Tastes of Ontario: Exploring Canada’s culinary capital
You don’t have to look too far for thrilling cuisine or a decent drink in the vast wonderland of Ontario.
Toronto is the world’s most multicultural city, with its residents speaking some 140 languages; there’s no surer sign of that diversity than its dynamic food scene. Whether you want to eat Jamaican, Korean, or Ukrainian, this hunger-sating metropolis has it all.
Meanwhile, over in the wine country of the Niagara Peninsula, palette-pleasing fodder goes hand-in-hand with the region’s acclaimed vintages and one-of-a-kind specialty wines.
Get your foodie bearings in Toronto
In a city as huge and diverse as Toronto, it’s no surprise that its eating options run the gamut of cuisines and budgets. Upscale venues abound in the Financial District and Old York, while neighborhoods like Baldwin Village, Kensington Market, Queen West, Ossington Ave and the Yonge Street strip are home to more eclectic, easy-on-the-wallet offerings. The clue’s in the name in the neighborhoods of Little Italy, Greektown (The Danforth), Little India and Chinatown where you can savor flavors from around the globe.
Every visitor to Toronto heads downtown – to scale the heights of the one-time tallest building in the world, the CN Tower, or to trawl the huge collection of the Royal Ontario Museum. While you’re in the area, don’t miss the fascinating St Lawrence Market, where 120 vendors serving up meat, fish, cheese and countless other wares will leave even part-time foodies salivating.
As you’d expect, downtown is teeming with hot restaurants. Kōst is an airy 44th-floor rooftop venue decked out in blond woods and white furniture; the grub is inspired by the Californian and Mexican coastlines, so the seafood is the highlight. A whole branzino served with a piquant mojo verde sauce hits the mark, as do littleneck clams doused in a mezcal broth. A few blocks away, Ricarda’s is a huge, high-ceilinged space with a few industrial touches, where Mediterranean influences are the order of the day. Pasta and risotto fans are particularly well-served, and carnivores won’t complain when presented with the plump, juicy lamb burger.
A must-see part of town just a stone’s throw from downtown is the Distillery District, a pedestrianized enclave of Victorian industrial buildings now housing a cooler-than-cool collection of galleries, studios, shops, and restaurants. The district’s hottest ticket is El Catrin Destilleria, a lively Mexican restaurant where patrons sit under a huge kaleidoscopic mural and wash down tapas-style tacos and ceviches with killer cocktails.
Eating in Toronto’s east end
Take the opportunity to venture beyond downtown Toronto. A couple of the city’s most buzzing areas are the east-end Riverside and Leslieville districts, where handsome Victorian buildings house inviting cafes, bars, and restaurants. A great option for exploring the area is to sign up to a foodie tour with the Culinary Adventure Co. Adorable guide Kevin (or one of his colleagues) will show you round some of the neighborhood’s don’t-miss spots, which might include Merchants of Green Coffee, a fair-trade roastery and café that occupies a lovely old jam factory by the Don River; or nonprofit social enterprise St. John's Bakery, where you can taste knockout organic sourdough. If you’re lucky, lunch will be at Tabule, a buzzy pan-Middle Eastern joint where the standout meze include a delicious, creamy labni (Lebanese yogurty cheese) and a curiously sweet eggplant with lemon garlic dressing.
Alternatively, go for a meal at The Broadview Hotel, whose gorgeous 1891 Romanesque-style building has enjoyed a pleasingly colorful past, including a three-decade stint as a strip joint. At its restaurant The Civic, the period brick facade, original factory windows and stained wood bar create an opulent vibe. Menu highlights include tenderly cooked steaks and indulgent brunches.
Exploring the Niagara Peninsula’s wine country
The cherry on top of a visit to Toronto is the ease with which you can escape the city and explore rural Ontario. Just a 90-minute drive away are the bucolic delights of the Niagara Peninsula, where the eponymous falls are surrounded by rolling vineyards and grand old houses. Indeed, this is wine country, and while every visitor to the region comes to gawp at the mist-shrouded, cacophonous spectacle of Niagara Falls, it’s well worth spending a few days getting to grips with the peninsula’s boozier draws too.
The steep limestone ridge of the Niagara Escarpment sweeps through the peninsula, and its proximity to Lake Ontario creates a perfect storm of mineral-rich soil and a humid microclimate that is ideal for viticulture. The area is studded with lovely estates that turn out exalted vintages year after year.
How ice wine is made and where to try it
The region’s standout offering is its uniquely sweet labor of love, ice wine. To make this specialty, grapes are left on the vines after the regular harvest is over, growing even sweeter and more concentrated until December or January, when three consecutive days of -8°C temperatures freeze them completely. In the dead of night (so the ice doesn't melt and dilute the grape juice), the grapes are harvested by hand, then pressed and aged in barrels for up to a year. The resulting vintages often have a strong taste of apples, or other fruit, and are potent concoctions that pack a punch.
Ice wine is labor-intensive, crop failure is common, and it takes 10 times the usual number of grapes to make just one bottle – so this isn’t a budget-friendly tipple, often exceeding $50 per 375mL bottle. A top winery to try it is Peller Estates, where the igloo-like 10Below Peller Icewine Lounge is sculpted entirely from ice and is kept at -10°C all year. Another top ice wine destination is Reif Estate Winery, a family-run vineyard that specializes in rich, full-bodied wines.
If you’re in the region in January, don’t miss the Niagara Icewine Festival, a 10-day showcase of the sweet stuff. The center of the action is the chocolate-box town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which hosts events including an ice wine cocktail competition along its beautifully preserved 19th-century main street.
Vineyard victuals in Ontario
You come to vineyards to drink the wine, but most tempt you stay with delicious, locally sourced fare to soak up the booze. At Ravine Vineyard, the homely, rustic dining room is the setting for hearty meals like a juicy cheddar-smothered burger or rich duck leg confit; while over at The Good Earth Food and Wine Co., tasty brunches and light lunches are perfectly rounded out with a glass or two of Pinot Grigio in the bright, sunny restaurant.