Toronto: Jousting with Flavours
I know I am no Forrest Gump. For, in Toronto’s Yonge Street, I was losing a million breaths. You think I have a duff pair of lungs. Try walking Yonge. Measure it first. At 1,896 kms, it is the world’s longest street. Forget broken shoe soles and calluses on the feet, Yonge had turned me into a hungry shark. Ready to gobble everything off a table. Kedegree. Juniper-braised lamb shank. Beet bruschetta. Sliders. Poutine. Rumaki. My mind was menu-reading hungrily and my fingers were picking up signs. I knew I’d need sign language to tell the waiter, “I am in a hurry….I am vegetarian.” In Signs restaurant at 558 Yonge that is how one orders. With American Sign Language (ASL). The staff at Signs is deaf. If I faltered with ASL, I could pick cues from the menu which has sign-instructions. At Signs, the food is scrumptious and no words need to be spoken. At Signs, noise meets silence.
Thus began my food trail in Toronto, a city that has 7,000 restaurants, but no specific cuisine. A city where every year food fads are listed with great brouhaha – this year, it is porterhouse steak and whole suckling pig. Eating with the hand is forgiven but shirt wiping is still sacrilege; miniature vegetables are having their glory moment and rustic mason jars have found neat corners in open kitchens. Tasting menus are making a dramatic comeback in Toronto and beer guzzlers have already listed five beers that need to die in 2015.
Trends are good for the brain; where could I stack the authentic cuisine in my starving tummy? Canadian cuisine? There’s nothing called Canadian cuisine, a local corrected. Toronto has five China Towns, two Little Italys, a Little India and even a Korea Town. For your day’s food craving, walk to a specific neighbourhood — get bagel and lox in Eglinton West, meat on skewers in Danforth; cheap dimsum in East China Town; cupcakes in Mount Pleasant, tikkas and pakoras in Little India, gelatos and pizzas in Corso Italia. However, nothing beats snazzy Gerrard Street where saris double up as garish décor, a rickety rickshaw is parked outside Lahore Tikka House and where kulfis are frozen on chopsticks! Little India is oh so Indian that you’d think a slice of Punjab had been beamed thousands of miles into Toronto. Here, the air is redolent with the whiff of cardamom and the street resplendent with women in saris and little girls in oily plaits and frilly frocks.
That nippy spring afternoon, however, neighbourhoods did not seem food-attractive. I wanted to slip into my LBD, dangle a filigree chandelier and dig in style at a ritzy restaurant. Inflexions came in way of my eat-luxe yearning, though. How do I pronounce Scaramouche that drizzles truffle shavings on handmade pasta? I could spend $300 on an eight-course omakese dinner but I can’t even say Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto in one long breath. And Boulud? Why does this French chef who sears foie gras with mejdool dates have such a vowel-laden name? Why can’t expensive restaurants have simpler names?
In Toronto, dipthongs were my food-bombers but I had none of that to fear in Fairmont Royal York, Canada’s largest kitchen where chefs can bake 15,000 French rolls a day, grow Pinocchio nose chillies on the 14th floor terrace garden, serve choux pastry swans, toasted crumpet and finger sandwiches for afternoon tea, and where Birdbath Martini is a potion to die for. I was not the only one drooling over the menu – in the Fairmont Royal York, Richard Gere, Ingrid Bergman, Drew Barrymore, Antonio Banderas have all walked in talking of Lake Ontario trout, filet mignon and strawberry soup. Even Queen Elizabeth once walked those 72 kilometres of carpet in the hotel and sipped loose leaf tea.
Toronto was spoiling me with food choices but little did I know I’d bump into John Travolta and Bill Gates in a Thai restaurant. I had barely walked up the wooden staircase of Mengrai Thai restaurant when Allan Lim, the sprightly restaurant owner, threw a baffling question. “Travolta or Gates?” I knew about Mengrai’s tag as Toronto’s best Thai restaurant; I had heard finger-licking stories about Chef Sasi Meechai-Lim’s red curry panang king prawns and lemon grass scallops. But there was no snazzy whiff about it — the decor was minimal, the cutlery mundane, the curtains sheer purple. So, why the question about a Hollywood hunk and a geek with pots of money? They could not have been on the menu. Or, were they? Kinda. Travolta loves Mengrai’s chicken with pineapple and Gates the fried morning glory. Allan can drop names – Chef Lim, his wife, has been flown out to do private dinners for Jessica Alba and Jackie Chan.
No real Travolta. No real Gates. But there was a brave king waiting in a medieval castle. For $40 I could watch kings jousting on horses and sit on the ringside and eat a four-course dinner fit for a fussy princess. In Medieval Times, a dinner-show (they call it dinner and tournament), the food gets theatrical. Falcons fly, horses neigh and kings battle it out in the open. There is no silverware and the chicken comes on a pewter platter. Remember, this is more about pageantry and forgive them, if a potato is served like a potato. Not as a hasselback!
My hours in Toronto were numbered. And I was feeling at the top of the world. Literally. In 61 seconds flat, I was beamed 351 metres above ground to 360 Restaurant, an award-winning joint in CN Tower that draws foodies not only for its roasted beet and orange glazed duck spiedini, and dark chocolate tower, but also boasts of the world’s highest wine cellar. As I dug my fork into scrumptious Continental fare, the restaurant took a languorous 72 minutes to revolve 360 degrees for a magnificent view of the city. It is at night that Toronto is at its glitziest – dreamy, dramatic, shimmering with a million neon lights.
I was willing to order a five-spice filet mignon at the top of the world if Spiderman, my favourite Torontian, sat across my table. As long as he and I did not count calories. In Toronto, I knew I’d tip dangerously on the weighing scale.
Where to Eat
Where the waiters are deaf.
Eat in absolute darkness.
A dinner show that takes you back to the 11th century.
Rodeo Brazilian Steak House
Rodizio is a haven for BBQ lovers. Watch out for live Capoiera (martial arts that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music).
Sultan’s Tent & Café Moroc
Experience North Africa here.
What to eat
Charcuterie tasting in Reds, apple coleslaw at Le Petit Dejeuner, gourmet sandwich at My Place, raspberry sorbet in Azure; coffee at Broadview Espresso, kulfi at Lahore Tikka House; 360, a revolving restaurant at CN Tower for a spectacular view of the city.
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