Zane Caplansky on Where to Eat in Toronto
Since opening on the second floor of Little Italy's Monarch Tavern in 2008, Caplansky's Deli has almost singlehandedly revived Toronto's Jewish deli scene, largely thanks to owner Zane Caplansky's unique take on smoked meat.
Later this year, the standalone location on College and Brunswick will celebrate its fifth anniversary, and Caplansky has further plans for world domination, at least within Ontario. His food truck, Thunderin' Thelma, will be serving up deli fare throughout the Greater Toronto Area all summer, and two more delis are opening soon at the Toronto airport. But where does Caplansky go when he's in the mood for something different? Luckily, he was nice enough to share some of his favorite spots in Canada's chief city with us.
Pho: I always get the special at Pho Linh. They have two specials: a weekday and a weekend, and regardless of what day of the week it is I go, I always get whatever that special is. On the weekend, it's a spicy Vietnamese noodle soup, and during the week it's also a spicy Vietnamese noodle soup, but a different style. The place is owned and run by Vietnamese people, and is full of Vietnamese people. I find the flavors really, really strong and incredibly consistent. It's as completely unpretentious a restaurant as you're ever gonna find.
Dim Sum: My go-to dim sum restaurant is Sky Dragon on the fourth floor of the Sky Dragon Mall in Chinatown. It's not the best dim sum, but it has the most spectacular views of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the OCAD buildings. It's an incredible Toronto experience—you really feel like you're immersed in this cross section of multiculturalism. Crown Princess, just south of Bloor, is a very over-the-top, decorated place, and the food is very good, but the experience is better at Sky Dragon. For even better dim sum, the Premiere Ballroom & Convention Centre in Richmond Hill has classic, French baroque, just way over-the-top decor, and the food is outstanding, it's the most exquisite dim sum experience that I've ever had.
Middle Eastern: At Jerusalem Restaurant, I always get the same thing, the Maza Plate, which has babaganoush, hummus, falafel, pita, hot sauce, and some pickles, and it's a like a meal into itself. I'll usually get some lamb skewers and some rice as well and it'll be way too much food. My favorite falafel place, King Falafel, is run by a Palestinian family, and it's perfect. The falafel is crispy and they use the puffier, softer Israeli style of pita instead of the Greek. Their hot sauce is hot, their hummus is delicious and creamy and fresh, and the vegetables are always perfect. It always explodes out of the bottom and goes all over my shirt!
Greek: I went with some chef friends to Greek Grill, and the first thing I told the waiter was, "bring us a saganaki." Flaming cheese with a shot of ouzo is a great way to start any meal. The food was exceptional; they have the calamari, the quail, the lamb, the pork, and the gyro plate. They did a deep fried zucchini that was spectacular. We had their tzatziki, taramasalata, and a red pepper dip plate; all three of them were great with strong flavors. I've never had good service in Greece, and I've never had good service in a good Greek restaurant. If the service is good, you know they're making up for the bad food. All four of us walked out reeking of garlic, and that's exactly what you want.
Gastropub: Jesse Vallins is the head chef at The Saint, probably my go-to hangout, and I love the freedom to have a drink, a snack, or a full meal. He says his burger is one of the best in the city, but it's his roast chicken that makes me turn to flights of poetry to describe. A chicken in that man's hands is a thing of beauty. Jesse's food is completely unpretentious. He's absolutely someone who's committed to bringing the best possible quality, technique, as well as a sense of humor, to his food (the chicken comes with Vallins' take on Swiss Chalet's eponymous, highly processed jus.)
Diner: My favorite breakfast place is the Patrician Grill. Co-owner Terry Papas has this total curmudgeonly way about him where people will say things like "Can I get my eggs poached?" and he'll say, "Yeah, we just ran out of the poached eggs." With the breakfast special, you get one refill of coffee. When Terry hires help and I'll ask for an extra refill of coffee, the server will always look over at Terry, and he'll nod or shake his head. But he and co-owner Chris Slifkas know it's part of their schtick—this is part of the fun they have with people, and they're such nice guys. Terry runs the place with an iron fist, but he's got a big heart too.
Bar: My local is also the same place that I started my restaurant at: Monarch Tavern. It's one of Toronto's original licensed establishments, over 100-years-old. It was a place where women were not allowed downstairs, and they were only allowed upstairs if they were accompanied by a gentleman, but if a woman went upstairs, all the men had to take their hats off and watch their language (rules long since abolished.) It's one of those places where the stories are kind of soaked into the carpet and into the fabric and into the walls of the place, and you feel this sense of Toronto there.
Oysters: Céilí Cottage is a classic Irish oyster pub, and owner Patrick McMurray is just the most awesome dude. He holds the Guinness World Record for fastest shucker, has this larger than life personality, and is just the nicest guy. His staff is fun and funny, his oysters are the freshest around, he's always got great beers on tap. Once on May 4th, Star Wars Day, with TV news crews there, he says to me, "how do you feel about this: I'll call you out, you climb up on your barstool, we'll do a lightsaber battle across the bar, and you kill me when we get to the sidewalk?"
Dessert: My go-to for ice cream is a place called Dutch Dreams, owned by couple Theo and Dina Aben. Theo Sr., a longtime hospitality manager for an aluminum mining company, founded the business when he retired to Toronto and couldn't find good, full fat ice cream. On a hot day, I tend to crave a Dutch Dreams mint chocolate chip and peanut butter and chocolate cone. Bakerbots makes the most incredible cookies, cakes, pies, muffins, cupcakes, and they also make their own incredible flavors of ice cream like burnt tangerine and an incredible mint; the flavors just explode. Owner Rosanne Pezzelli also sells made-to-order ice cream sandwiches.
Fine Dining: Every dish Jonathan Poon makes at Chantecler has incredible flavors, interesting combinations, and is just extra delicious. Jacob Wharton-Shukster on the bar is just this incredibly fun and friendly personality, the nicest guy you'd want to meet, and is able to just nail it. I went there for my birthday a couple years ago, and they were doing their lettuce wrap meals on Sunday nights. It's on the menu now full time. They do a big piece of beef and pork shoulder with rice, lettuce, pickles, and sauces for $21, and you can't finish that meal. It's not fine dining prices, but the quality of the food is incredible, and the menu changes quite a lot.