01. ATLANTICA

Beach House, 38 Beachy Cove Rd., Portugal Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador, 709-895-1251, atthebeachhouse.ca/atlantica

Just finding the place is a bit of an accomplishment. Although it’s tempting to turn at the signpost leading to “Paradise,” keep driving and you’ll find another kind of paradise further down the road.

After being led into the dining room at the Beach House hotel in tiny Portugal Cove, with the French doors closed behind, you feel like you’ve been admitted into a secret society. Tall windows frame steep cliffs plunging into Conception Bay, and with the tide rolling in, it can seem like the whole res­taurant is sailing. When the room is full, which is often, there is a hushed, contented buzz. This is a grown-up restaurant, but that’s not to say it’s stuffy or inaccessible or avant-garde. It simply serves beautiful food in a professional way – think apple and celery salad with almonds and Parmesan, roast mushroom soup with truffle cream – with maximum flavour coaxed from each component. It’s a concept that’s either very old or very new.

Atlantica is a homecoming of sorts for its abundantly talented chef, Jeremy Charles. Originally from St. John’s, Charles left to pursue his training in Montreal, where he worked with Claude Pelletier, now of Le Club Chasse et Pêche (number three in our 2005 survey). After stints as a private chef for the Molson and Bronfman families, he worked in the kitchens of L.A. and Chicago. But he has now come home to bring all of his training and experience to bear on this seaside restaurant, creating something unexpected and, frankly, enchanting.

His menu is compact and tightly edited: A thick fillet of cod, glistening with moisture, balances richness with acidity and a touch of sweet from the preserved lemon zest. The aromatics in a long-simmered veal ragout add deep complexity and flavour that evolves with each bite. The chef’s mother provided the recipe for the carrot cake with butter pecan ice cream, raising the bar for carrot cake and possibly for mothers.

The crew of Atlantica runs a very tight ship.



02. KINGYO IZAKAYA

871 Denman St., Vancouver, 604-608-1677

Walking into the room is like stumbling across a remote Japanese temple that happens to be hosting a rollicking party. There are loud greetings at the front door, followed by interactive cocktails and dangerous foods. Then two frozen grapes on tall skewers in a bud vase appear and it’s over. Time flies when you’re having this much fun.

Chef and owner Minoru Tamaru has a playful approach and a fine-tuned palate, elevating the izakaya – a.k.a. Japanese pub – experience exponentially. Cocktails set the tone. Nama Grepefruits (sic) Wari is presented with a whole split grapefruit and a juicer. Half is reamed tableside, and the remainder is left behind for self-administering. Japanese Childhood Memory Tickling Soda with Shochu involves a penguin-shaped glass soda bottle that carbonates on impact. Just try it.

If this were a search for Canada’s most dangerous new restaurant, Kingyo would be a shoo-in. Open flames and sharp twigs are only some of the perils that await. Thin slices of beef tongue are presented alongside a lava-hot boulder for searing the meat. (It may be the second most fun you can have with tongue.) The kitchen revels in esoteric ingredients, boasting salt from Utah, the Himalayas and Japan, designer rice, barley-fed pork and fresh wasabi. The menu is lengthy and equally adventurous: Cheese agedashi – tempura mozzarella in a light broth – sounds like a hot mess but actually works. Pork cheeks, more tender and less fatty than the ubiquitous belly, are revelatory.

Kingyo is a royally good time.



03. SALT TASTING ROOM

45 Blood Alley, Vancouver, 604-633-1912, salttastingroom.com

It takes guts to open a restaurant without a kitchen on a street known as Blood Alley and then decorate it like a prison cafeteria. Salt has guts in spades, and not just in the sausage. Somehow the brick walls and cement floor create a sense of coziness. The crowd of tattooed hipsters, yummy mommies and the occasional hobo add colour, as does the playlist: Expect to hear Peter Bjorn and John and Sparklehorse.

Grilled sandwiches and soup are available, but mostly, this is how it works: The back wall is a large blackboard with the day’s selection of meats, cheeses and condiments listed in neat handwriting. Choose three items from each category. That’s it. If that’s too daunting, the staff will pick for you.

It might be something as pure as local honeycomb or tree-ripened apricots or charcuterie from the magnificent Oyama Sausage Company or the legendary Salumi (founded by Mario Batali’s dad). An international selection of ripe cheese is balanced with local offerings. There’s a list of some 50 wines ranging from bubbles to dessert along with cane cola and birch beer, which pair surprisingly well with this style of eating.

Salt may be refined, but it still rocks.



04. BISTRO BIENVILLE

4650, rue de Mentana, Montréal, 514-509-1269, bistrobienville.com

This is exactly the kind of food we would all cook at home if we could. The lobster burger alone would have guaranteed chefs Sébastien Harrison-Cloutier and Jean-François Cormier a spot on the list. Served on an immaculate little sesame seed bun, it is a textural tour de force of soft lobster, crunchy cornichons and slippery lashings of mayo. The delights don’t stop there, however: An octopus salad with a tomato emulsion features tender du Puy lentils and clean, distinct flavours. Even the parsley tastes good.

Nathalie Grégoire owns this pocket-size bistro on a residential street in Montreal’s restaurant-rich Plateau neighbourhood. The menu is brief, just eight items, and straightforward. A little nubbin of Angus beef gilds a cool, rich potato salad topped with salsa verde. An entire loup de mer for two rests atop Israeli couscous (the caviar of couscous), accompanied by the most delicious cherry tomatoes – split, served raw and popping with flavour.

No neighbourhood, no city, no country, for that matter, can have too many delicious, casual little spots as good as this.



05. COLBORNE LANE

45 Colborne St., Toronto, 416-368-9009, colbornelane.com

Chef Claudio Aprile (formerly of Senses) has the confidence to create elaborate dishes that approach but never quite go over the top. Venison crudo with pickled oyster mushrooms, palm sugar dressing, golden beets and watercress resembles a still life and tastes like a surprise party. His prawn ceviche partners with two aiolis – squid ink and saffron – that bring a soft creaminess to balance out the bright acidity.

Manicured women in expensive dresses dine with men sporting flashy watches, and even the staff resemble hedge fund managers in their crisp, striped shirts. Still, there is an egalitarian air to the restaurant, and a communal table anchors the room. The post-apocalyptic-chic esthetic leaves the brick raw and the beams rough. The expensive wine list is mollified by a good selection of wines by the glass, and a range of sake options points to that libation’s ability to pair well with complex dishes. Cheesecake comes as a surprise for this ambitious kitchen, but the passion fruit gelée and sweet curry anglaise reinterpret this suburban standard for an urbane audience.