Even though we couldn’t crisscross the country like we have since 2002, we still want to celebrate some of the exciting new restaurants that opened this year. Yes, this year. While Covid–19 has forced many to close, other restaurants and bars have opened despite it all, ploughing ahead with long–incubated plans or simply jumping into the fray. These restaurants illustrate what happens when imagination and moxie collide – and it’s hard not to be inspired. So, bundle up on a heated patio or pick up a meal and a bottle (or two) to take home. Right now, restaurants need us just as much as we need them. And we are happy to report that this year we can still eat extremely well, from sea to shining sea. Just like we always have.
Meet the intrepid chefs and entrepreneurs who dared to open their doors (and our palates) this year.
Taverne Bernhardt’s, Toronto
Opened August 19
How does the saying go? When one door closes another opens? That’s exactly what happened with the duo behind Dreyfus – one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2019 – and now Taverne Bernhardt’s (Zachary Kolomeir and Carmelina Imola, along with new partner Dan Dooreck). Closing the popular Harbord Street restaurant until they can better reevaluate the situation has meant they can extend the hours at Bernhardt’s (where the menu is more takeout–friendly), creating more shifts for their Dreyfus staff – and more great food for the rest of us. There are Ontario–raised rotisserie chickens with gravy and fries, which is what chicken would taste like if your Bubbie cooked at St. Hubert’s. The chalkboard menu of oft–changing sides may include the nutty sweetness of squash with lentils, tahini and seeds, or fried Brussels sprouts and pickled apples. (Much of the produce comes from Matty Matheson’s Blue Goose Farm.) Plump gougeres are full of silky babaganoush so smoky it’s as if the eggplant came right off the campfire. For his part, Dooreck (late of La Banane) puts up an enticing list of organic and biodynamic wines from small producers. Though Kolomeir notes we’re all in for a pretty bleak winter, he also sees a pandemic upside: “I think it’s making us all better businesspeople,” he says. “Better communicators and more dynamic, versatile, empathetic and responsible leaders.” And as if that weren’t enough, there’s always pie for dessert.
Koenji Whisky Bar, Prince Edward County, Ontario
Opened June 17
Koenji is named after a suburban district in Tokyo that’s known for its alternative youth culture and izakayas. Being from Mexico, chef and owner Samantha Valduvia knows a thing or two about vibrant cultures and great food (last year she opened La Condessa, a popular taqueria in Wellington). “Our initial vision for Koenji was to have a late–night bar with small Japanese plates,” says Valduvia. “But due to Covid–19, we switched to more of a restaurant model that serves food until late.” Prinsville beef tataki is seared to rare with flashes of sweet potato, avocado and ponzu. The okonomiyaki (a savoury Japanese pancake) is flecked with Hannover Farms pork, cabbage and fluttering bonito flakes. “We are facing an uncertain future as an industry, but I am confident,” says Valduvia. “In Prince Edward County, people are making a point of ordering take–out a couple of times a week to keep supporting us, so I think we’ll make it through!”
Opened August 8
For me, the Caribbean conjures up white sand and turquoise water; rum drinks, reggae and dancing till dawn. (Whoa, somebody needs a vacation!) But, of course, it’s so much more than that. And you can taste it at Kamúy, where chef–owner Paul Toussaint (late of Agrikol) celebrates the islands, from Haiti to Afro–Caribbean culture. Located in the Quartier des Spectacles at the centre of Place–des–Arts, the long, angular glass structure fits right in, almost like a colourful meteor. (Though the kitchen has temporarily relocated to the Paul Toussaint location in the TimeOut Market, a dozen blocks west along rue Ste–Catherine.) Toussaint puts out baskets of fritay (Haitian fried food) like the yuca trio: pan de yucca, enyucado and sweet and spicy kasav. It’s a riot of crunch that tastes both spontaneous and spiced by tradition. The signature jerk chicken is obviously something you want to eat, but don’t miss the goat curry with polenta, and sweet plantains and guava for dessert. Tropical cocktails make a solid showing, and the Corossol Colada in particular will put you on Island time.
