Walk (or stumble) into Taste of China at 2 a.m. on a Monday and you’ll likely find a packed house of chefs reaching over each other to snag another crab leg, extra hoisin sauce for the Peking duck, or a hunk of spiced-and-salted pork. The place has been a chefs’ hangout since it opened 14 years ago, and we wanted to know everyone’s favourite dish. But while we were taking recommendations, we figured we’d also ask who in the industry was due a little extra attention—because making consistently kick-ass food isn’t easy, and chefs don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Then we got those awesome-but-underrated chefs together, assembled a Taste of China greatest-hits meal, and let them order all the beer they could want.
Who: Rudy Boquila (above right, nominated by Basilio Pesce of Porzia)
Where: Lamesa Filipino Kitchen
How long in the biz: 18 years
Why: When Lamesa opened in May 2012, some of us were hoping that it would mark the beginning of a Filipino food revolution. We’re not quite there yet—most Torontonians still think halo halo is a video game (it’s a dessert of shaved ice and evaporated milk with fruits and beans, folks). But Boquila’s interpretation of modern Filipino food, with its emphasis on French technique, seasonal ingredients, and elegant presentation, caters to appetites craving more culinary diversity and busts open the notion that Southeast Asian eats have to be cheap, greasy, and unrefined. On June 5, Boquila hosts a dinner at Lamesa where he’s cooking his family favourites, which diners will eat off banana leaves with their hands. And yes, you can also order halo halo here.
Who: Doug Penfold (second from left, nominated by Albert Ponzo of Le Sélect Bistro)
How long in the biz: 20+ years
Why: Tucked away in a midtown plaza next to Bruno’s Fine Foods and a Second Cup, the Spanish restaurant Cava is unassuming—just like the humble Penfold and his small plates that pack major flavour. And though sister chocolateria Xococava has closed, the chef doesn’t exactly have extra time on his hands: For four weeks starting May 30, Penfold and his Cava co-owner, Chris McDonald, will trade Iberian cuisine for Scandinavian with their King of Denmark culinary installation.
Who: Charlotte Langley (nominated by Zane Caplansky of Caplansky’s Delicatessen)
How long in the biz: Seven years
Why: As an East Coaster, Langley started her fishy love affair early in life. She spent seven years cooking in Ottawa, including a run at The Whalesbone Oyster House, before moving to Toronto last November. She’s been the head chef at Catch for barely a month—Langley was lured (get it?) from the Atlantic, where she worked magic with trout—and is the midst of creating new dishes, as well as making the menu completely sustainable (right now, everything is except the lobster). Pop by the St. Clair West fish house mid-June to see what she’s come up with.
Dave Sidhu and Tom Thai
Who: Dave Sidhu (nominated by Nuit Regular of Sukhothai)
Where: Playa Cabana/Playa Cabana Cantina/Playa Cabana Hacienda
How long in the biz: 19 years
Why: Around since 2011—just before the carnitas craze started—Sidhu’s soft shells may have been overshadowed by some of the more recent taco pushers (you know who you are). But if celebrity sightings mean anything (and they mean everything), Sidhu’s Dupont Mexican resto is worth its margarita salt—the kitchen has fed the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Claire Danes, and Rick Mercer. The more drinks-focused Playa Cabana Cantina opened this past December in the Junction, and a third and even bigger Playa (Hacienda) is already in the works, right around the corner from the original restaurant. Consider lining up for it now.
Who: Tom Thai (nominated by Anthony Walsh of Oliver & Bonacini)
How long in the biz: 26 years
Why: Open for six years, Foxley was part of the Ossington strip before that strip got crazy trendy. The mild-mannered and modest Thai has managed to keep his restaurant afloat with very few changes to the ceviche-rich menu (we’re partial to the scallop and the sea bream) and without any help from social media (he doesn’t tweet, and Foxley is website-less). Thai has hinted at the possibility of opening a new place that would depart from Foxley’s approach—if that happens, he’ll doubtlessly pack the house without the use of a single @ or #.
Fabio Bondi (left), Chris Jang, and Amancio dos Santos
Who: Fabio Bondi (nominated by Matty Matheson of Parts & Labour)
Where: Local Kitchen & Wine Bar/Bar Salumi
How long in the biz: 10 years
Why: There was no shortage of rustic Italian restaurants in the city when the dimly lit, 30-seat Local opened on the quieter western edge of Parkdale in 2009. But what made chef Bondi’s food instantly stand out was his approach to southern Italian cooking: sourcing locally whenever possible for his house-cured meats and stuffing his pasta with whatever produce is in season (right now, lots of ramps, wild celery, and asparagus). The chef is currently experimenting with northern Italian dishes, which are generally richer, creamier, and buttery-er, so good thing it’s now warm enough to walk off the meal.
Who: Chris Jang (nominated by Hans Vogels of Momofuku Noodle Bar)
Where: A-OK Foods
How long in the biz: Four years
Why: This snack shop specializing in ramen opened right on the heels of Toronto’s noodle boom last year, when it seemed like a new izakaya was popping up every week. But Jang’s menu sets itself apart by folding Chinese, Korean, and Mexican flavours into the mix. He makes his own ramen in a temperature-controlled glass room (the better for diners to gawk at) and uses chicken rather than pork bones to flavor his broth—partly because it yields a lighter taste, but also because the kitchen is too small to butcher a pig. “He’s cooking food that I crave,” says Hans Vogels. “He’s very traditional with some things, but he’ll play around with others. Not long ago, I had chile rellenos at A-OK and it was epic.”
