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Column by Adrian Brijbassi
On Monday, Vacay.ca will announce its fourth annual Top 50 Restaurants in Canada rankings. It’s a survey of elite diners, industry experts, and leading travel and food journalists who take the pulse of the nation’s dining scene. My experiences during the past 12 months indicate that there is a significant leap in quality as chefs push their talents further and some restaurateurs recruit international talent to lead their brigades.
Two Michelin-starred chefs made notable entries in the Canadian dining scene in the past year. At TOCA at the Ritz-Carlton Toronto, Oliver Glowig has reinvigorated the restaurant with a menu focused on Italian cuisine. In the Gastown neighbourhood of Vancouver, Stefan Hartmann was recruited from Germany to helm the kitchen at Bauhaus. Coming soon, “Iron Chef” star Masaharu Morimoto, whose Japanese cuisine has won over fans in the United States, will open a restaurant in downtown Toronto’s new Theatre Park building.
More competition should mean a good thing for diners. It can also mean a larger cut of the $72-billion restaurant industry for the most successful names. A continuing trend across the country has been the expansion of some of the nation’s leading chef-driven brands. In Toronto, Rob Gentile’s Buca has a third restaurant, Buca Yorkville. In British Columbia, Vikram Vij has added both My Shanti, in suburban Surrey, and Sutra, a small eatery inside the Victoria Public Market. Also, the bustling Tacofino brand opened a second restaurant in the middle of Vancouver’s Gastown. In Calgary, the CharCut team is expanding withCharBar, and the Model Milk group has just opened Pigeonhole. Daniel Corso, one of Edmonton’s leading chefs, has debuted Bar Bricco next to his well-regarded Corso 32 and Scott Bagshaw in Winnipeg has replicated his success at Deseo Bistro with his newest venture, Enoteca Wine Bar.
It’s an ever-changing and exciting time to dine out across Canada. Here is the list of the 20 best restaurants I tried during the past 12 months. Eight of them will make it onto the 2015 Top Restaurants in Canada rankings. Can you guess which ones?
1. Joe Beef, Montreal: What makes Fred Morin and David McMillan’s place a must-dine in North America is the absolute lack of pretentiousness. The food and service are immaculate. Joe Beef, recently named No. 81 on the World’s 50 Best List, is now an icon of Canadian dining.
2. The Pointe at the Wickaninnish Inn, Tofino, BC: Is there a better setting for a meal in Canada than the dining room at The Pointe? Likely not. With executive chef Warren Barr, the main restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property, has elevated its cuisine to match its ambience.
3. Bauhaus, Vancouver: The chef’s tasting menu evokes all the aspects of hallmark European cuisine. Poached veal tenderloin is remarkably succulent, the onsen egg is paired with a Parma ham crisp, and the white-wine foam atop the Arctic char is a testament to Hartmann’s range and skill. A great restaurant that’s only getting started.
4. TOCA at the Ritz-Carlton, Toronto: Rome-based chef Oliver Glowig arrived in late 2014 with two Michelin stars in tow and transformed the Ritz’s flagship restaurant into a fine-dining experience worth indulging in. Several of the menu items are sensational.
5. My Shanti, Surrey, BC: Vikram Vij calls My Shanti, “My baby.” It is the embodiment of the Indian restaurant he has always wanted to own. My Shanti serves dishes that give you a culinary tour of India unlike any other restaurant in Canada.
6. Hawksworth, Vancouver: Consistently brilliant, Hawksworth not only delivers some of the best dishes in Canada, it is home to what’s likely the nation’s leading service and sommelier team.
7. Black Pig Bistro, Calgary: Delectable plates with an Iberian influence are created by chef Alison Bieber, who has recently been joined in the kitchen by her husband, the acclaimed John Michael Macneil.
8. Hotel Herman, Montreal: A wonderful casual restaurant on Saint-Laurent Boulevard that features a range of creative plates like razor clams set on a bed of black bread crumbs and a salad of milkweed flowers.
10. Chambar, Vancouver: Excellent Belgian dishes and a stellar beer list in this warm, inviting restaurant.
11. Bar Isabel, Toronto: Whole grilled octopus and inventive Spanish flavours have made this one of the hottest restaurants in the city.
12. Hudson’s on First, Duncan, BC: If this Vancouver Island restaurant run by British chef and owner Daniel Hudson were in a larger city, you would be hearing plenty more about it. The dishes are flawless and Hudson’s on First should be on your Canadian dining bucket list.
13. Boulevard, Vancouver: In the Sutton Place Hotel, chef Alex Green has turned this year-old fine-dining restaurant into one of the best on the west coast. You’ll also enjoy the terrific oyster bar with a range of fresh options.
14. Hopgood’s Foodliner, Toronto: The one restaurant I always make sure I visit when I’m in Toronto. It never disappoints.
15. Bao Bei, Vancouver: Great atmosphere, intriguing Chinese fusion dishes and delicious flavours make this spot in Chinatown hugely popular.
16. Segovia, Winnipeg: The Duck Confit Paella ($16) is a must and so is the Chorizo and Gala Apples in sherry vinegar ($7).
17. Tacofino Taco Bar and Tacofino Commissary, Vancouver: For casual dining, you can’t beat the Tacofino brand. The new Taco Bar in Gastown also features a patio on Blood Alley.
18. Shiki Menya, Calgary: Likely home to the best ramen in Canada, Shiki Menya turns out 150 bowls of homemade noodles per day, pleasing eager diners who venture to Calgary’s Bridgeland neighbourhood.
19. Wolf In the Fog, Tofino, BC: Chef Nick Nutting, formerly of The Pointe, has opened a masterful establishment in the heart of Tofino. It showcases the rich flavours of the Pacific coast.
20. CinCin, Vancouver: A lovely restaurant with a terrific wine list and Italian dishes, CinCin kindly hosted a very special meal for me earlier this spring.