Opened October 8
Owner Nick Suche says the original concept for Orchard was a lush dining experience in the heart of the city that would strike a balance between luxurious and accessible. Now that it’s open, he thinks the reality is pretty close to the vision, “but with a few extra acrylic barriers.” Suche co–owns the soaring space with chef Jenny Kang (late of Shokunin) and her husband Andrew Denhamer, who’s the food and beverage director. The restaurant’s massive windows, dozens of chandeliers and hanging natural plants lend it an almost Mediterranean escapist vibe – from the base of a luxury residential project in downtown Calgary. Chef Kang gilds Italian and Middle Eastern classics with pan–Asian touches, and it works. Linguine vongole benefits from bonito flakes, salmon crudo features furikake, and the sweet potatoes come with kimchi aioli. But you know how all great restaurants have one signature dish that’s on every table? Here it’s Kang’s cheese–stuffed garlic bread: luxurious and accessible.
Bar Gobo, Vancouver
Opened August 19
Andrea Carlson, Vancouver Magazine’s 2020 Chef of the Year, has launched a snack bar for these times. Small victories deserve Beausoleil oysters, and anchovy toast – a stack of Armenian crackers slathered in briny anchovy butter. There’s sesame tofu, duck rillette, and organic beef tartare with miso, pickled charred onion and uni mayo. All of these snacks are roaring for wine. “We’re in love with the 2018 vintage of Jean Foillard’s Morgon Cuvée Eponym,” says sommelier Peter Van de Reep. “Foillard was one of the pioneers of natural wine, and the Eponym is from a high elevation plot, giving the wine finesse and elegance.” (I miss sommeliers.) Carlson says they’re grateful for every guest who comes through the door and hopes that key government supports like the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy, the relaxation of patio restrictions, to–go sales of bottles and wholesale liquor pricing in B.C. will be extended or made permanent to help restaurants survive. “We need all the help we can get,” she says. By keeping the wine flowing, we can all help keep the lights on.
Aunty Lucy’s Burgers, Toronto
Opened July 15
It started as a four–day popup in December with plans to do more in the summer, pivoted to become a ghost kitchen and then landed a permanent home at The Annex Hotel. “I was born in Ghana, so I wanted to showcase Ghanaian culture, a love of burgers and a love for music,” says Aunty Lucy’s owner Chieff Bosompra. The Kumasi burger, a 4–oz beef patty topped with American cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato and Lucy’s sauce, is named after the city in Ghana where Bosompra’s dad is from. It tastes just like a fresher Big Mac – the highest compliment I can give a burger. “Kelewele is a very popular street food in Ghana,” he says, as I pop the soft, sweet, caramelized pieces of garlicky plantain into my mouth, and it reminds me that the simple act of eating can be a glorious education. The Nima (named after an impoverished town in Accra) is a fried chicken sandwich with mango scotch bonnet and garlic sauces, created by Top Chef Canada competitor and consulting chef, Adrian Forte. “During the summer we’d see people on the patio Shazam–ing songs on our Spotify playlist, because it’s different from most restaurants,” says Bosompra. An irresistible mix of Ghanaian highlife, Afrobeats, R&B and hip hop has blossomed into Aunty Lucy’s mega playlist – some 30 hours of downloadable music you can find at their website. “For every space we move into we bring our own energy and ecosystem,” says Bosompra. That’s how they’ve created something that is both incredibly familiar and totally unique.
Naramata Inn, Naramata, B.C.
Opened June 29 (Inn opened June 5)
You know the “How it Started, How it’s Going” meme? Imagine you’re one of four partners who buy a century–old hotel in the Okanagan, in February 2020. Some landscaping and paint, you figure, and you can open her up by May. But then the pandemic heats up, you end up investing in a new kitchen, renovating the dining room and the guest rooms – all without knowing when (or if) you’ll be able to launch. That’s how it started. But with the combined skills of partners Ned Bell, Kate Colley, Paul Hollands and Maria Wiesner, in June a stately new classic was born. That’s how it’s going. “We have eyes on every farmer, rancher, orchardist, gardener, fisher and artisan in the area,” says chef Bell. His menu reads like a B.C. fever dream: The dry–aged Fraser Valley duck namedrops everything from Jerome’s kale and Jordan’s carrots to Venturi Schulze balsamic jus. The shellfish chowder is an elegant vintage bowl full of Jerome’s potatoes, foraged sumac, Ocean Wise wild sablefish, mussels and cream. “We’re in a unique position here in Naramata,” says Colley. “And we’re not taking our good fortune for granted.”