Who: Amancio dos Santos (Nominated by Chris Jang of A-OK Foods)
Where: Hoof Raw Bar/Hoof Café
How long in the biz: Seven years
Why: Imagine the heat dos Santos must have felt this past January, when he was put in charge of brunch at the reopened Hoof Café, which had become mega-successful under departed chef Geoff Hopgood. Or when he then took over duties at Raw Bar, after Jonathan Pong went his own way. Comparisons were inevitable, but dos Santos has unquestionably made the dishes his own. At the Café, people are devouring his mouth-watering veal sweetbreads and waffles with jalapeño butter, as well as the Bombay Hash of fried potatoes and chaat masala, a nod to his Indian heritage. Change is good, and dos Santos shows it.
Who: Rachel Pellett (right, nominated by Michael Steh of The Chase)
Where: Emma’s Country Kitchen
How long in the biz: Just over 10 years
Why: The George Brown–trained chef worked as a caterer for many years and helped launch the brunch service at The Stockyards before opening her own restaurant on the same stretch of road. This homey Corso Italia breakfast and lunch spot, co-owned by Pellett with Heather Mee, is kept busy with locals—the St. Clair West neighbourhood makes up 75 per cent of ECK’s weekday business. However, thanks to a recent win on The Food Network’s Donut Showdown, more and more customers are making the pilgrimage to gnaw on house-made buttermilk biscuits, cinnamon French toast, and, of course, donuts.
Who: Noah Goldberg (centre, nominated by Carl Heinrich of Richmond Station)
Where: Most recently The Feasting Room
How long in the biz: Six years
Why: Goldberg caught the attention of adventurous diners last spring when he opened the experimental and easy-to-miss Feasting Room. Operating out of the cramped second-floor music club The Orbit Room, he chose a different animal each week for six months, creating a robust tasting menu using almost all of that animal’s parts. One week it was pork, another, rabbit, the next, buffalo, then on to birds like partridge and quail. “It was never meant to be longer than those six months,” he explains. “It was to test if my food had a market.” It sure did, and now Goldberg is searching for a more permanent place to continue his concept—though he promises he’ll be adding a vegetable or two to the list of weekly protein.
Who: Sarah Bell and Allyson Bobbitt (nominated by Judson Flom of Leslieville Pumps)
Where: Bobbette & Belle
How long in the biz: 12 years for Bell, seven years for Bobbitt
Why: Pastry chefs often get shafted when it comes to media attention— when was the last time you heard a baker in the city being called a celebrity chef or an enfant terrible? But that doesn’t faze Bobbitt and Bell, who are known for their beautiful confections (spicy ginger cookies, marshmallows covered in toasted coconut) made with military precision. “All of their products look like an army of elves spent hours on each one,” says Judson Flom. The women met while teaching at a confectionary cooking school in 2006 and four years later opened their Leslieville patisserie, where business is equally booming between custom orders and retail—so much so that they’re looking to open a second retail space soon.
EIGHT TASTES OF CHINA
1. Clams with black-bean sauce ($10.50)
The Endorsement: “There’s a brininess and a little sweetness to the razor clams, which, when cooked properly, are tender with a bit of snap in terms of texture. I’ve been going here for years with fellow cooks from Yours Truly, Nota Bene, and Scarpetta, so it’s definitely a cook’s hangout.”—Lachlan Culjak, Yours Truly
2. Peking duck with crispy skin and mandarin pancakes
The Endorsement: “It’s a beautiful dish that’s very reminiscent of Lai Wah Heen’s duck. Even though it’s not the healthiest thing, the flavours are clean and not greasy. I don’t like a lot of fat in my food and I don’t have a pork-belly tattoo, but this remains my guilty pleasure.”—Claudio Aprile, Origin
3. Pork cheek with king oyster mushrooms (pictured on table below, special order; $14)
The Endorsement: “It’s been a staff favourite for a while now. It’s so fatty and greasy and salty and sweet and crunchy.”—Jen Agg, The Black Hoof
4. Salted and spiced pork loin (above at left, $9)
The Endorsement: “My girlfriend and I order it almost once a week. It helps absorb the booze and there’s a bit of umami taste, which is extremely savoury, and the salt and spice are just right. It’s crispy and pleasantly chewy on the outside, and some pieces still have the bone, so you can just rip off the tendon with your mouth.”—Matthew Sullivan, Boxed Toronto
5. Deep-fried squid with garlic pepper (above at right, $10.50)
The Endorsement: “When it’s 1 a.m., I try to avoid deep-fried things, but I love the forbidden pleasure of this dish. It’s nice and crispy on the outside but really soft on the inside. I like food that’s not overly sauced, and the salt and pepper just bring out the flavour of the calamari.”—Zane Caplansky, Caplansky’s Delicatessen
6. Special fried rice with crab on lotus leaf in a bamboo steamer (top right above, market price)
The Endorsement: “Curt Martin from THR & Co. introduced this to me. It’s a fun, social dish—gnawing on crab legs with a bunch of friends. There’s usually a two-and-a-half pound Dungeness crab dripping in butter and garlic, so there’s a very intense flavour. The crab juice drips on to the rice and there’s also roe that you mix in. It’s an affordable dish for cooks, because the crab is usually $30 or so and can feed three people.”—Cory Vitiello, The Harbord Room
7. Stir-fried snow pea leaves (top centre above, $12.50)
The Endorsement: “Everything about this side dish is super crunchy, light, salty, garlicky—it’s freaking awesome. I love Chinese greens, and this has a snap to it as well as some flavour from the water in the pea shoots.”—Alexander Molitz, Farmhouse Tavern
8. Crispy beef with XO chili sauce (middle left above, $11)
The Endorsement: “There’s that corn starch-y crispness to the beef and a bit of sweet XO sauce that’s almost like General Tsao’s Chicken. It’s one of those regular things I’d order when I just want a plate of deep-fried stuff.”—Geoff Hopgood, Hopgood’s Foodliner
Taste of China, 338 Spadina Ave., 416-348-8828.