickly became my favourite. The listing below is not in order of preference, I just had to start somewhere.
St Lawrence Market
St Lawrence Market draws comparisons to our very own English market – it is just a bit bigger (ok, it’s a lot bigger with two floors) and tourists are flocking the alleys just like here in Cork. In existence in one form or another since 1803, first as an open market and later as a building, it is as diverse as the city. The market features the most amazing fish stalls with fresh oysters, salmon in any form (I loved the maple syrup smoked salmon – takes a bit getting used to as you expect the same flavour as we are used to. It was delicious), fish mixes and anything that lives in the sea.
At an Aisan vegetable stall I discovered garlic chips (crisps are called chips here and chips are always fries) – a bit of a weird texture, very garlicky but strangly tasty. Found the price of over C$7 too high to buy this as a snack. Other snacks included deep-fried ocra, chickpeas and more. Several cheese stalls featured a lot of Canadian cheeses including a good range of Irish cheeses. I watched a small lady making fresh pasta, enjoyed watching people eating their lunch at the market as counters, tables and chairs were available to eat right there and then. Being surrounded by all the food, we got a bit peckish and Lewanne introduced me to the one item she always eats when she is at the market. So we went downstairs to visit the Uno Mustachio stall that offers their Famous Godfather Sandwiches – and the most famous of them all is the Veal Schnitzel Sandwich. Now, veal – flattened and crumbed and then either panfried or deep-fried and served with chips and lemon is a German (and I think Austrian) specialty and it has been years that I ate it. So, I was looking forward to the sandwich (which was a first for me). Take a soft bun, fill it with the breaded veal, top it with crusted aubergine slice, add their famous tomato sauce, roasted peppers and some cheese and you have some amazing sandwich. We shared a sandwich, which was plenty. Comfort food as it should be. Utterly delicious. The rest of the market is just as great as the stalls mentioned above and well worth a visit. If you go as a tourist, please consider buying something.
As a special treat, a local chef Scott Savoie takes a group of people on a walk through the market, chooses from the amazing array of ingredients and gives a cooking class on the Friday Night Market Feast. Check out the Market Event page for more details. Chef Scott works with a company that organises food tours around Toronto.
When thinking of Kensington, the posh part of London comes to mind with its elegant houses and upscale restaurants – you couldn’t be further away from that image when you enter Kensington Market in Toronto. A vivid neighbourhood with a vast array of quirky shops, bakeries, eateries and a lot of character. Lewanne was in her element as it is close to home for her. The shop-owners knew her and smiled when they saw her (there were a few hugs as news of her wedding spread quickly) and it was very clear that she knew every niche and nook in the neighbourhood. First she took me to Jumbo Empanadas – a small place with a lovely interior. It is always a good sign when you see ‘ethnic’ people visiting ethnic places and I spotted a few Spaniards (no idea if they were indeed from Spain) tucking into the cheesy delights, dipping them into a spicy yet utterly delicious salsa. A great place for a quick snack on the way to a shopping trip.
Non-food related, Blue Banana is one of these quirky shops where you always find small treasures next to junk stuff. They had a lovely selection of tea flowers and I couldn’t resist buying some of them. If you are looking for a funny gift, this is the shop for you.
Around the corner from Jumbo Empanadas is a dry good shop (sorry forgot the name) where you can buy any type of nuts, dried fruit, flour, sugar etc loose. Perfect if you either live on your own or you only need a tiny bit of something for a new recipe. If I lived in Toronto, this would be one of my favourite shops (saying that, Bulk Barn does something similar but is a chain while this shop was family-run).
Next, Lewanne dragged me (not that I struggled much) to a small chocolate shop called CXBO Chocolates. The workshop was open in the back of the shop with full visibility. Their unique selling point is the splashed colour across the chocolates. The pralines are bright in colour and I loved the different flavour combinations. I tried Yuzu & Sake as well as Rose Raspberry & Fennel – both new to me and both very interesting. Chocolate was of high quality and you didn’t needed much to satisfy your sweet cravings. I got a box of Mint Chocolate Squares for Mr T and it disappeared quite quickly into the dark fields of his greedy tummy.
With a smile on our faces we continued our walk along the cobblestones of Kensington and popped into a lovely little Asian-Carribean shop that looked more like the 60s butcher shop (which is might even have been originally and hasn’t been updated since). Called Golden Patties, it is a quick, fast and delicious mekka for people who like something different. We had something called Doubles which was a light textured bun filled with chickpea stew. It was bloody hot outside but ohmyohmy, this bun was delicious. If you are in the area, please pop in – you will not be disappointed.
Next up, we walked into the cheese shop Global Cheese – a great selection of cheeses and Italian delicatessen, we spent quite a bit of time and money in the place. It was great to see some Irish cheeses featured as well in the display. A great sales woman managed to get us to spend more money than we actually planned – every shop needs one of these.
