The Best Things I Ate in 2018

Norwegian treats, West Coast comfort food, and a whole lot of Octopus

Asia, Canada, Eat, Europe, South America, Travel, USA  /   /  By Annie

 

January

I started the New Year peacefully in the beautiful city of Oslo, Norway. After indulging all throughout Christmas, DW and I kept it fairly low-key for the first few days of 2018, with the exception of a spontaneous meal at the Grand Cafe in Grand Hotel Oslo. It was a surprisingly successful take on “Modern Norwegian food” (surprising because this is a rarely-attempted restaurant category). I loved the spherical smoked salmon appetizer covered with paper-thin sheets of jicama.

In Toronto, we saw the opening of the highly-anticipated Assembly Chef’s Hall, and I’m happy to report that it’s still doing well. Other notable dining experiences included finding a respite for Northern Italian food at Stelvio (I come back for their sciatt, a cheese-filled buckwheat fritter) and enjoying an unlimited supply of Pilot Coffee at the casual farm-to-table operation FARM’R.

Favourite dining experience: Nana Toronto’s version of “Mi Ga Ti”, which involves thin egg noodles in a bright orange coconut broth, with delicate ribbons of greens and bean sprouts. I have been trying to recreate this dish at home ever since, with the addition of thinly-sliced egg omelette.

February

February is the worst. Thankfully, my always-resourceful friend Zandra rallied up a bunch of grown adults for a night out at Medieval Times. The food was not bad for a gimmicky experience, although you should know that you will have to eat a roast chicken with your hands. Notable events include the Restaurants Canada Show (which I have been attending more as a food lawyer than a food blogger these days), and a fun media event at Oyster Boy, where we tried everything on the menu (including the vodka and caviar).

Favourite dining experience: Aburi sushi from one of the most stable (and aesthetically pleasing) Japanese restaurants in Toronto, Ja Bistro.

March

March is my birthday month! This year, I organized an Ossington Strip adventure, starting at the vibrant Malaysian restaurant Soos (they have a great group dining room in the back). I cannot speak highly enough about their prix fixe menus. Think Sarawak pepper prawns, Nyonya sticky soy-braised pork belly pancakes with crispy taro root and scallions, and curried Rendang beef short ribs served with roti. This is my idea of exciting comfort food. The dinner was followed by tequila and a Bluegrass band at Reposado Bar, and dim sum at Dim Sum King the next morning. 

I also checked Campagnolo off my “to try” list. The plating, design and service were on point, but the temperature on my steak was lacking, and the food felt removed from the chefs behind the counter. I have a hunch that it was better when Chef Craig Harding wasn’t as focused on developing his newer projects, La Palma and Constantine.

Favourite dining experience: I finally purchased an Instant Pot, and my life was changed dramatically for the better. My first dish: Hainanese Chicken and Rice. What used to be a time-consuming and ambitious project is now (almost) a walk in the park.

April

April was all about two things: moving to a new apartment and attending the Terroir Symposium with full force. If there is only one food event basket you want to put all your eggs in, this is it. From a sustainable seafood cocktail party held under the calming blue lights at Ripley’s Aquarium, to day-long talks from the industry’s best at the Art Gallery of Ontario, it’s a unique opportunity to absorb all the best that Canadian culinary tourism has to offer.

I also wanted to shout out the extremely whimsical media event at Reverie at the Park. If you like the Alice in Wonderland vibe, and strange, experimental dishes, you should check out this bar and restaurant in Little Italy.

Favourite dining experience: Taking a school bus with a bunch of new food industry friends to spend the day eating roast lamb and bannock and sipping local wines and beer on our “Rural Retreat” to Norfolk County. This was an amazing end to the Terroir Symposium.

Terroir Rural Retreat - Nick Benninger

Nick Benninger (Taco Farm) serving up PB & J with Norfolk peanuts, berries and apples, alongside some “Boyscout Bannock”.

May

At the beginning of the month, I went to Ottawa for a special 40th reunion of the House of Commons Page Program. When in Ottawa, I always make a stop at El Camino for taocs (there are two locations now) and at La Bottega Nicastro for a good Italian sandwich. 

In Toronto, I continued my work with the Italian Chamber of Commerce and True Italian Taste. In particular, I was so pleased to attend the Authentic Italian Table held at Luma Restaurant where I enjoyed dishes such as Saffron Gnocchi with white ragù (chicken, guinea hen and rabbit) and a decadent chocolate Bonet alla Piemontese, uniquely inspired by Chef Michael Wilson’s visit to Northern Italy. More importantly, I also met a group of amazing and like-minded friends in the Italian Toronto food community whom I have grown to cherish deeply. My friend Sean from New York also came to visit, and we indulged in a perfectly executed Italian meal at Buca (the original King St location) followed the next day by a terrible but memorable meal at Drake’s doomed-to-fail Pick 6ix. I also added Souk Table to my list of preferred brunch places. You won’t find any soggy hashbrowns at this modern Middle Eastern spot in the Canary District.

