Saturday, May 12, 2018

Toronto's best inconvenient eats

Among the many reasons I could not be a food critic: how much I like a meal is almost entirely dependent on how hungry I am at the time, and how much I'm up for the food in question. If the answer to both is "very," then chances are I'm about to eat the best pizza/udon/dumplings I've ever had.

Scarcity is everything where food is concerned, even among the world's fortunate for whom this isn't about necessity, but rather, about the freely-chosen decision to get on that enormous line for that place you read about. The more involved it is to actually sit before the food in question, the better the food. That's why San Francisco is known as this great gourmand destination - the city is just one enormous line for a decent-but-not-all-that croissant. But when you actually get the croissant, it's 6pm and you're just so happy to finally have breakfast.

Toronto's climate and culture don't lend themselves to this phenomenon. It's not an especially laid-back city, and more to the point, it's almost always too cold to stand outside on a line. And yet, it's a food city. Maybe more so than New York, where the hot new restaurant is going to be more of about the scene. (She says, having mostly read about those restaurants, preferring to spend time back home on a continual Murray's mozzarella - Shake Shack - Greenmarket - Sobaya loop.) So yes, people here line up, year-round. I can attest to this as one of the people in question.

That said, a caveat is in order! That there's a line doesn't necessarily mean the food you're waiting for is worth it. After months of contemplating doing so, I eventually waited for the line-having ice cream on Ossington. And it was... fine? Then there's the huge line near Trinity Bellwoods Park for soft-serve ice cream that's purple or jet-black or something, at any rate apparently very Instagrammable, maybe tasty too but I've never been convinced enough to find out.

So, in order of somewhat subjective inconvenience, and leaving out places (J-Town for raisin bread and assorted Japanese ingredients; Gourmand for chocolate chip cookies...) whose inconvenience rests solely on my refusal to own/borrow a car, or that (Yummy Yummy Dumplings) are a bit off the beaten path but straightforward enough once you've arrived:

-Soba Canada. This is a Tuesday-nights-only pop-up, walkable from my apartment. I taught this year on Tuesday nights, so for a long time trying this was the dream. (Toronto has infinite ramen possibilities, but soba/udon are harder to track down.) I made a reservation for the one Tuesday I could go, but there was a soba shortage in Manitoba so that didn't happen. Then eventually another Tuesday worked out, and I went! Most of what I remember about the meal was that there was this huge table across from us, taking professional-seeming photos of their food. I remember the soba as being very good, but also that a bunch of menu items were unavailable.

-Tasso. At a storefront in Cabbagetown, bus and subway away, but quick. It's got the best French pastries (kouign amann especially) in the city, but is only open Friday through Sunday (but not this Friday through Sunday - they're on break), only in the mornings, and tends to sell out quite early. Yes, I have seen lines at Tasso in winter. The drawbacks: no seating, and the distinct possibility you'll get off that bus to find you're too late. The second-best pastries - Nadège - are also quite good, and there you can do things like arrive at 3pm and sit down with your croissant (or kouign amann), but Tasso is just... incredible. Once it's again comfortable eat-on-a-bench season, I'll head back.

-Famiglia Baldassarre. A free local magazine appears in the mailbox every so often. On the cover of the latest issue was a photo of some pasta being handmade, at what the interior of said magazine explained was a former pasta speakeasy turned above-board, line-having pasta place. A line? I was already intrigued. Advice to arrive 15 minutes before opening time? Yes. Open only four days a week? Oh yes. In further scarcity: every day, there are just two pastas to choose from, so you have to check on Instagram (and, uh, wait for the semester to be over) to see whether it makes sense to head out and get on that line. (I would not have taken the bus for duck-filled pasta. Spinach-and-ricotta ravioli with butter and parmesan, however...)

Well! The day came that doing this made sense (as much as it ever would), and... it was pretty involved. First step was a bus - and not one of the ones I normally take, but one requiring a bit of a walk first - to a neighborhood (Davenport, according to Google Maps) I'd never been to, and didn't quite understand. Was it super posh and residential? Was it abandoned warehouses? Whatever it was, it seemed an unlikely place for a business requiring foot traffic, but it would seem this is not such a place after all. It was May, but well under 50 degrees F. And yes, the line to sit went outside. But when I say "the line to sit," I'm referring to what I thought this was the line for. It was, in fact, the line to order. (A line that took forever, but everyone on it bonded over obsession with the prospect of hard-to-get pasta.) Once you get indoors, you first wait in a warehouse-type entryway, complete with a list of rules about ordering. Only then do you reach the line inside the place itself, where you can watch the staff make from-a-movie-looking pasta from scratch, as you alternate between salivating and wondering if you were a fool not to just put up some DeCecco at home.

Reach the front and you then have to wait for one of the handful of tables to become available. This wouldn't have been so tricky if it weren't for The Lady, who was telling a friend some apparently very engaging or engaging-to-tell story and would not stop, even though both were clearly long since done with their lunch, sitting there oblivious to the horde waiting to sit.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The line takes so long that once you get to the front of it, you need to have decided on your order, as well as on any pasta you might wish to purchase to take home, but also whether or not you want a dessert gelato bar for after. I knew from the get-go I'd be buying more pasta (I mean), but wasn't sure if I'd want the dessert, so I asked at the counter if it would be possible, line-logistics-wise, to decide after the meal. It would not. I decided against - this was about the pasta.

Several decades after setting out for lunch, I was in front of the best plate of pasta I have ever eaten, ever. Yes, I do tend to think this about cheese-filled pasta, including the kind I'd have as a kid, from the frozen-foods section of very much pre-food-movement New York supermarkets. But even so, the dough and filling were just better than they ever are, ever. While I was indeed biased by the long wait, because the advice had been to show up before noon, and I hadn't arrived much later, I wasn't unusually hungry, so I'd like to think this was somewhat fair judging. It was so good that I... got back on the (admittedly by then far shorter) line, not just to pick up the pasta I'd already bought, but also to buy some more. It wasn't even 2pm, the end of the lunch service (the store itself closes at 5), but they were already running low. 16 ricotta-only filled ravioli were, however, available. The trick will be not to sit down and eat $15 worth of pasta in one sitting, since that sort of defies the purpose of eating in, but I will probably do exactly that any day now.