The streets were lined with people – locals and tourists alike but we stepped into a true piece of neighbourhood at the Caribbean Corner – a shop for people of Caribbean descend, Lewanne was greeted like a long lost friend and we walked away with sugarcane (you peel is and suck the watery sugar out – delicious and a first for me). Salt cod was chopped down to size for us and any other spice or ingredient the adventurous cook needs is available.
There are many more interesting shops in Kensington Market – you could spend a day to visit them all. Every Sunday is market day and cars are not allowed in the area.
What is there to say about Queen Street – it is a bloody long street. But while walking it (make sure you have time – it is really long) – you seem to be walking through different districts at the same time. From the High Street ambience to quirky neighbourhood to arty-trendy – Queen Street offers all that. Now, why did I want to go to Queen Street – because I heard of Cocktail Emporium – that’s why.
Queen Street is 5.6km long and I think I walked it all in my quest to find Cocktail Emporium (didn’t check properly as they also have a shop in Kensington Market). So while walking the street (which in part is also called Queer Street – the month of Toronto Pride was on), I discovered lovely little gems along the way. It is a paradise for crafters as part of the street is lined with fabric, bead and haberdashery shops where you can find great bargains while foodies will be happy to pop into little Greek, Lebanese, Italian, Iranian and any other world cuisine eateries. Shops of all kinds invite you to spend your little dollars. Found a beautiful paper shop called The Paper Place and Hanji Gifts where I bought beautiful Japanese silk paper.
But back to food. Popped into Nikolaou – packed to the brim with restaurant equipment. Oh my god – I wanted to live in that shop. Not the most attractive shop but a chef or an ambitious home cook will find everything his or her heart desires. All these shops I discovered on the search for the Cocktail Emporium. Almost towards the end of the street (what I assumed was towards the end – discovered later that it still continues on), there it was – smaller from the outside than you would expect from an emporium but step inside and you are in paradise for cocktail lovers. The largest collection of bitters and syrups I have ever seen in one place and my head was already spinning of making my own (watch this space), cocktail shakers, glassware in every shape for every cocktail, books with hundreds of recipes and a section just for absinth lovers (never tried the stuff but the equipment looks amazing). Considering my limited space in my suitcase and security issues with liquid, I only bought a small liqour glass to add to my collection. The girl in the shop was so enthuastic about cocktails that you wanted to start mixing straight away.
Shopping makes thirsty, so I popped into Queen Street 501 (I used it as a man creche for Mr T who didn’t share my enthusiasm for finding all these little gems). A lovely pub with an open front (ideal for the hot weather we experienced). The bar girl has been to Ireland and we had a great chat. I tried Queen Street 501 Cider which is named after the Tram Line 501 that operates in Queen Street. It had a fresh crisp taste with loads of apple flavour that doesn’t translate into too much sweetness.
The Spice Trader & Olive Pit is more like an elegant boutique than the place where you can find high quality spices and oils. Beautiful wooden shelves house everything from dried chillies (not the flakes you get at home but all types of chillies from Ancho, Chipotle to Jalapeno and everything in between) to truffle salt – – you almost feel like you are in a jewellery store choosing your diamonds.
On another day, my personal and private guide, Lewanne, took me to Gladstone Hotel – a boutique hotel with regular art exhibtions. Every room has been designed by an artist and is individual – Lewanne worked previously as an event manager at the hotel and after loads of hugs and kisses (Toronto is smaller than you think – news travel very quickly when someone got married) and we were able to see a few of the empty rooms. My favourite was the original Victorian lift – the hotel states on their website that they are the oldest continually hotel in Toronto. I loved the mix of original features with modern art.
When you visit Toronto make sure to take your time and walk Queen Street – it’s an amazing street. You will find food, drink, art, crafts and quirky people.
Niagara Falls & Niagara on the Lake
No visit to Toronto is complete without a visit to the famous Niagara Falls. Our hosts Dale & Glenn took us out on a trip and we couldn’t have asked for better guides. Niagara on the Lake is a picturesque town where buildings have been nicely maintained. It caters for the hords of tourists and you find boutiques, souvenier shops, sweet shops, restaurants and……. an all year open Christmas Shop. Yeap, you heard me. A Christmas Shop that is open all year round. It was boiling hot (at least for us, being used to the more cooler shores of Ireland) and walking into a shop and hear Jingles Bells was a weird experience to say the least. That didn’t stop me from browsing around the many decorations of every colour, shape and size. I am almost embarrassed to say that I bought something for my Christmas tree (what can I say, I am a sucker for Christmas).
