Toronto’s best new takeout experiences

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It’s been a year since anyone has eaten a juicy rib-eye or a bowl of impossibly fragrant Thai curry—or anything, for that matter—inside a packed Toronto restaurant, an experience once as central to life in this food-obsessed town as piling onto the streetcar at rush hour. (That, we don’t miss.) Since then, more than 10,000 restaurants have reportedly closed across Canada—hundreds in Toronto—taking countless jobs along with them. The rest continue to scrape by on a mix of takeout, delivery and outdoor dining, along with Covid relief funds and, if they’re lucky, flexible landlords.

But for all the red ink, the past year has also been one of mind-boggling reinvention and sweat-soaked resilience that deserve the highest of accolades. Take, for example, the creative and delicious ways Toronto’s restaurants have found to package the in-restaurant experience—from the food to the ambience—for home consumption, making our own four walls feel, if just for one meal, like the real deal. Here’s what top-tier takeout looks like right now.

More Toronto dining in 2021:

Pop-Ups and Pivots
Chefs, bakers and hobbyists used their time in lockdown, and the power of Instagram, to pursue their kitchen passion projects

Brave New Restaurants
Opening a restaurant in a pandemic takes patience, plenty of PPE and, above all, guts. Here, our favourite newcomers

For a dinner that creates its own mood

It’s easy enough, relatively speaking, to put together a five-course meal for takeout. It’s harder to package everything else that makes a restaurant meal feel like an escape: the lighting, the scents, the wine list, the music. So along with its weekly takeout meals, Lake Inez might throw in a thimble of aromatic essential oils for diffusing, or a candle to create that special-occasion feeling, along with a bottle of funky natural wine and a curated Spotify playlist that echoes its Little India dining room—from Billy Ocean to the Clash to RZA. It all works because the food is equally creative: chef Jay Moore has cooked everything from precise fine dining (at Ursa and Shoto) to no-nonsense barbecue (at J and J), so it’s not a stretch when he hops from a fried chicken picnic menu one week to an alpine spread of fondue, tartiflette, schnitzel and apple-almond streusel cake with cinnamon custard the next. Lakeinezto.com

 

For an almost-too-pretty-to-eat meal

There’s no way to truly replicate a kaiseki dining experience at home: it’s as much a style of service as a set of spectacular ingredients. But the culinary part can be conveyed through Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto’s exquisite care boxes, the prettiest takeout containers you’ve ever seen filled with eight courses, including a delicately carved dome of turnip encasing sweet rice and pork belly that simmered for four days; an orb of mashed taro root encrusted with dots of five-coloured rice cracker, filled with sautéed wagyu; and a show-stopping selection of sashimi with Hashimoto’s signature daikon crane. If the $300 price isn’t enough of a splurge, supplements like a jewel box of A5 wagyu beef, or a whole Shizuoka muskmelon, can be added. Kaiseki.ca

For an at-home wine bar experience

Jen Agg once said that the secret to her success is that she creates restaurants she’d want to frequent, serving food she wants to eat. So it’s no surprise that Grey Gardens now makes the perfect to-go wine bar experience. The changing, mostly pescatarian menu includes five gobsmackingly gorgeous dishes like blush-pink slices of kinmedai and tiny radish cubes with toasted kombu oil; slow-cooked salmon in a leek vinaigrette; and pineapple pie with an otherworldly miso-butterscotch crème anglaise. And the extras here are just that—extra: shrimp cocktail, duck sausage, a tin of sturgeon caviar with all the fixings. There’s wine, too—a collection of off-the-beaten-path bottles to choose from. Greygardens.oftendining.com

For a takeout tasting menu

Auberge du Pommier, the grande dame of the O&B empire, has been doing what it does best—flawless food and service—for over three decades. In the year of Covid, they channelled that expertise into impeccable experiences for at-home indulgence. Chef Tim Schulte’s changing menu includes dishes that are downright decadent: lightly seared coho salmon with a yuzu emulsion; tortellini in a Périgord truffle butter sauce; unctuous duck two ways (breast, ballotine) in a port wine jus. So, while it might be tempting, try not to fill up on the hunk of still-warm sourdough. For dessert, there are stunning creations from pastry chef Sarah Tsai, like a puck-sized macaron sandwiching matcha ganache and heavenly vanilla creme drizzled with cassis. There is no graceful way to eat it and that’s okay—nobody is watching. Aubergedupommier.com

