So the ferry's back up, and that's good news for food fans. Toronto is world-class when it comes to restaurants, both at the chic high end and for ethnic fare (particularly Asian). With the trip now more pleasant, Rochesterians will be leaving more money in Ontario and bringing back little besides a few extra pounds.
No expert, I turned to local foodie Gordon Anderson for guidance. That's an appeal to authority, a classic logical fallacy --- I mean, who is this guy, anyway? --- but what's an ignoramus to do? Anderson makes monthly trips to Toronto, taking in the St. Lawrence Market, hole-in-the-wall Asian joints, and trendy places like Susur. So, Michael Warren Thomas and I decided accompany him to one of his favorite spots, Perigee.
New experiences leave me feeling joyously ignorant. The world would be dull if it could be compassed easily, and thankfully there is no danger of that. The meal at Perigee was absurd in depth, breadth, and quality. But our eight-hour stay in Toronto contained other enlightenments.
First there was the St. Lawrence Market, which we whipped around late Saturday afternoon. Not the best time to be there, but the volume and variety of meats, seafood, cheese, and prepared goods were still stunning. The farmer's market is in a separate building, and open only on Saturdays (the South Market, with the specialty vendors, is open Tuesday through Saturday).
We munched a bag of candied, smoked salmon as we walked a few blocks to Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar. Kennedy is a famous Toronto chef, and his Wine Bar attempts to bring haute cuisine down to affordable prices, with small plates all under $11 (the menu changes daily). We had a wild boar terrine that had the headcheese hominess I didn't appreciate as a kid. Duck confit was a killer drumstick with crisp skin, plenty of succulent fat, and deliciously delicate meat around a bone I could have ground for bread. A plate of Ontario cheese didn't convert this Vince-Giordano-inspired Europhile cheese-head, though. Go early; there are no reservations and the place is popular.
Outside Jamie Kennedy's we got panhandled by a drunk, which was not a novelty, but what happened next was. Gordon barked, "How many pushups can you do?" And the guy dropped to the sidewalk, with Gordon playing Tony Little. The guy got to 15, Gordon gave him some money, and we all walked away.
On the long hike to the Vietnamese bahn mi shops on Spadina, Gordon and I argued the ethics. His central assertion was, "I work hard for my money, so he should work hard for his." Here we have a raft of logical fallacies --- the analogy between Gordon's life and that of the panhandler seems false, to start --- but his chutzpah was something to see.
Up on Spadina we encountered a different definition of "affordable," with which no logician could argue: bahn mi, a Vietnamese submarine sandwich, for $1.50 Canadian. It had roast pork, mystery meat, pickled carrot, hot sauce, and fresh cilantro on an excellent, crisp-crusted, batard-style roll. I've never been happier with a food value.
Gordon ducked into a cab, and Michael and I were left tired in cool, misty conditions on Spadina. It was a long walk back to the Distillery District and Perigee, but we needed it to work up a little appetite again.
Perigee seats just 35, with just one seating per night. Chef Pat Riley and owner Vic Brown follow the Japanese dining concept of omakase, meaning "entrusting." You choose a five-, six-, or seven-course tasting ($90, $100, and $110); the cooks spend some time gauging your tastes; and then you get a meal prepared on the spot especially for you. Every diner gets a different dish with each course, though each course at a given table will have a theme.
This is high derring-do, in culinary terms. Omakase in Japan is built around sushi, a fresh, mostly uncooked cuisine that lends itself to the idea. Taking the concept in a Western direction --- with grilled meats and reduced sauces, for example --- presents complications. But Riley and his staff of wizards pull it off without any wires showing.
Riley knew Gordon from several visits, so our menu was quite adventurous, including courses built around duck, tuna, lobster, foie gras, bison, and beef (mostly sweet breads). There was an intense array of charcuterie (fancy, French deli meats), a cheese plate, a fish and seafood platter, a melon "intermezzo," an apple "pre-dessert" course, and a chocolate dessert course (46 distinct items, in all). Could you expect such opulence if you weren't a regular gifting an expensive bottle of wine (as Gordon did)? Pretty much. Riley says this was an almost standard seven-course, though you might not get both the cheese and the charcuterie.
Riley likes to de- and reconstruct classics, creating splashes of invention that don't taste weird. For example, our charcuterie plate included a cream-of-mushroom terrine, much like a fabulous mushroom soup in flavor, but in a solid form. Another example would be pickled anchovy, frico (a cheese wafer), quail egg, and romaine hearts --- that is, an inside-out Caesar salad.
I won't bore you with the menu (write email@example.com you want it). Yours will be entirely different, tailored to your tastes and wishes. I had quibbles with a couple of dishes, but they were minor. We ate and enjoyed every bit of everything, and despite rampant creativity, nothing was odd or "artistic" for its own sake. Does thinly sliced tuna need to wrap braised veal cheek and be served on lime aioli, fried capers, and peppercress with shallot vinaigrette? Perhaps not, but that dish was perfect.
The whole concept could easily come off pretentious, but doesn't. The entire staff is in view in the open kitchen, and the cooks take turns explaining the courses. It's friendly and fun. Wine pairings are available with your tasting, and when I asked for non-alcoholic pairings, the response was, "We can do that." All my pairings were fascinating, some fruit juice concoctions, others unusual teas.
If anybody tells you he knows what the best restaurant in Toronto is, throw the appeal to authority fallacy at them. I do know you could spend a lifetime in that city and not exhaust its possibilities (this generalization based upon my small sample size risks the fallacy of composition). Furthermore, I know I've never had a better meal than mine at Perigee. If you want to eat at Perigee on the weekend, call at least three weeks ahead, though on weeknights there is usually space available without that kind of forethought.
Perigee, 260-55 Mill Street, Cannery Building, Toronto, Canada. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m. 416-364-1397
The owners of The Mundo Grill have purchased Toasted Head Grill & Bar at 187 St. Paul Street, and renamed it Table Seven Bistro & Lounge. Cameron Boyd, executive chef at Mundo, will oversee the Table Seven menu and installation of a wood-fired grill (232-4305).
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard weekends on WYSL 1040 AM. Details and archives available at www.SavorLife.com.