The streets are lined with eateries – all tastes and budgets. We opted for The Epicurian for a relaxed lunch in their patio garden. The best crab cakes I had in a long time. Mr T chose a Reuben Sandwich – tender pastrami with a pretty decent sauerkraut while Dale enjoyed a huge portion of Fish’n Chips while I can’t remember what Glenn ordered (not like me to forget food).
While Dale & I went on a shopping trip, the gentlemen found a cosy pub in old English style, The Olde Angel Inn is a perfect place to enjoy a cool beer with its low ceiling and wooden beams. They also have a nice food menu but we were too stuffed to even look at it.
Canada has never been a country I associated with wine. But a visit to the Reid Estate vineyard taught me differently. Founded only in 1982 (it has a much older feel to it) by Klaus Reif who stems from a German wine family, the estate has grown to a beautiful place where wine is taken seriously. I always feel suspcious when a winemaker produces too many different wines but all the wines I tasted were excellent. Apparently, Canada is famous for its Ice Wines (I always thought it was Germany and Austria) and I have to admit, we walked away with a few bottles (we drank them before we had to travel back home). We took a tour with guide Jenna who was the most entertaining tour guide I have come across in a long time. She seemed to love her job and her background in geography made it easy for her to explain the ideal conditions for growing wine in this region (something to do with the nearby lakes, mountains etc.).
Then it was time to visit the falls. What hasn’t been said or written about them? They are majestic (although I thought they would be higher) and seeing them in real life is simply an amazing experience. It is of course very touristy and you share the walkway with tons of people with their selfie-sticks and cameras (I am sure they will enjoy the experience when they get home to watch the footage).
I have heard of St Jacobs and the Mennonites (very similar to the Amish) and of course wanted to go. I am not sure what I expected to be honest – maybe I should have done a bit more research. Anyhow, our hosts Dale & Glenn took us on a trip to one of the biggest outdoor markets (with quite a few indoor stalls thrown in) covering everything from homemade produce (what I expected) to kitchen gadgets and other plasticky stuff (that I didn’t expect). I guess, modern times have caught up with all people these days. Don’t get me wrong – the market was amazing with great produce available but it was very much gaged towards the tourist trade. And as it is my habit, I ate my way through most of them.
St Jacobs village is near the market and again, my expectations were higher than reality was able to deliver. More tourists than Mennonites and only two shops offered local quilts and produce. A visitor centre showcased the history of the Mennonites brilliantly and we were told that most farmers will allow visits if they have a business on the farm (selling jams, eggs etc.) but since we didn’t want to buy eggs (the frigde was full) we didn’t take the opportunity to meet any local people.
We had a quick lunch in Jacob’s Grill where I finally tried Poutine. Now, I had heard of Poutine before (in a shortfilm and it didn’t look very appetising) so I knew what to expect. The plate of chips with cheese curds and topped with gravy takes a bit getting used to. The secret is a good gravy. I am still not sure if I liked it or not.
There is so much more to Toronto than what we just covered. Like Taste of Little Italy in the Little Italy area (there is also Little Portugal and Chinatown etc.) which happened while we were there. Loads of food stalls, music and dancing on College Street. In the same street I found a Vegan Butcher (yeap, that is a thing now) called Yam Chop. Have to admit, the products really looked like meat. I wasn’t brave enough to try any of it, so just bought some falafels out of obligation (was a small shop so I felt I had to buy at least something small).
Bar Hop is a nice place for beer (they don’t serve tea or coffee) from an extensive list of craft beers, paired with some nice lunch options.
Union Station is the main train station in Toronto and a nice spot for something to eat. Amano is an Italian eatery where handmade pasta is served. Through a large window you can watch the chefs kneading, shaping and creating. The Danish Pastry House was a favourite of Mr T who has a sweet tooth and the Biscotteria Forno Cultura is an elegant little boutique bakery.
Toca is an Italian restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton and features a cheese cave. Every day at 5:30, you can visit the cave so Lewanne and myself presented ourselves eagerly (ok, me more than Lewanne) and asked restaurant manager Ryan Vella to show us the cave. Ok, it wasn’t a cave but a temperature controlled glass room with wooden shelves and a nice selection of cheeses – mainly Italian with a few Canadian and French thrown in (have to have a chat with the chef about awesome Irish cheeses). A more detailed post on cheese and the cave will be coming soon – watch this space.
We spent two wonderful weeks in Toronto and have only seen parts of it. A huge thank you to Lewanne, Dale & Glenn for their hospitality, warmth and their time.
Disclaimer: This Guide Toronto for Food Lovers is an opinion piece and my very own opinion. I have not been paid to write this guide and neither have I been given free food or products. I have also not enlisted the help of a professional agency but did some research and enjoyed the local knowledge of Lewanne, Dale & Glenn.