Taste Great Grapes at Toronto's Top Wine Bars
By Neil Faba
On the surface, wine is a simple drink; it’s just fruit juice fermented into alcohol. But for countries around the world, wine is a matter of national pride and a major export. Different grapes thrive in different regions, and terroir – the soil and climate of a region –can make all the difference in the taste of a wine. Toronto’s best wine bars reflect the city’s diversity. While some specialize in the wines of a specific country or region, others offer the great wines grown right here in Ontario. Some Toronto wine bars are modelled after the enotecas of Italy, where the simple, fresh food is meant to pair ideally with what’s available in the glass. And with the recent introduction of the Enomatic, a machine that preserves the flavours and aromas of open wine bottles for several weeks after they’ve been uncorked, leading Toronto wine bars have begun offering vintages and varietals that wine lovers never dreamed of buying by the glass.
10 Biff's Bistro & Wine Bar
Biff's location on Front Street near the Hockey Hall of Fame, St. Lawrence Market and the financial district make this French bistro owned by Toronto's Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants group a popular choice with Torontonians and tourists alike. The décor and the carte are both classic French, with white tablecloths on the tables and dishes such as duck confit and grilled calf's liver on the plate. The prix fixe offers three courses for under $33, or dine in the bar if you're in the mood for fresh shucked oysters and hors d'oeuvres. The French are passionate about their wine, and Biff's wine list of choices by the glass, carafe and bottle offers diners the opportunity to taste grapes from around France, as well as Canada, California and other hot spots. (416-860-0086)
9 Blowfish Restaurant + Sake Bar
When they think wine bar, most people's minds conjure up a restaurant that serves a variety of reds, whites and sparkling. But in Japan, wine is sake, and like so much of Japanese cuisine, sake production is an art form. Blowfish combines a sleek and stylish downtown lounge vibe with the quality fish and creative dishes one expects of a high-end Japanese sushi bar. The concept has proven so popular in Toronto that Blowfish recently opened a second location on Bay Street in the financial district, in addition to its original west end location at King and Bathurst streets. Sample 16 sakes by ordering small tastes, or enjoy by the glass or bottle. There is also a long list of red, white and sparkling wines from around the globe by the glass or bottle to enjoy with makimono rolls or fusion-inspired dishes such as tuna tacos in wonton shells and panko-crusted chicken breasts with miso sauce. (416-860-0606)
8 Mercatto- College St.
Mercatto was the first restaurant in Toronto to use an Enomatic, when it installed one of the expensive wine-preserving machines in 2006. Today, the Italian mini-chain (there are three locations of Mercatto in Toronto, plus Trattoria Mercatto located in the Toronto Eaton Centre) is known almost as much for its wine selection as it is for its card of simple but delicious Italian food. Chef Doug Neigel's menu is a small but thoughtful selection of pastas such as the garganelli with rabbit ragu, pizzas, meat and fish mains, and charcuterie and cheese platters. Italy has 20 wine regions, and with more than 20 wines available by the glass, Mercatto can offer diners a different taste from each region. The restaurant's wine list also includes a long list of Italian wines by the bottle, from pizza-friendly wines to splurges like brunellos and tignanellos. (416-595-5625)
7 Reds Wine Tavern
Given its location inside First Canadian Place--Canada's tallest skyscraper--in Toronto's financial district, one would expect Reds to be an exclusive dining spot for those with expense accounts. But while the bistro and wine bar's clientele skew toward high-powered business people in designer suits, the food is approachable in both style and price. Appetizers include a charcuterie board, asparagus and scallops with truffle vinaigrette and goat cheese soufflé. For mains, none of which top the $40 mark, choose from a classic steak frites with béarnaise, jerk-marinated mahi mahi, or a simple but flavourful burger. It's clear that all the menu items, as well as the selection of 15 cheeses from Canada and around the world, are meant to pair well with wines from the 350-bottle cellar, or the more than 70 wines offered by the glass. Stop by Monday through Friday starting at 4 p.m. for select bottles at special prices. ((416) 862-7337)
6 Enoteca Sociale
The menu and vibe at Enoteca Sociale in Toronto's west end is built around the wine bars (enotecas) of Rome. The wine list offers more than 80 selections of red and white wines from around Italy, as well as a selection of some of the great wines produced in Ontario. And Enoteca Sociale's enomatic system allows the restaurant to offer diners the opportunity to sample glasses of rare wines normally only sold by the bottle. Similar to the enotecas in Rome, the menu focuses on simple, fresh dishes that pair with various wines. Cheese platters present cheeses aged at the restaurant paired with various accompaniments. A selection of piatti sociale, or dishes meant to be shared by the table, include fresh Ontario asparagus served with a duck egg, ricotta salata and anchovy vinaigrette, and grilled local perch with sausage and romesco. Carnivores can indulge in bistecca, beef grilled Tuscan-style. Or, opt for one of the restaurant's great house-made pastas, including the Roman classic cacio e pepe -- a simple but flavorful sauce of black pepper and cheese. (4165341200)