For New Asian small plates

Nick Liu’s brasserie has always been popular for its flavour-packed sharing plates. And while it will be a minute before we can pass a plate of DaiLo’s Big Mac bao or truffle fried rice around a table in his dining room, we can at least bring the experience home to our own. Liu’s tasting menus are a delight: there’s always an amuse bouche (a miso-flavoured cloud of crab, for example), a starter (noodles with smoked mackerel), some dim sum bites and a main, like bulgogi-braised short ribs with tangy kimchi pomme purée and a sunny-side-up quail egg. Hand-warmers are sweetly attached to packages that contain hot dishes so they stay toasty on the way home. Exploretock.com/dailo

For multi-course Iberian meals

Pre-pandemic, Edulis was a go-to special-occasion restaurant—just landing a reservation was worth celebrating. Unsurprisingly, it remains one of the toughest tables in town, figuratively speaking. (The first Edulis at Home meal sold out in 12 hours.) Every week, Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth turn out an exciting menu of the French and Spanish small plates they’re famous for—black truffle gougères, milk-braised veal, John Dory cooked à la plancha. All of the touches remain: adorable stickers denote what’s in each box, and detailed plating notes are included. Take turns offering tableside service with your stay-at-home someone for next-level realness. Exploretock.com/edulis

For a to-go tapas bar experience

Regardless of the speed of the vaccine rollout, it’s going to be a while before we’re rushing to share small plates over cocktails in a packed tapas bar. In the meantime, College Street’s Bar Isabel, the city’s foremost landmark for communal Iberian dining, is packaging Spanish dinners that evoke sherry-soaked late-night meals in San Sebastian or Barcelona. The menu features Isabel standards like the sea bream ceviche, brimming with citrus acidity, ripe avocado richness and chili heat; and grilled Spanish octopus in a lemon-butter sauce. After a quick stint in the oven, it’s a revelation. (Who knew seafood could reheat so well?) A vanilla Basque cake is included for dessert, with sherry cream that needs to heat for a few minutes in a saucepan—and if pouring your own glaze over a piece of cake isn’t a brief cure for the late-winter doldrums, nothing will be. Exploretock.com/barisabel

For a working lunch worth relishing

It’s been a while since we all enjoyed a catered work lunch. Well, it’s time to relive those days—but at your own house and with way better sandwiches. In the before times, Donna’s was a perfect place to share some snacks and wine to the sound of vinyl spinning on their vintage turntable. Now, the Wallace Emerson bistro is turning out takeout meals, including the lunch platter for four, with a choice of salads, sandwiches and cookies. There’s a fried mushroom sandwich for vegetarians, another with house-made ham, and their masterpiece of shaved marinated roast beef, served on a Portuguese roll with parsnip, watercress and horseradish sauce. Eat it at your WFH desk for the full experience. Exploretock.com/donnas

For a five-star family meal

The great irony of pandemic dining is that top-echelon cooking—which once required jockeying for a reservation months in advance—can now be brought home for slightly more effort than ordering a pizza. Alo chef Patrick Kriss’s five-course menus strike a balance between precise tasting-menu fare and comfort food: the lineup might include Norwegian salmon sashimi and short-rib orecchiette with parm and hazelnuts one week, and smoky grilled prawns and roasted chicken draped in date jus another. Each meal comes with Alo’s signature pain au lait rolls. And for pandemic-fried parents, there’s an add-on for a kid’s entrée—your tot’s never dined like this before. Exploretock.com/alorestaurant

For a classic date night

Remember date night? It’s a thing that used to happen before the pandemic, when hiring a sitter, putting on nice clothes and booking a sensibly early dinner reservation were the keys to unlocking a romantic evening. Thankfully, it’s alive and well at Giulietta, where the weekly Date Night menu features chef Rob Rossi’s elegant takes on homestyle Italian. The four-course menu changes weekly, and might start with a classic fritto misto or burrata adorned with blood orange and hazelnuts. But it’s usually tough to top the pasta course (it is, after all, the world’s foremost love language). His pillowy gnocchi with braised rabbit is rustic Italian at its finest, and on one particularly romance-forward mid-February menu, he filled hand-rolled ravioli with ricotta under a heavy dusting of Umbrian black truffles. If that doesn’t help rekindle the flames after a year of partnered housebound sequestration, we’re all in trouble. Giu.ca

More on Toronto dining during the pandemic:

Pop-Ups and Pivots
Chefs, bakers and hobbyists used their time in lockdown, and the power of Instagram, to pursue their kitchen passion projects

Brave New Restaurants
Opening a restaurant in a pandemic takes patience, plenty of PPE and, above all, guts. Here, our favourite newcomers


This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.