Favourite dining experience: For the first time in my life, I went on a portage camping trip, and it was glorious (especially because my friend Dennis planned the entire trip and menu!). Maybe it was the hard work lugging all the ingredients through Killarney’s lakes and forests, or maybe it was finally arriving at our campsite after a 3-hour canoe paddle in the pouring rain, but I think the Uncle Ben’s jambalaya we made was the most satisfying meal I had this month. 

June

In June, I spent another week in Norway. You can read more about it in A Guide to Summer in Oslo. One of the best things here is the amazing (and complimentary) breakfast spread that you can find at every moderate to higher-end Norwegian hotel. Do you know anywhere else in the world where you are guaranteed to be served eight kinds of cured salmon alongside heart-shaped waffles with fresh strawberries and cream every morning? 

My sister Bianca came to visit Toronto, and I used the opportunity to make her try various versions of Taiwanese pork belly bao recipes I was making (read: experimenting with) for Ontario Pork. We also visited Little Sister Indonesian Food Bar with friends Eric and Brandon. It was fun, but I think the cool factor is slightly higher than the food factor. I also hung out with my Italian food family at the Giro d’Italia Toronto media event held at the Broadview Hotel, to sample small dishes prepared by many of the best Italian restaurants in the city. You can see some of the amazing dishes in my Instagram highlights.

June was also the month of the Rotary International Convention, which meant that our club welcomed friends from all over the world ( I also created this guide). My friend Krishna and I took our American friend and French friend to Ruby Watchco for some fantastic seasonal Canadian fare from Chef Lynn Crawford. Later on that week, I brought my German friends to the small but mighty Brothers Food and Wine. This place is balanced in style and quality, and all of their Contemporary Canadian dishes (with the exception of a throwaway strawberry shortcake at the end) were perfectly executed. The halibut dish and the salad called “Carrots” were particularly memorable, and the wine menu is well-edited. 

Whale steak from Brygga 11

Whale steak from Brygga 11

Favourite dining experience: Trying whale for the first time, especially in Sandefjord, a traditional Norwegian whaling town. I know this is a controversial and sensitive topic, but after everything I learned (and there were certainly a lot of terrible practices in the past), I was ethically comfortable with eating it in the context I was in. I would recommend eating at Brygga 11, if you’re ever visiting Sandefjord. Think elegant dining on a classy barge. For all of you who are curious: whale steak tastes like beef, with a slight hint of fish and sinew.

July

With each passing July, I get less excited about festivals, and more excited about lounging around my own balcony with a cup of black coffee.  For this year’s Summerlicious, I visited Chef’s House and Amano Pasta, but just for kicks. I did however, enjoy the launch of Bar Altura, Queen Street West’s latest place to go for after-work dinner and drinks with the girlfriends. It’s trendy Italian fare, with a feminine touch.

Favourite dining experience: Introducing my Belgian friend Claire to the beauty of Peking duck at Lai Wah Heen. This old school Chinese restaurant is not only my favourite for dim sum downtown (on the higher end of the price scale, but very elegant), it is also one of the best Peking duck experiences you can get around here. Each piece of glass-smooth duck skin is carefully carved tableside and pre-portioned with the wrapper, sauce and scallions for maximum enjoyment. DW particularly appreciated the hot towel service. 

August

I had two fairly enjoyable brunches this month: one at Carbon Bar on Queen Street East, and the other at Fiorentina on the Danforth. As of the date of this publication, Carbon Bar is no longer offering brunch, but their BBQ and cocktails are still worth returning for. To be honest, I actually spent most of August talking about and making the food featured on Crazy Rich Asians.

Favourite dining experience: Instead of going away for the August Long Weekend as most sane people do, DW decided that we should challenge ourselves to walk the entire length of Yonge Street in Toronto (Waterfront to Finch) with the following rules: 1) we cannot deviate off the street even briefly to check out a side street, and 2) we cannot bring anything with us other than credit cards and the clothes we decide to wear. It ended up being a super fun (and long 6-hour) day filled with lots of bubble tea and coffee breaks, cumulating in a dinner at the now-closed Ssam for a giant feast of Korean BBQ. Our favourite discovery was the beautiful golden Arabic coffee from Hailed Coffee. The cafe is technically off of Yonge Street, but counted in this case because we discovered it at the Taste of the Middle East Festival in Yonge-Dundas Square! You can see the full account of our adventures on my Instagram highlights.

September

Other than a brief interlude to visit my family in Victoria, BC, I found myself swamped with legal work this month. Other than great catering from Food Dudes and Table 17 (hosted at their home restaurant, Gare de l’Est), I didn’t have much to write about.

Favourite dining experience: Getting a sneak peek and nibble of the food in my friend Suzie’s (Just Crumbs) forthcoming cookbook! Her cornbread muffins were so good, I made them for my Christmas company potluck. 

October

I was excited to start my partnership with Le Creuset Canada this month, which included cooking demos at Sherway Gardens, and blog posts using some of my favourite products. I probably made my Pumpkin Risotto with Amaretti Cookies a dozen times in one week! 

Pumpkin Risotto with Amaretti Cookies

Pumpkin Risotto with Amaretti Cookies

Great Toronto discoveries included Gusto 101 for brunch (I had only gone for dinner before, and they take reservations for brunch too) and Saravanaa Bhavan for Masala dosas (this was a rare escape to the suburbs).

