Canada’s top food critic, Joanne Kates, has had a love of French food dating back to her days as a student of the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris, France — the country’s most prestigious cooking school.
Luckily, there are many fine restaurants in T.O. at which she can indulge her love of Parisian fare. Earlier this year, Kates named French bistro Pastis her number one restaurant in Toronto. Here are five more of Kates’ favourites.
Beauty of the food only matched by the room at Niagara Street Café
The talent of a chef can be measured by two simple things — first the degree to which they bring out the taste of each ingredient and second the way they add interest to the main event.
Chef Nick Liu, who was clearly paying attention during his tenure as sous-chef at Splendido, makes passionate and expert love to every ingredient.
Even a commonplace like mushrooms on toast attains seductive taste status in his kitchen, thanks to intense buttery mushroom stew mixed with melted cheddar on fine bread.
His soups are deep strong flavours rendered as liquid velvet.
Mains receive equal attention:
Chef gentles Korean spicing and applies French technique to short ribs, braising them to sweet juicy perfection. His duck confit has crazy crispy skin and erotically sweet gnocchi made with brown butter and fabulous frisee dressed in smoky bacon vinaigrette.
Too bad the room is so small there’s not room for many happy diners.
Niagara Street Café is located at 169 Niagara St., 416-703-4222.
Escape wintry Toronto for the Paris countryside, at least for one dinner
One of the five prettiest restaurants in town: Like a French country cottage, its look and feel mimic a Michelin-starred French country resto, thanks to stone shelves and mantles, pressed tin sconces, orchids everywhere and comfy armchairs upholstered in black and white toile.
The menu is unapologetically old school French: Butter, butter everywhere and not a sign of lemon grass.
Perfectly cooked scallops come with Kobe beef cheek that melts in the mouth like butter, with a sauce made of puréed squash enriched with butter.
Truffle cappuccino is the Oliver & Bonacini trademark mushroom soup with foam on top.
They roast squab ruby red tender and dot the plate with sweet/tart wild grape juice. They butter-poach lobster sous-vide for ultimate tenderness.
Quick, pinch me, is this Paris or north Toronto?
Auberge du Pommier is located at 4150 Yonge St., 416-222-2220.
Scot Woods’ grace and creativity in the kitchen shine at Lucien
Chef Scot Woods’ food is inspired. With silken service from Simon Bower, Lucien is as good as it gets.
Woods is inspired by molecular gastronomy, but he does not get silly about it, as some chefs do. He wraps pork belly in plastic to seal in juices and then cooks it very slowly to create soft fat pink flesh throughout.
How smart to set off smooth pork belly with the bite of kimchee pickle, the liquid of barely poached egg and the snap, crackle and pop of toasted barley on top. Every dish chef Woods does has that grace and creativity.
This is a very fine chef at the top of his game.
Lucien is located at 36 Wellington St. E., 416-504-9990.
Classic French cuisine done the right way at Laurent
Biron’s Tati Bistro Chef/patron Laurent Brion comes from Poitiers, France, where butterfat is not a food, it’s religion. Chef Brion’s charming bistro is old school French in the best sense: tiny, cramped, noisy, and yes, le patron mange ici.
He is a man obsessed with flavour and his restaurant is a labour of love. Eat his chunky duck terrine with pistachios.
Close your eyes and you could be in Paris. Same with his classic French salad frisee aux lardons et Roquefort: The finest blue cheese in the world partners with crisp little chunks of fatty pork to make lettuce fun. Chef also demonstrates his mastery of la cuisine française with a quintessential classic French throwback: creamed mushrooms on puff pastry.
He roasts black cod perfectly with scads of long-cooked garlic and serves it with truffle-scented mashed potatoes. Even his bouillabaisse is unimpeachable, strong tomato-based broth with nicely cooked fish and properly served with rouille to spoon on toasted baguette slices and drown in the soup.
Tati is located at 124 Harbord St., 416-962-8284.
Japanese chef turns out some of the city’s finest French cuisine
Bistros are the flavour du jour not only because even the pickiest becs fins have an eye on their wallets but also because they ask so much less of diners than haute cuisineries, and yet they hold themselves to decent standards.
Simple’s classically trained chef Masayuki Tamaru understands that. He would perhaps rather be selling foie gras for the big bucks, but he knows that’s no longer on.
The byword at Simple is just that: simple. The food is lighter and cheaper than the French food of yesteryear, and our waistlines will thank chef for it.
He invents marvellous salads like red and yellow beets with arugula, chevre and oranges … or Belgian endive with Roquefort cheese.
There are delicious moments when we can taste chef Tamaru’s personal history, his Japanese heritage peeking through the French training — in the delicacy of barely cooked scallops with a vanilla back story and lightly pickled shaved fennel. Each element — the French and the Japanese — brings out the best in the other.
Simple Bistro is located at 619 Mt. Pleasant Rd., 416-483-8933.