Toronto Food Scene Poised To Take Off, Despite Internal Bickering

Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto

TORONTO – It hasn’t exactly risen to the level of a “Real Housewives” cat fight, but it’s not often when one food critic goes to the trouble of seriously questioning another critic’s judgement.   Case in point: at the end of November, The Globe & Mail’s Chris Nuttall-Smith wrote a glowing review of Momofuku Shōtō, David Chang’s high-end, tasting menu-driven 21-seat counter, calling it the best restaurant in Toronto. Lesley Chesterman, his counterpart in Montreal, took exception; in kind of a major way.   Here’s what Nuttall-Smith said in the third graph of his review:

 

“Just eight weeks into its life, Momofuku Shoto is already the best restaurant in the city. It is more inventive, more gleefully promiscuous with ideas and ingredients, more artfully conceived and many levels more technically masterful than anything else in the city. Nearly a decade after Toronto was last known as an international dining destination, Shoto quite suddenly puts us back on the map.”

 

Dan Dan Mien with spicy pork, dry scallop and peanut at Noodle Bar.

Dan Dan Mien with spicy pork, dry scallop and peanut at Noodle Bar.

And just to give you some background, NYC-based Chang didn’t just open up one restaurant here, he opened a mini Momofuku empire, sheathed in glass, encompassing four concepts that sit, modernist-style, right next door to the equally impressive Shangri-La Hotel. On the ground floor, an über-cool Momofuku Noodle Bar; on the second floor, a stylish, hip cocktail lounge called Nikai; up on level 3, Momofuku Daishō, which resembles NYC’s Ssäm Bar, in that there are several large-format options, like bo ssäm and heaping plates of fried chicken. And adjacent to Daishō: Shōtō, the source of Chesterman’s disbelief (and scorn). It probably didn’t help that Nuttall-Smith made this proclamation further into his review:

 

“…in a town where the chefs Susur Lee, Michael Stadtländer and Jamie Kennedy, whose ground-breaking years seem long past, are still often cited as leading culinary figures, Shoto perfects a model that’s been tried but never entirely successfully in Toronto: It’s forward-looking, run by and for a new generation, with all of the skill and the hospitality, but a whole lot of hunger, too. It is the sort of place that changes a city’s restaurant scene.”

 

When outsiders like me, who’ve been coming to Toronto for years read this, we get excited. We know that this stunning, ethnic melting pot of a  metropolis – recently overtaking Chicago to become the fourth largest city in North America, mind you – has always had a bit of an image problem in terms of culinary respect. The crowds are more conservative, my food friends tell me, and thus, the restaurants tend to play it safer, with very few exceptions (hello Black Hoof, Parts & Labour). The fact Chang and Co. have been given a large chunk of real estate to develop their own little kingdom says someone is ready to really invest here for the long-haul.

 

Peameal bun at Momofuku Noodle

 

But in Montreal, Nuttal-Smith’s counterpart, Lesley Chesterman, fired off a stinging response in the Gazette. She wasn’t at all impressed with his gushing praise:

 

“…And yet what I find disturbing here is that line about Momofuku Shoto making Toronto an “international dining destination.” Really? Ugh. Did it really take a chef based in New York who was handed millions to play with to put the Toronto restaurant scene “back on the map?”

 

Momofuku Shōtō

Momofuku Shōtō

 

I’m not sure it really matters where the chef is from, as long as he/she is turning out consistent, delicious, occasionally  mind-blowing food. I’m sure feelings have been hurt, and perhaps pride has been wounded. Afterall, guys like Lee and Kennedy have been carrying the local torch for some time. But again, talk to people about Lee and they’re quick to tell you how he’s phoning it in these days. It’s not that locally born-and-bred chefs aren’t worth mentioning, in fact, quite the contrary. I’ve had great meals at The Black Hoof, Oyster Boy, The Drake Hotel and had an amazing meal at Hopgoods Foodliner, a paen to the Eastern coast of Canada (my first Halifax donair) and couldn’t even get in to Bar Isabel, a place that was buzzing as soon as I hit town for the Terroir Symposium. But this spat – if you can even call it that – reminds me of Chicago’s recent history in some ways.