DW and I also visited Prince Edward County and were very pleased with our stay at Montrose Inn Boutique B&B (and they were equally pleased to add their first Norwegian visitor to their guestbook). We also did the whole Drake Devonshire thing. I think it’s pretty great, but at the end of the day, it is just a standard city brunch menu with more pops of colour and better design. 

Favourite dining experience: Even though we had just polished off a plate of fried chicken (from another establishment) the night before, DW and I still ordered a plate of Italian-style fried chicken alongside our La Bodega pizza (topped with Fior di Latte, Mortadella, Soppressata, sweet onion, sesame seeds, banana peppers, and iceberg lettuce) for our dinner at Piano Piano. You would never think that iceberg lettuce would work on a pizza, but it does in Chef Victor Barry’s world. Note: it has recently come to my attention that the restaurant has removed the lettuce from the pizza description. I’ll be back again soon to check. 

November

November 2018 had the highest concentration of Toronto deliciousness I have ever jammed into a month:

In the plant-based category, I fell in love with the peaceful yet luxurious experience at Awai in Bloor West Village. I can’t even describe some of the dishes because half the ingredients only exist in the realm of this restaurant. It’s a prix-fixe menu, and gratuity is not necessary as your servers’ wages are included in the menu prices. If you’re not in the mood for the upscale, might I suggest the newly-opened fast-casual chain, Virtuous Pie? It’s hard to believe that everything at this place is really vegan.

In the Spanish category, I visited both Bar Raval and Bar Isabel within a week of each other. Clad with dark wood and a sense of adventure, these two restaurants are frequently on Toronto’s bests lists. The former is more of an fashionable experience with a lot of standing/bar stool resting and delicately dressed tapas. The latter is set to a grungier, cozier beat, with larger, tantalizing dishes. If you’re visiting for the first time, order the patatas bravas and octopus (there are several possibilities) at both restaurants, and let your server suggest the rest. Don’t forget to add boquerones (anchovies) when given the opportunity.

In the Japanese category, I checked on both of my go-to Toronto ramen spots, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka and Sansotei Ramen, and can confirm they are both still alive and well. I also discovered a love of Butter Baker, and in particular, their “shouldn’t-work-but-it-does” pork belly croissant. Just imagine what that tastes like. 

In the Italian category, it was all about CENTItalia. I attended a beautiful dinner cooked by 3-Michelin Starred Chef Silvia Baracchi with a Florentine wine pairing. The next evening, I attended the Pentola D’Oro Gala, an awards gala celebrating achievements in the Italian food and beverage industry in Ontario. My favourite part was watching this little old man pulling fresh mozzarella at his stand-alone cheese station. The taste was phenomenal. 

Favourite dining experiences: Although any of the above experiences could have been listed as the best experience in any other month, I’ve decided to pick two others for the win (and not just because they didn’t fit into the above categories!). The first was Alo, consistently named the best restaurant in Toronto, bar none. This contemporary fine-dining French restaurant delivers a flawless experience, with a bajillion-course tasting menu orchestrated to land on each guests’ charging plate at precisely the same millisecond, and a bathroom hidden behind floral wallpaper that you have to be escorted to, but in a way that is supposed to make you feel like you’re not actually being escorted. It’s so “good” that it’s almost suffocating, but you can’t deny the quality of the experience. The second was a small media dinner held at Mengrai Thai. This family-run restaurant has a very special spirit, and I had been invited to test out their entire menu as they were about to launch their “All You Can Eat” program. Well, I wasn’t expecting that they would be serving us over 70 dishes, plus a special Royal Thai dessert platter at the end! I haven’t been this full leaving a meal since…I don’t know when. I will write more about both of these meals at a later time.

December

I spent most of Christmas in British Columbia with my family. In Nanaimo, most of our time was spent in the kitchen (although I still somehow messed up the turkey gravy this year…). In Victoria, I finally visited the cozy Italian Pagliacci’s, and can now understand how my sister Candace can eat a whole basket of their focaccia all by herself. For New Year’s Eve, I chose Olo’s prix-fixe for the last dinner of the year. With simple but stylish decor and a locally-driven West Coast menu, DW and I were particularly impressed by the service and the extras they provided, including a tiny Chinese takeout box filled with a house-made macaron, brownie, and cookie for each guest to take home.

In Vancouver, DW and I went to Fisherman’s Terrace for dim sum, Chambar for brunch, M8 for some modern Asian fusion, Deer Garden Signatures for some noodles, Fanny Bay Oysters for some of the freshest Pacific offerings, and Minami for some elegant sushi and world-class dessert.* What can I say? Vancouver’s still got it, especially when it comes to Asian cuisine.

Favourite dining experiences: I was in a very Greek mood this month and attended Peter Minaki’s Greek Supper Club (which included some excellent wines from the Kolonaki Group) followed by dinner a few days later at Mamakas Taverna on the Ossington Strip. Both of these Toronto experiences were incredibly warm and fulfilling, and great value for the high quality they offer. 

Please note: Full disclosure, I actually ate at a few of these places in the first few days of the New Year.

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