What wine pairs best with a hot dog? E11even, located near the Air Canada Centre -- home of the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL team, can help you answer that question. The menu at this unpretentiously stylish restaurant can be described as gourmet comfort food. The aforementioned hot dog is a premium all-beef frank, served with a devilled egg and coleslaw. There's also a lobster roll made with fresh meat from Nova Scotia's finest crustaceans. Smaller plates include a kobe meatball and double-cut bacon with a maple sherry glaze. Or, opt for something lighter, like one of the salads, or one of the substantial cuts off the steak and chops menu. The restaurant's enomatic means 40 wines are constantly on offer by the glass, and E11even's enormous cellar holds 3200 bottles. E11even is an ideal choice for a bite before the hockey game, or for a night out with friends,food and wine. (416-815-1111)
4 Swirl Wine Bar
What do you get when you combine the hush-hush location of a speakeasy with décor that blends vintage and slightly feminine touches, and then throw in a solid list of wines by the glass, half-litre and bottle? You get Swirl, one of Toronto's coziest wine bars. Tucked away on the second floor of a Leslieville building on the city's east side, everything about Swirl -- from the vibe to the service -- feels as though you've been invited into someone's cool apartment to share food and drinks with them. Food is simple but fun, with almost everything available in small jars, from the duck rillettes with brandy. to the stilton, caramelized apple and goat cheese spread. Even desserts are baked and served in the same small jars. For bigger appetites, there are charcuterie and cheese plates. And everything is meant to be enjoyed with the wines selected from Canada and around the world. (647-351-5453)
3 Crush Wine Bar
Even before her appearance on Top Chef Canada, chef Trista Sheen was drawing crowds to Crush for her food. The restaurant on Toronto's trendy King Street West features a menu that draws on French bistro classics and simple farmhouse-style fare. Start with roasted bone marrow paired with a fennel parsley salad and gremolata, or a tartare selection that changes daily. Then, choose from mains that include Ontario lamb saddle with ratatouille and a fresh eggplant tomato "lasagna" with buffalo ricotta. Befitting a place with "wine bar" in its name, Crush offers more than 600 labels, with more than 60 selections available by the glass. Diners can also order wine flights, with selections chosen by the sommelier to showcase different examples of the same style, including sparkling, old world whites and Niagara rieslings. (416- 977-1234)
When chefs Chris McDonald and Doug Penfold opened Cava in 2006, it created an immediate buzz by offering a food experience not commonly seen in Toronto -- tapas. Many items on the restaurant's frequently changing menu reflect what you might find at a tapas bar in Barcelona or Madrid, like grilled squid with potatoes and romesco. Other dishes draw from the kitchen's experience with Asian, French and Italian cooking. As one might expect from a restaurant named after a popular type of Spanish bubbly, Cava's wine list offers an impressive variety. There are 40 cavas, sherries, reds and whites available by the glass, and more than 200 by the bottle from Spain and other wine regions of the world. A great place to enjoy a glass after work with a bowl of Cava's famous chipotle-caramel popcorn, or for a leisurely dinner of small plates and great wines. (416-979-9918)
1 Wine Bar
The St. Lawrence Market area in Toronto is a foodie's paradise and the perfect location for this tapas restaurant with the freshest of ingredients. Although "tapas" and "Spain" go together like Toronto and the CN Tower, chef Bryan Burke has put an Ontario spin on the small plates concept. The food is naturally raised and local, raised by Ontario farmers and artisans. Bryan has trained in different locations around the world and his global experience influences the local dishes. For example, the Butter Chicken Poutine has just enough Canadian heaviness with a slow cooked chicken that will satiate rather than stuff. The lobster mac and cheese is also a winner, as are the goat cheese chocolate truffles. The food is inventive and the restaurant provides a coziness that will inspire you to linger over each bite.
About Neil Faba
Born and raised in the suburbs, Neil Faba lived his teen years as a somewhat reluctant resident of the Greater Toronto Area. He then spent a decade living in different Canadian cities: Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, then Winnipeg in the Prairies. But as Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Meeting the love of his life and missing his family eventually drew Neil home to Toronto. Now, he’s dedicated to rediscovering the amazing things his city has to offer and sharing those discoveries with others, through the blog he runs with his wife and 10best.com.
Read more about Neil Faba here.