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Report on Christmas-tide trip to Toronto from left coast Hound

grayelf | Dec 28, 201308:44 AM

Once again, we ventured out to the wilds of Toronto for a quick four-day trip, this year a week later than last ( so we got a real taste of winter during the first snowstorm of the year.

I'll post in two chunks as it's rather long!

Things were a bit crazy so I didn't even get a chance to post in advance but thanks to some desperate research on the board here and some help from TO Hounds offboard, I managed to put together a decent itinerary.

We had planned to fly out together but the SO ended up coming in a day late from SF so I stuck to my guns and went out for dinner at Bar Isabel the first night. The plane had been delayed an hour and it was really cold so I grabbed a cab, only to arrive to the boiling hot room (a forgotten Toronto thing -- freezing outside, tropical inside!).

I was seated at the bar and very well taken care of all night, starting with the Older Flame, dried apricot, pineapple, mango and fresh lemongrass infused gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, chartreuse flame (usually $14 but see below).

The deviled egg with salt cod, morcilla and Hollandaise was two largeish perfect bites of bar food ($6). I can never resist ordering patatas bravas ($7 for the regular version) and these were tasty if a bit heavy on the green onions. The chorizo verde with escarole ($12) was a great combo, as were the chick peas with pea shoots, crispy mustard seeds and arbol chile, though the latter was not much in evidence ($6).

The plates were all generous apart from the egg, so I was more than full after four. I got a free dessert, Basque cake and sherry cream (usually $8.50), very comforting, and my cocktail was also comped, which I didn't notice till I looked at the bill when I got back to Vancouver. I'm not sure what I did to deserve this largesse, though one staffer mentioned they like to take extra care of solo diners.

There is good reason this place is so lauded and hard to get into. I braved the Red Rocket back to the Royal York.

On Friday morning, I nipped over to Hank's on Church at the behest of the concierge (decent coffee is extremely thin on the ground near the Royal York) and got an okay mocha -- the breakfasts looked quite nice here and the room relaxed.

I then headed to the Gallery Grill at Hart House to meet an old friend for a divine lunch. The space is cathedral-like but somehow still cozy, the service impeccable and the food on point. We started with a gin cocktail and some pear cider. The soup was Jerusalem artichoke which I adore and was perfectly prepared.

The main was a warm frisee salad with fried green tomatoes and Haloumi cheese, an ideal balance of tart, salty and bitter, hearty yet light. Dessert was a proper pudding. Some might find this a pricey lunch but I thought it was great value and would go back in a heartbeat.

Another old pal picked me up and we headed over to the Christmas market in the Distillery District.

This event looks to have outgrown the space as there are now shuttle buses and very little on or near site parking -- the municipal lot we used last year is goe. We got a full detailing on my friend's vehicle in exchange for two hours free parking which would have otherwise cost $14 an hour (!). And the market itself doesn't seem to be all that much better on Friday than it was on Monday.

But the Distillery District is lovely, and a spicy, thick cafe maya and bicerin shared at the beautiful Soma outpost is definitely worth the candle, as is the Bergo store. Kind of a lame schniztel, precooked on a decent pretzel bun, was the only thing we had from the market proper.

Saturday was a full-on snow day. We ventured over to Roncesvalles to try a mocha and a too-large cappuccino from the much-vaunted Cherry Bomb. Better than Hank's but not amazing.

After having tried half a dozen of the most called-out cafes, starting to think that coffee in TO is not at the same level as Vancouver, much less Portland or SF, but it may just be a personal thing.

Up the hill to The Westerly, where we were inadvertently half an hour late, as I thought I had reserved for 11 -- oops. The owners were super good natured about it and seated us right away, only to discover that our friends thought the reso was for noon -- double oops! They scooted over as quickly as they could and again the staff couldn't have been nicer. It helped that the snow was pelting down and there weren't too many people about but still, kudos. The meal was good if not great.

Fresh squeezed OJ to start plus an order of light and not-too-sweet lemon ricotta fritters ($11.95) which were forgotten till I reminded the server but worth the extra wait. Eggs benny tasty if uninspired ($12.95), poached egg breaky ($9.95) solid. Best dish was the creme brulee French toast ($11.50) which lived up to the description. Overall better than our brunch together last year at Lola's Kitchen but probably not a destination brunch.

Next it was off through the now-very significant snow to Bar Hop on College near Spadina for some excellent sampler beer and cider, plus topnotch deep fried things for happy hour.

There were very good fries ($5) with a surprisingly enjoyable chipotle lime mayo dip (not usually a fan of things smoky), giant breaded pickles ($7), garlic doughnuts ($7) and three-cheese jalapeno poppers ($10) with a slightly too-sweet sauce. Someone knows their way around a deep fryer.

I lost my notes so no intel on the beverages we tried but the SO was very satisfied, perhaps not a surprise with 36 craft beers on tap to choose from. Really liked the vibe here and the level of beer geekiness of the affable servers -- they give good advice to augment the cleverly laid out tome of a beer menu. We'd return for sure.

Arrived at Chiado to a very empty room -- they had a lot of cancelations because of the snow. This turned out to be a blessing as they were willing to let us order off the bar menu. It appears that is not normally possible on Friday or Saturday night. We loved all the tapas we ordered, especially the carpaccio of grouper ($9).

We also had grilled tiger shrimp with piri piri ($12), grilled sardines ($7), pan seared quail ($9) and seasonal veg ($7) Service was of course impeccable in a white-table cloth room that seemed to have beamed in from the 90s. Loved that the server showed us a giant platter of fresh whole and fileted fish and seafood before we ordered too.

Photos: main at Gallery Grill, coffees at Soma, interior at Cherry Bomb, French toast and fritters at the Westerly, cider and beer tasters at BarHop, poppers and pickle spears at BarHop

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