For anyone who knows us, we like nice restaurants and good wine. Usually we are not after snooty or super expensive places, just a decent place with good wine and preferably a table outside. Part of the excitement of visiting big cities is finding some cool little restaurant that the locals go to. Just like we have our favorites in DC, NYC, and Montreal, we found some really cool places in Toronto.
Our hotel in Toronto was in Chinatown (as an aside its the most authentic Chinatown that we have seen outside of China), it was situated in a mall full of stores selling all kinds of random consumer goods targeting the chinese shoppers. After checking in to the hotel and going outside to get dinner, we found ourselves in the midst of old chinese men smoking and playing checkers, street vendors selling fruits, and flashing lights from various dumpling and pho restaurants that line the street. Not wanting to risk random chinese food, and needing some wine after a long drive, we walked down Queen St. West. Right around the corner from Chinatown the flavour of the neighbourhood rapidly changes to an area of small bars, little rock clubs, clothing boutiques and small restaurants. We passed a few fast food looking places, a mexican place and a jazz bar, when we spied a restaurant we saw on yelp with good reviews. La Palette is a cute dimmly lit french restaurant with tables right by the open wall, so its almost like sitting outside, what else do we need? The place turned out to be great. From a cheerful bartender / waitress, to the young guy chef in the open kitchen that is positioned in the galley right across from the bar, the place has a fun laid back energy, while keeping the intimate french restaurant feel. And the food did not disappoint either. We had a veal stuffed duck neck, wild boar and venison tenderloin. Everything was perfectly prepared and tastefully arranged on the plate. From what I read later online, they used to have horse tenderloin on the menu, yet it was no longer there, but it is possible they will make it if you ask. One thing that did shock us in Toronto were the wine prices, most good restaurants have wine in the low 40′s and up. And the taxes are high on top of that. Our favorite restaurants in DC we can usually get good wine for 26-38 range, even NYC has places we like for 35-40. Well La Palette had fairly decent house wine at 36 for a liter and good gourmet beers on tap, so that really made a difference. It was so dark that we only got one ok picture of the food, but it shows how the dishes were presented. This was the duck neck and head stuffed with veal. As soon as we received the dish, the bartender girl ran over and told us to make sure and eat the head since that is the best part. :)
The last two photos of La Palette are courtesy of TripAdvisor
On the second night in Toronto we did a bit more research, and The Black Hoof gastropub had just amazing reviews. All the yelp reviews were just gushing at how amazing and unique this place is, but we were a little hesitant knowing that such a place could be very over rated, over priced, and hard to get in to. But its open late, so we figured to take a risk, take a bottle of wine with us and walk over around 10:30 when the dinner rush would be down. We headed out of Chinatown down Queen St West, which along with King St runs all the way through Toronto center parallel to the waterfront of Lake Ontario, kind of the equivalent of NYC avenues. As you walk along Queen St. the neighborhoods get less business and more eclectic, with lower and lower buildings, more trendy restaurants and bars, younger and diverse crowd on the street. We passed a bunch of rock clubs with tattooed guys in plaid shirts and fedoras smoking outside with their high heeled and skin tight ripped jean clad girlfriends. Down the block a goth and industrial crowd gathered outside, also smoking. Guys in leather pants and skirts, high platform shoes, and lots of metal inserted all over their faces, leaned against the wall with a dejected and aloof expression doubtless lamenting that the next “The Crow” movie remake hasn’t been made yet. The goth girls are also in black of course, but wearing huge heels or shiny “fuck me” boots, tight bodices or laced corsets and massive black/white makeup. Across the street we pass a more mainstream club just starting to build a line of stripy shirted guys and little black dress girls, with nice progressive house thumping from behind the towering bouncers. Further down Queen St West and left on another road towards Little Italy / Little Portugal, we start to wonder if this is the right way, since the area starts to get more residential. It flat out looks kinda like Brooklyn or Queens, small two story houses or townhouses lining the street, with a tiny store, laundry or dive bar interspersed in between. We walk up to a small nondescript building with some people loitering outside, and its obvious this must be it.
These photos of The Black Hoof are courtesy of Sifu Renka on Flickr
People are waiting outside, its 10:30, and through the window we can see that the narrow and dimly lit restaurant is still packed with people. We talk to the nice waiter who greets us at the door, and learn its an hour wait, but he cheerfully tell us they are putting us on the list and we can wait outside or in the bar across the street. They have some old chairs set up outside for those waiting, so we sit there for an hour finishing our bottle of wine. Barely anyone leaves this place, there is no turnover, as only 1 or 2 tables leave during this time. The waiters are constantly running across the street to the other bar, which it turns out is also owned by them, for supplies and to call people for a table. The Black Hoof is housed in a narrow old house, which used to be a dive bar in Little Portugal. There is barely place for the 20 or so tables and a kitchen in the middle of it, all the magic is being created on a regular electric stove with barely enough space for the three kitchen staff who hover over it. In an hour our wine runs out and we are starting to get desperate to get inside, when we get called in and seated at a tiny table with barely any space to the couples on either side. The menu is written with chalk on the wall and the drinks include some crazy cocktail gin concoctions and unique IPA beers. We skipped the expensive wine and settle for micro-brew beers. Couple years ago the owners of Black Hoof opened it as a simple charcuterie place, open on Mondays (when most restaurants are closed), catering to an audience of chefs on their night off. The menu still reflects these simple ingredients, but now features very unique dishes that are switched up depending on which yummy bit of animal the chefs have access to. Written in chalk on the wall in front of us are awsome options not for the faint of heart or vegetarian leanings: house cured meats, prosciutto, roasted bone marrow, foie gras, duck liver, tongue on brioche, sweet bread (calf thymus glands), beef heart, and pig tail. They also sometimes have horse prosciutto, but it wasn’t on the menu this time. We tried a bunch of stuff and it was perfectly prepared and served without an ounce of pretension. I have to say that for such a small and popular place, which is listed as one of the top new restaurants in Toronto for the last couple years, even has celebrities showing up – Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel were spotted here a few months ago, the atmosphere was easy going and laid back, the servers were cheerful and ran back and forth in perfect coordination with the kitchen, where 3 or 4 chefs and cooks danced in crazy synchronization in the narrow space around the crappy four burner electric stove. We closed the place out at 1am. Having made such an impression, The Black Hoof is definitely a place to check out if you find yourself in Toronto. The owners and chefs also write a cool blog about charcuterie where they go into detail about curing various meats in house, brain carpaccio, and how to turn a pigs head and all of its contents into a nice cured piece of meat. I especially liked this part:
Once brined (which isn’t a neccessary step) i split the head in 1/2 and halved each jowl to fold it over the other side to balance out the fat content. i did the same thing with the meat. if you have to remove the meat and filet it to make a nice even layer of meat, do so, it wont effect the finish ed product. I then heavily seasoned the meat with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, a traditional method i was told from a friend named Chris. I let that sit over night and then rolled each 1/2 head up with the rind on the outside and wrapped it in cheesecloth and tied it like a roast as tight as i could.
Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.