Boned-out speckled trout, humpback shrimp and red clover at Momofuku Daishō

 

I remember when Alinea opened, and some local writers and longtime observers of the Chicago food scene dismissed it. Gimmicks, crazy serving pieces, molecular smoke-and-mirrors, they called it. Trotter’s was, afterall, the standard-bearer. The foundation upon which fine-dining was built in Chicago (and Le Francais way out in Wheeling before him). But Alinea killed it from Day 1. They quickly surpassed Trotter in national – and global – influence, by always staying a few steps ahead, keeping the food imaginative yet not forgetting about flavor. Now people regularly fly to Chicago just to eat. And after they hit Alinea, they usually have three or four other meals here that send them home gushing.

 

Several years ago, Wolfgang Puck came to Chicago to open a branch of Spago. It did great the first year, not so great in the years that followed, and eventually closed. I Tre Merli suffered the same fate. Chicagoans don’t take kindly to outsiders who attempt to parachute in their ideas and systems, without getting to know us first (what’s up, Blue Water Grill?). I think Chesterman was feeling this same pang of nationalist pride when she responded to Nuttall-Smith’s post:

 

“…for a city to be a dining destination, shouldn’t it be about restaurants that serve superb local cuisine you can’t find elsewhere? Or does it just have to be restaurants run by star chefs? Wait, I thought we had Las Vegas for that.”

 

 

I think what Chang is doing in Toronto is superb local cuisine you can’t find elsewhere. He name-checks plenty of Ontario farmers, wines from the nearby Niagara Region and local spirits. He offers a riff on his now-famous pork buns, serving peameal buns as well; they get a three-day brine, then are steamed and rolled in cornmeal, and get topped with Kozlik’s mustard. You can find the same stuff down at the St. Lawrence Market, but here on University Avenue, it’s way better. In fact, everything I ate over the course of two meals (Noodle Bar & Daishō) was superb. I didn’t get to Shōtō this visit, but you can bet I will next time.

 

Chicken thigh roll, w/sriracha, shiitake and bibb lettuce at Momofuku Daishō

Chicken thigh roll, w/sriracha, shiitake and bibb lettuce at Momofuku Daishō

Do I give a shit if the restaurant is run by a star chef? Of course not. When I had an amazing meal at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar years ago (now closed), I gushed and tweeted as much as possible. When I had that fantastic mackerel on oatmeal toast and that splendid snow crab at Hopgoods, I did the same. No one outside of Roncesvalles, let alone Toronto, probably knows who the chef is there. I don’t think it matters one bit if the chef is locally-raised or imported. Inventive, delicious food served by a knowledgeable, passionate staff is worth shouting about, and frankly, I haven’t felt like shouting much after my last few visits to T.O. This is where I feel Chesterman is wrong (or at least, a bit too narrow in her reasoning).

 

Crispy rice cakes w/pork sausage and Chinese broccoli at Momofuku Daishō

Crispy rice cakes w/pork sausage and Chinese broccoli at Momofuku Daishō

I think if someone comes to town, sets up shop, invests in local talent, local produce and creates some gushworthy, tell-all-my-friends/listeners/followers/readers-about-it food, then why does it matter if they were born in Ontario, New York or Seoul? If the restaurant begins to garner attention from around the corner, the country, even the globe, isn’t that what’s most important? If people start flying in on Porter Airlines from Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C. and Newark, won’t that help raise the city’s culinary profile? Sure, there were pioneers who paved the way, but clearly, some new blood was needed. There’s more to life than Scaramouche and Canoe. Thanks to annual events like Terroir, this city is viewed with more significance; enough that a chef like Noma’s Rene Redzepi deemed it crucial to fly in from Copenhagen last week to give the Keynote Address (and guess what, he ate very well and is now telling his network of friends and colleagues about it). Local scribes have to put aside their nationalist pride, and just accept the fact that Toronto is on the rise, and while much of the energy will come from within, sometimes, a little spark from outside of the sandbox is o.k. too.

1 Comment

  1. Barry

    April 16, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    I’m actually with the Montreal critic.
    What’s special about Toronto’s exploding food scene right now is it’s accessibility.

    I can take you to 30 amazing experiences at small spots run by young chefs or entertain ANYONE at spots run by the people who started the movement here (Jamie Kennedy, Michael Stadtlander, Chris MacDonald, etc).

    And there’s a food related event/week, sometimes three. Occasionally, three on the same night.

    Chris’ efusive commentary were a bit hyperbolic, but the story of Toronto’s food scene is about its breadth as well as its depth.

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