The Lunch Lady, Vancouver
Opened July 1
When Anthony Bourdain visited Ms. Nguyen Thanh’s plastic–stooled food cart on a sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City, he practically cried over her soups. “It’s like discovering new neighbourhoods every few mouthfuls,” he said. Now Ms. Thanh is a stakeholder in Vancouver’s Lunch Lady, with owner Michael Tran and his mother Victoria, who visited Vietnam, became friends with Ms. Thanh and bought the trademarks to her recipes and the Lunch Lady name. “We had planned to have the lunch lady herself fly to Vancouver to help with the opening in February,” says Michael Tran. Obviously, those plans changed. But they opened in July to lineups out the door. There’s a different Lunch Lady soup for every day of the week, just like in Ho Chi Minh City. Chef Benedict Lim complements the lunchtime soups, like Friday’s bun bo hue (sliced beef, Vietnamese ham and thick vermicelli noodles in a spicy lemongrass pork broth), with his own dishes for dinner, such as luscious Steak luc lac, pieces of marinated rib–eye cooked sous vide, then hard–seared in butter. Saturday’s lunchtime banh canh cua was one of Bourdain’s favourites, a rich crab and pork broth, loaded with pork, shrimp, crab and chewy tapioca noodles. The man had great taste.
Ferme Bika, Saint–Blaise–sur–Richelieu, Quebec
Opened July 26
“The whole philosophy of this project is to create a sustainable environment where the dining experience has an educational approach,” says Ferme Bika chef and owner Fisun Ercan. The restaurant on a Merchant Ivory–worthy farm about an hour south of Montreal is all about zero waste and supporting local eco–responsible farmers and fishermen, while also being a shining example of self–sufficiency. Ercan prefers that guests come to the table for an immersive experience, rather than for celebratory meals. “There are plenty of other restaurants where you can celebrate birthdays and weddings,” she says. Her menu is in step with the farm setting and mission statement. The zero waste pancakes are savoury flapjacks with bits of fennel leaves, the greens of leeks and herb stems thrown into the batter and served with black garlic yogurt. A warm salad is made from ember–cooked eggplant, Genovese zucchini, long red sweet peppers and a dressing of green blueberry verjus, fresh mint and olive oil. Sustainably caught halibut is poached in herb stock, served on sorrel purée and finished with za’atar and local organic sunflower oil. And why not use house–made wood–fired pita to wipe the plate clean? Zero waste indeed.
Opened October 19
When I lived in Halifax for a shining moment in the mid–nineties, there was nothing around like the Hermitage. Then again, chef Lawrence Deneau, Ryan Wolfe and Bryan Tanaka, the same team behind Julep Kitchen and Cocktails, weren’t yet around. The East Coast bubble means socially distant indoor dining is still possible, so people can enjoy Deneau’s menu hot from the kitchen on actual plates (remember plates?). There’s even the option for a chef–led 10–course tasting menu. To that end, Old World inspiration meets East Coast ingredients in dishes like Nova Scotia pork belly with white bean puree and vinaigrette Provençal, and tourtière ravioli with Hermitage ricotta. There are nods to area wineries – a riesling from the Gaspereau Valley, a chardonnay from Wolfville – and the cocktails sound drop–dead delicious. When I eventually make it back to Halifax I may order the “Truffled” Penicillin, a single malt scotch with truffled creamed Nova Scotia honey. There’s the option to upgrade the scotch with a Laphroig 25–year. It costs $200, but is served in a ‘Titanic’ NovaScotian Crystal glass that’s yours to take home. It’s both a keepsake and another great takeaway from a restaurant scene that continues to evolve, inspire and feed us. In this year, of all years.